Jon Taffer has now done more than 200 episodes of Bar Rescue. It might surprise fans, though, to learn he didn’t expect the show to last this long. “I thought I would do a pilot and go home,” he told me in our recent interview. “Even before I was on TV, I would hear 200 episodes of something and I would think, ‘Man, how do you do 200? The same thing over and over again, 200 times.’ And now I’ve done it myself and I realized it doesn’t feel like 200 times. Every one is its own thing in a way.
“When I look in somebody’s eyes who’s a bar owner in trouble, it’s like I’m starting all over again,” Jon continued. “It’s like the other 200 never existed. It’s gone incredibly quick for me and I’m surprised that I made it this far, to be honest with you.”
But the secrets to the Paramount Network show’s success are no mystery. They begin with Taffer, who had already built an incredible career in the hospitality industry before reality TV came calling, having hundreds of bars on his resume. He’s also gained a following for his willingness to call things exactly as he sees them; nearly every episode includes at least one scene where he lays down the law with owners and staff. For him, all of the 200-plus rescues are personal.
The show’s longevity has never been more on display than it is in Bar Rescue season 8, which was overhauled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only did it make the rescues that much more important, but the production had to be altered to keep everyone safe. Stress tests no longer pack bars to capacity and Jon watches them from a new mobile command center. And instead of traveling the country, the season is focused in Las Vegas—one of the premier hospitality cities in the United States, and the place Jon Taffer calls home.
What did it mean for Jon and his team to film a season centralized in one location, especially one that’s near and dear to his heart? And how did they make this Bar Rescue cycle happen at all?
“Producing TV in this environment is something of great responsibility,” Jon explained. “I have a crew of 57 that I travel with. I have the bar owners, I have the employees, and we have to keep everybody safe. We had three COVID officers on set and exceedingly tight procedures and policies to keep everybody safe, which changed the whole dynamic of the show…But it’s been the most rewarding season for me ever. Not only because it’s Las Vegas, my hometown, but we had the highest unemployment at about 35%. And we have a singular economy, all based in tourism.
“When Las Vegas closed, it was something to see,” he reflected. “These casinos don’t even have locks on the doors. They never contemplated locking. So all of these billion dollar buildings were boarded up and parking lots were roped off and people were riding bicycles on the Las Vegas strip. It was horrifying to see an economy stopping like that. So it was a logical place for us to do the season—not just because I lived there, but for that reason.
“This season really taught me so much about how this has affected people. The [200th] episode this Sunday’s a great example of. It’s an extremely emotional episode about a family who are in crisis due to the pandemic. This season of Bar Rescue really shows the human side of how the industry has been affected.”
Speaking of the human element, Jon has also been very savvy in surrounding himself with talented Bar Rescue experts who bring their own expertise—and their own personalities—to the show. Each week it’s entertaining to find out which of the many talented mixologists and chefs he’s chosen for each bar, and in what combination. These are incredible folks in their own right, and the show allows them a chance to shine not only as experts but for who they are as people. Jon spoke to me about how he brings them aboard.
“I’ve been in the industry for 35 years before being on TV, so many of these people are known to me either personally, or I know of them through my industry,” he told me. “Some, believe it or not, have just sent me emails that say ‘Look at my resume, Jon. I’d love to be on your show.’ Sometimes we stumble upon people through friends who say ‘Jon, you’ve got to put this guy in the show, he’s outstanding.’ It’s wonderful that I can take somebody who’s just good at what they do and put them on television.”
That includes veteran mixologist Phil Wills, a fan favorite who’s as much a part of the fabric of Bar Rescue as anybody. “I’m shooting with Phil this very week,” Jon said. “Phil, I believe, has done more than anybody else—which I’m guessing is about 20, maybe 21 episodes—and we do it on purpose. I think it’s fun to mix up the show, but people love Phil. People love Mia [Mastroianni]. There’s a bunch of experts that people love.
“Phil is not only on Bar Rescue, Phil is a dear, dear friend of mine, and when I put the cocktail program together for my very own place, Taffer’s Tavern, Phil did it with me.”
Read More: Ranking Bar Rescue’s 5 best mixologists ever
One aspect of the show that fans don’t see is when Jon and his experts make the decisions about a bar’s food or cocktail program. Occasionally we’ll see snippets of Jon working with the design team to see how the remodel is coming along, but the actual creative process is something that doesn’t fit into a 42-minute episode. The total sum of what goes into every Bar Rescue renovation will surprise you.
“When I show up, I only get about a 60-second briefing,” Jon revealed. “I don’t want to know anything. I’ve never been there before. I’ve never met these people before. I want the audience to learn things at the same time I do and that’s the success of Bar Rescue, is it’s truly in real time. I’m learning when you are. So when I show up, all I’m told is, ‘Jon, it’s owned by Sally and Bob, they’re in debt $400,000, they lost their house, they’re ready to kill each other, the place has been open for so many years,’ et cetera. I get a quick briefing.
“I go in and do my recon, and whatever happens during recon happens. I have no idea what’s going to happen before I go in. Here’s what you don’t know—when recon is finished, we take all the owners and the employees, we put them in vans in the parking lot, and I go in and I design the bar that night after recon. I look at the space, I take my verticals and my horizontals and my depths and my concepts, my crew gives me a demographic report and the competitive report that I’ve designed. I look at that information [and] I come up with a concept that night. I have no more time than that.
“The next morning, my art department then is showing me what barstools we can get, what wallpapers we can get. Day two is training and stress tests on TV. Off TV, I sign off on everything. Every barstool, every piece of paint, everything that we do I’m involved in. Right down to the recipes and everything. By the end of day two, the logos have to go to the sign company, the food orders have to be in, all the furniture has to be ordered, the paints have to be ordered, the tradespeople have to be scheduled. All of this happens literally in an hour.
“After stress test, when we say we’re going to go get our coffee, we then go back to the hotel and finish the menu together at that point based upon how good the staff was, what equipment we have, all of that. With the end of the stress test, we then go to construction. The evening of day two, day three, and the morning of day four, we build it. We do build them in 36 hours, just like you see on television. Day three is filmed at another location and we do training at another location because we’re under construction at that time.
“Day four, those same vans that were in the parking lot pull up with the owner and the staff…We line them up in front. I do ‘One, two, three,’ reveal it. Stay there for a couple of hours, [get] two days off and then we start again, two days later.
“Everybody on my crew tells me it’s the most intense show to work on in television,” he added. “What we accomplish in the short time that we do is pretty remarkable and we don’t know what the story is when we get there, on purpose. You follow the story; we don’t create it.”
That’s a lot of work for each episode, and Jon and his crew have now done that more than 200 times. They’ve spent over a decade on the road (the first episode aired in summer 2011). Other shows might be running out of steam, or just feel like they’re falling into a certain pattern. Bar Rescue continues to be a hit because Jon is also continuing to grow and challenge himself. While he’s an expert in the bar business, he’ll tell you that the show has given him a first-hand education in the TV business—and he’s utilized what he’s learned to keep pushing the series forward.
“When the show first started, I had never been in television before,” he recalled. “Producers pretty much led that first year. Nothing was fake, but producers really told me where to go, what to do, and I was trying to figure out what television was all about. Now, years later, I’m executive producer of my own show, so I have complete creative freedom in every conceivable way, at every moment while I’m there. That’s pretty darn unique. I’m not certain anybody has that. I haven’t had a network executive on my set in over a hundred episodes. We are completely autonomous.
“I think success has given me more freedom, if you will, and has allowed the network the comfort to give us the complete distance and autonomy to do what we want to do, knowing that we’ll deliver a good show each week. That freedom allows me to deviate from format sometimes. Sometimes I’m not in the SUV. Sometimes I’m doing something else that allows me to follow the story rather than follow the format. And I think that creative freedom, if you will, has kept the show even more authentic.”
Is there anything in particular he wants to do in the next 200 episodes? I asked Jon what he sees looking forward to the future of Bar Rescue, and he has some pretty exciting ideas.
“I’m so blessed to be executive producer of the show that I host and that’s pretty unbelievable to have that level of control when I’m on set. It allows me to do the things that I want to do and work with the people that I choose to work with. So I’m sort of doing that now,” he said. “I’d like to see us go to more iconic locations; we’re talking about that. The Times Square kind of locations, famous locations, maybe become a little more geographical within the places that we go—rather than just have them be bars, have them be really important locations in significant historical locations. We’ve played around with that.
“I’d love to work with Robert Irvine. I have some discussions going with Robert Irvine now, who’s a dear friend. We’d love to do something together,” he continued. “I’m part of a very, very special club of people, if you will, and I’m blessed to be a part of it and it gives us the opportunity to work together and support each other in so many ways. For example, last week I recorded with Guy Fieri, his social media restaurant recovery show [Guy’s Restaurant Reboot], and I’m supporting Guy in the charity work that he does for the industry. He supports me, I support Robert with all the military work that he does, and he supports my charity work. We really are very supportive of each other in this culinary space.”
Jon has launched another support initiative of his own this season with Bar Rescue Supports, where viewers can purchase exclusive merchandise from each of the season 8 bars like T-shirts and tote bags, with a full 100 percent of the proceeds going to the National Restaurant Association.
While looking ahead at future prospects for the series, he also took a moment to address the criticism that the show is scripted or engineered in any way.
“I don’t mind when anybody says anything about Bar Rescue except when they call us fake,” Jon said. “My entire television life, I have done nothing but fight to keep my show real. I’ve walked off set two times and shut the show down, both times in the first season. When the network tried to do something fake, I shut the darn show down and walked off. My show is completely real. There’s no actors, there’s no scripts, there’s no set-ups. I use something called shadow production, where my producers shouldn’t even be known by the employees of the bars. That’s how low-key I want them to be and the show is completely authentic in every conceivable way.
“I want people to know that, and I want them to know how honest I am at making the show and that I believe it’s successful because it is authentic. I would never let any television network, any producer or any person ever make the show anything other than that. And it’s important to me that people know my depth of commitment to that honesty.”
As fans get excited for the next new episode, one thing that’s stayed the same through all 200 installments is the motivation that put Jon Taffer on our TV screens in the first place: his desire to assist bar owners and bar staffs in need. The show may be hugely popular now, and he may have achieved more individual fame, but he has never lost sight of that humanitarian goal that drives him. Ask him what he loves about doing the show, and it’s apparent how invested he is in changing people’s lives.
“I would say the most fun thing that’s come out of this show—and I hate to sound corny but it’s true—is my ability to truly help people,” he concluded. “Think about this: I get to go to a stranger’s place, put hundreds of thousands of dollars into their business, strengthen their marriage, strengthen their relationship, tighten them up with their employees, put them on national television and then go and do it again for somebody else. It’s pretty unbelievable to be able to do that to strangers. It’s very special.
“TV is wonderful when it’s used for good, and my show is used for good, and it’s unbelievable that I’m given this opportunity every week to meet somebody in trouble and help them. How cool is that?”
Bar Rescue airs Sundays at 10:00 p.m. on Paramount Network. For more with Jon Taffer, you can also follow him on Twitter at @jontaffer. You can also support hospitality workers directly by picking up some exclusive Bar Rescue merchandise at BarRescueSupports.com.
Article content is (c)2020-2021 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr, on Instagram at @BFTVGram.