The Problem With Trendy Bars and Mixologists

Herewith the conclusion of my interview with Bar Rescue host Jon Taffer.

VM: What about a bar that attracts customers because it’s a local dive? Can’t that work?

JT: What if I changed the words “dive bar” to “neighborhood bar”? Everything works. You know to me, “dive bar” is a dirty place. It’s the kind of place where old people are missing their teeth, sweaters with holes in them. A neighborhood bar can have an attorney sitting next to a plumber. And I think that neighborhood element of it is what makes it special. A neighborhood bar also isn’t trendy. But if you look at restaurants … What’s the oldest restaurant in any city? Steakhouse. Seafood house. The most basic of concepts are the ones that always last the longest. So when it gets too trendy, when the next guy opens who’s trendier than you, you’re out of there. So when I do these concepts and develop these things, I want to be hip, … but I don’t want to be trendy. And a neighborhood bar is never trendy. It fits that spot. That makes it last. And if you build the right relationships with your community, that’s the longest lasting of them all.

In our episode last week, “Champs,” I went to Barney’s Beanery, I don’t know if you saw that scene, and that was really an important scene to me, not only because I worked there 30 years ago and I love the place, but you don’t have to be new to be relevant in the bar business. The point I was trying to bring home is that Barney’s Beanery has been there since 1920. Hollywood was a beanfield when that place was built. And it’s as relevant and cool today as it was when it was built almost 100 years ago. And when people say—it’s one of those excuses—“Yeah, my bar is old,” you’re not failing because your bar is old, you’re failing because you’re not known for anything. You’re not good at anything, to carry you, and that neighborhood bar, all it needs is … a great couple of cocktails, something that the local community can hang its hat on, nothing trendy, nothing overly hip, and that can last forever. Barney’s is the epitome of lasting forever.

VM: What do you like to drink when you’re not working?

JT: I like a Godfather, believe it or not. An ounce and a half of Scotch, I like about a third of an ounce of Amaretto. Sometimes I’ll have a Godmother, vodka and Amaretto. I’ve tended to be a dark whiskey drinker all my life. I drink Crown Royal. My father always drank Crown Royal with ginger ale back. I find myself drinking Crown Royal with a ginger ale back. It’s amazing how our parents have influenced [us]. So I’ve always tended to sip dark whiskey. But I’m not a big drinker. I learned that in our business, liquor for me is for selling, not for drinking. So very rarely will you ever see me with a drink, even socially in people’s homes. I’m just not a drinker, never have been.

VM: What do you make of this return to retro-cocktails, Mad Men, and craft bartending?

JT: I love it, I love it…. [But] I see a pushback now. What’s happened is—and I see the pendulum swinging…. There’s a snobbery attached to that image. And suddenly a drink that took me twenty seconds to get is now a minute-and-a-half, and it’s four dollars more. We’re seeing now in the center of the marketplace, not the high-end of the marketplace, a real pushback. People are saying don’t use the word “mixologist”—that means my drink costs three dollars more. You’re a bartender. So it’s interesting [how] it swings back and forth. And that pendulum swings back and forth between the new [cocktails] and the old, too. And right now we’re right back to that classic cocktail time, and I love it. I love the Old Fashioneds and all these things that are back. But I think you’ll see that word mixologist and that whole snobbery thing start to push back.

Here’s the problem. When you’re running a machine, which a bar is, it’s a factory, and you create a product that slows your production down by 30-35 percent, the financial impact of that is huge. When you take the fact that the average bar does more than 50 percent of its revenue 16 hours a week, and now you’re going to take that 16 hours a week and slow it down by 35 percent? It could be devastating. The only way it works is to make the customer pay for that. And there better be a value, an experience attached to that, or you’re not going to succeed. Because that’s what customers are paying for. Customers are paying for your desire to reduce production and cause to have to charge more for a product. So again you better provide an environment, an experience, and interaction to support that or you’re going to fail.

[Bar Rescue airs on Spike on Sundays at 10/9 central.]

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