How I Made It: Consultant raises the bar on ‘reaction management’
The gig: Consultant Jon Taffer, 60, is the star and executive producer of the Spike TV reality series “Bar Rescue,” now in its fourth season. He’s the author of the 2013 business book “Raise the Bar: An Action-Based Method for Maximum Customer Reactions.” In the show and the book, Taffer lays out his strategy of “reaction management,” which involves shaping customer response to improve sales.
Shaking things up: Taffer’s style is direct, with no punches pulled. In the first year of “Bar Rescue,” for example, he transformed a dive in Corona called Angel’s into Racks: Billiards and Bourbon. Proprietor Renee Vicary then compared Taffer’s visits to “trying to hold on in an earthquake.”
On-the-job learning: Taffer says his work with bars really happened “by chance” at the University of Denver, where he was studying cultural anthropology and political science. “I wanted to go into politics. Bartending was a sideline. Who knew?” Taffer’s first bar job was at a Colorado steakhouse where he didn’t know how to make the drinks customers wanted. “There was no Internet, no Google. I had to learn from my customers. That was how I had to do it.”
Different drummer: Taffer also felt the pull of a potential music career. After two years of college, he ended up in Los Angeles playing drums and making ends meet by tending bar at the Troubadour in West Hollywood. One day, owner Doug Weston “threw a large set of keys across the bar and yelled, ‘Here, you run it. I’m tired of it.’”
Bar hopping: After the Troubadour, Taffer managed another Los Angeles institution, Barney’s Beanery. Then came Grossinger’s Hotel in the Catskill Mountains resort area of New York. In the 1980s, Taffer began offering his expertise on how to reinvigorate bars through his company, Taffer Dynamics Inc. “There were no books on this stuff. There was no one else doing this.”
It’s all anthropology: “I always had this insatiable desire to understand human behavior,” Taffer said. “According to the International Center of Shopping Centers, 60% to 70% of all people who walk into a mall will make a right-hand turn. That stuff bothers me. If I can figure out a way to get them to make a left-hand turn, I’ll have something worth millions.” Understanding and influencing behavior is the core of reaction management, he said. Successful managers “understand that ‘my future is based more on the reactions of those around me than it’s based on me.’”
Butt funnel: Part of Taffer’s system for creating excitement in a bar or restaurant is the “butt funnel,” a key design element. “Any route to the dance floor had to be no wider than 28 inches or so. Why? It increases interaction. You walk through back to back and butts are touching. Do it face to face and you have eye contact. People meet. It just works.”
In his blood: Taffer’s grandfather, Saul Suslock, was one of the pioneers of direct-mail marketing campaigns. “I grew up in a marketing family,” he says. Taffer’s uncle, Norm Suslock, told him: “Don’t ever seem richer than the client you are trying to sell to. He taught me a certain humbleness I’ve always remembered. Don’t walk into your boss’ office to ask for a raise if you are wearing better clothes and a better watch than he has.”
Inspirations: Taffer was inspired by Thomas Jefferson’s ability to “develop relationships and pull people together rather than pull them apart,” Taffer said. Another was billionaire aviator, film producer and business tycoon Howard Hughes. “He had the ability to provide a vision, then delegate it and execute it through a team. I always admired that.”
Rescuing bars: After Taffer, who is also a motivational speaker, appeared at a Budweiser convention in Las Vegas, an audience member suggested that he should try television. “I did a write-up for a show and took it to Paramount. I was told I would never be on television. I was too old. I wasn’t good-looking. It will never happen.” Rejection turned into inspiration. “Hearing that, forget about it. It became a vendetta for me.” Taffer shot a three-minute “sizzle reel” in Hermosa Beach, using his own money, “pretty much just me screaming and yelling at people. I brought it to three production companies. They all wanted it.”
Rules for business: “Have a checkbook with some reserve funds in it because you are going to make mistakes,” Taffer said. “Bars don’t lose; they run out of money.” And don’t make excuses. “Your bar will never fail because of President Obama or because of construction or bad weather. It will only fail because you failed.”
Personal: Taffer has been married to his wife, Nicole, for 15 years. She accompanies him on about half of the show’s trips to various cities. He has one daughter, Samantha. The Taffers split their downtime between homes in Beverly Hills and Las Vegas. His hobbies include driving his tour bus, flying drones and playing with his dogs, Winston and Moxie.