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.]

Stop the Insanity

According to Jason Wilson in Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits, there are more than 500 different flavors of vodka. I imagine by next year there will be at least 600, if not more. Godiva has one that’s (obviously) chocolate-flavored. Other varieties of late include cucumber, wasabi, and chipotle-pear. But now there’s one that opens the door to all sorts of possibilities—truly terrifying possibilities. (Thanks to Sonny Bunch for the link.)

Jon Taffer Was a Political Science Major?

Last week I met with Jon Taffer, head of Taffer Dynamics as well as the Nightclub & Bar Media Group and the colorful host of Bar Rescue on Spike (Sundays, 10/9 central). Below is the continuation of our conversation.

VM: Where did you start, where are you from, and did you always picture yourself in this business?

JT: No, you’re going to laugh. I grew up in New York. I went to the University of Denver majoring in political science. Thank God I didn’t go into politics is my view today. But I started tending bar in college, and I just fell in love with this business. I’m going to say it’s all the things you and I just talked about—the social aspect, the fun business, the music, the entertainment, center of the party, all those things. And I fell in love with it. And after three years of college, I left college, I didn’t finish, and pursued this career—and skied a little bit too, I must confess—and started in Los Angeles at a famous place called the Troubadour in Santa Monica. It was the first place I ran…. [In] my entire career I’ve always worked in famous places. I always said to myself, even as an employee, if I’m going to work for somebody, then I’m going to work for somebody I want to be, somebody I want to emulate. And so I’ve always worked in famous places, the kind of places that I’m proud to tell you that I worked in. That’s a great way to launch a career. If you’re proud of where you work, it makes you work harder. People are envious of your worst day.

My dad went to Columbia Law. He was one of the first Jews actually to graduate from Columbia Law, hung his shingle, hated it, bought a women’s garment manufacturing company at a bankruptcy he was handling, and he bought the darn thing and went into the belt business, believe it or not. My brother graduated from Michigan Law, one of the top in his class,… actually wrote the Fair Credit Bill for Jimmy Carter—he was working in the Senate Banking Committee for Senator [William] Proxmire, hated it, [and] became vice president of American Express. He went into hospitality marketing and the two of us would always see each other.

VM: Is it difficult for you to enjoy going out? Do you find yourself constantly nitpicking?

JT: My wife and I have been at this hotel since yesterday afternoon. Like any other hotel, I’ve been doing nothing but complaining from the moment I got here. The bacon was cooked yesterday morning, not last night for my sandwich. The room is about the size of a postage stamp. The bed is [too] high from the ground. I feel like I’m 30 feet tall. The silverware is [too small]. So yes. What I can’t let it do is affect my attitute toward life. Because it’s very easy to let these little frustrations in life just bum out your day, and I don’t want to do that. I’m a positive guy, as you probably know. So what I have the ability to do is look at it, get frustrated by it, and then blow it off. “And then blow it off” is the key, or I’ll never enjoy a dinner, I’ll never enjoy anything I do in my life.

And I’m a bit of a cocky guy in that I was a resort general manager. I’ve been a hotel general manager, a hotel vice president, a bar manager, and when I sit there I realize that I can do it better than them and that what they’re doing is inexcusable to me so I can get very angry sometimes.

VM: Do people know you’re here when you’re here?

JT: Most of the time. Before I did this show, because I consulted with … all these companies, I speak at all their conventions, so most of the GMs know my name, the food and beverage director, they’ve read articles or been in seminars or conventions I’ve spoken at. But since I’ve been on the TV show, it’s been a whole different thing, because every server knows me, every bartender knows me, and probably the greatest pleasure for me doing this show has been the industry response.

When we started working on this show … it was really important to me that I did a smart show. I love my industry. George Washington was the first distiller of this country. The second public building ever built in America was a bar. We didn’t have hotel meeting rooms then. We didn’t have city halls. The Declaration of Independence was discussed where? At a local pub. Our Constitution, the state borders, it’s the fiber of our country. I’m proud of it. So I won’t do a T&A bar show. I won’t do something that stupidifies my business. So I wanted to do a show that was smart, that … showed that this is a sophisticated business….

VM: Did you have to learn much in the way of acting?

JT: It wasn’t hard for me to learn to be on TV, and here’s why. I’ve been a public speaker for 30 years. So I got my chops speaking at the podium and I’m the kind of guy, I do four-, five-hour speeches…. I rant and rave, I scream and yell, I run up and down the aisle, I shake people, I’m that kind of a speaker. And not a lot of people book a speaker for four hours—they will me. So I got those chops doing that, not allowing somebody to nod off, watching the body language, working the room and understanding that as a consultant I’m willing to work the room, win the employees over, when to push, when to pull them in, and a lot of that happened from public speaking, so the camera was really natural to me, which is one of the reasons the show was picked up initially after the pilot was yeah, what you see is what you get with me to tell you the truth.

To be continued.

Anthony Bourdain: Unreserved (Conclusion)

Frank Bruni’s recent column about the food fight between Anthony Bourdain and Paula Deen (sparked by Bourdain’s TV Guide interview) reminded me of a phone conversation I had a few years ago with the acid-tongued celebrity chef. Most of it went unpublished, though a few choice nuggets, such as his colorful comments below about Wolfgang Puck, made it in censored form into the Wall Street Journal. But here you will find Bourdain in the raw. He does not mince words—but he does mince.

VM: The older chefs like Jacques Pépin and Michel Richard say that in reality you wouldn’t see such a kitchen with all that yelling and screaming and intimidation. Is that true or is it just the view of the kitchen from the older generation?

AB: There are still kitchens like that. Less and less so now because of this added prestige, people who show up at restaurants now want themselves motivated if they’re working at a good restaurant. And I think a lot of guys manage now by the Joe Torre school of management rather than the Billy Martin school. It’s very instructive to look at Boiling Point, the British series that followed Gordon [Ramsay] as he chased his stars back in the ‘90s. You know, he was kind of like that. He came up under Marco Pierre White who was a terrifying figure who made Gordon cry many times. They all came up in this French system in England where they put hands on you, they dunked your head, you were bullied and pushed to the breaking point—this was the way, the old way. I agree it’s disappearing. I’ve seen Gordon with his kitchen and his cooks and he does have a temper and he will lash out at you if you do something incredibly stupid. But he’s a fair and decent guy who gets a lot of loyalty out of his chefs and they’re not giving him their loyalty because he makes them feel like idiots everyday. He’s a decent guy and a good chef. The real Gordon is on Kitchen Nightmares. He’s sort of playing himself the way he was 10 or 15 years ago.

VM: Daniel Boulud says let’s wait and see, 10 or 15 years from now, when the dust settles, who is left standing. What about the reality-based shows? Just a fad or just the beginning?

AB: I think it’s the beginning. I mean I think a lot of the knuckleheads will wash out. I don’t think Rachael Ray will be one of them. I think she’s going to be more of, you know, that’s a cult of personality and she doesn’t need to cook on her show or have anything to do with food at this point and I would suggest the same, you know, Why cook on the new talk show? I can’t imagine she’s too happy about still having to slop out chili-cheese whatever the hell she’s doing. So I think she’ll be around in one form or another and bigger than ever in 15 years. I think some of these creature-of-the-month, homegrown talent that they’re trying to develop—the ones who don’t have anything—are going to be gone. But if you look at Jacques Pépin, you know, that’s a guy—how long has he been around? And he’ll be around for a lot longer. There will always be an audience for him. Emeril, there will always be an audience for. Mario, I think, his full potential as an educator, as a personality, as a humorist, as a businessman, as an empire-builder, has yet to be fully tapped. But I think a lot of these guys are just going to be gone, gone, gone, and I think some of the lamer cooking reality shows are just going to disappear real quick.

VM: Do you share some of the fears that the older chefs like Pépin and Boulud have about the younger generation no longer doing lengthy apprenticeships, succumbing to the pressures of television, wanting to be a star? And that while it is a good thing that the profession is now seen as something nobler than ever, expectations are way too high?

AB: I’ll quote Jean-Louis Palladin who, when asked why he became a chef, he was old school and he laughed at the interviewer and said, “Madame, my parents sold me into slavery!” I think the business has always been a welcoming refuge for misfits, so there will always be people, fantasists, and people with unreasonable expectations, who’ve entered the restaurant business or ended up in the restaurant business or fallen into it like I did who had unreasonable expectations and washed out. The whole system is designed to weed those people out and break them quick. A few major disappointments, a couple of busy Saturday nights. They’re gone, those people. I don’t feel bad about it because they’re not going to make it, so it’s not like the business is going to be clogged with idiots who are making shit food wanting nothing more because they expect they’re going to be on TV in a year. They’re not going to be able to make shit food for two years because they’re not going to hold a job. I think the only thing that’s changed is that it’s become a much more expensive mistake to make for someone who isn’t fully aware of the situation. If you’re 32 or 33 and you’re quitting your job to go to cooking school, expecting you’ll either make a living or have a glamorous, swinging time, you’ve just made a very expensive mistake, chances are. The restaurant business, particularly the kitchen, will always demand the same types of personalities. And it will have them, and it will weed out through an organic process those who do not have those traits.

VM: Did you see Wolfgang Puck’s column in Newsweek where he talked about buying his foods from places where the animals were humanely treated and as for foie gras, he said, “who needs it?”

AB: I think dickhead should stop worrying about cruelty to animals and start worrying about all the customers he’s flopping his crap on at airports.

Listen, he does a lot of business in California, he got squeezed and pressured and phone-called from all angles and like a German shopkeeper, you know, he folded, and sold out the people hiding in the cellar next door. I got no respect—it makes it all the more painful that he’s a chef of such stature and importance to American culinary history, so it makes me want to throw up in my mouth thinking what a treacherous little cocksucker he is now.

Help Me Jon Taffer, You’re My Only Hope

Earlier this week I sat with Jon Taffer, one of the country’s top restaurant and bar consultants, president of the Nightclub & Bar Media Group, and chairman of Taffer Dynamics. But perhaps Taffer is best known as the in-your-face, tough love host of Spike TV’s Bar Rescue (Sundays at 10/9 central). His intensity is the same off camera as it is on—he’s the kind of guy who gets to the point and looks you in the eye. But he is also more friendly and engaging, probably because I’m not butting heads with him over whether or not to throw out a room-temperature days-old chicken pot pie.

VM: So tell me about some of these cases.

JT: These are people whose houses are on the line, marriages are on the line, partners are ready to kill each other. I walk into some very desperate situations, so it becomes very personal. When you look in somebody’s eyes and they’re sinking…

VM: Your role seems to be like that of Winston Wolf from Pulp Fiction. You’re a fixer.

JT: Yes, in a sense. And you know, a “fixer” is a great word because I’m there to fix the business. But fixing the business is actually easy. It’s fixing the person that’s the problem. And if I have an approach to this that’s hard, here’s why. I believe that if I tell somebody, “Don’t do this, do that. Don’t do that, do this,” when I leave they go back to what they used to do. So I got to change the way you think. And to change the way you think, I got to shatter the way you think now to open your brain. That’s ugly. You’re going to kick your heels in, you’re going to push back, you’re going to scream and yell, a lot of people don’t like it. The episode this coming Sunday is the epitome of that. For five days, this guy and I screamed and yelled at each other face-to-face like this, we had to bring in security.

VM: Is there a commonality to these cases?

JT: The one common denominator across all of them—and I’m going to say small businesses, big businesses—every failing business has a failing owner or a failing manager, right? When you talk to that failing manager, the common denominator is excuses. “Oh, the economy! Oh, I have a new competitor! Oh, prices! Oh, my costs are too high! The new tax!” It’s always an excuse. It’s never looking at me and saying, “Jon, I’m failing because of me.”

As soon as I get them to realize they’re failing because of them, now I can get somewhere…. I recognize in today’s political environment, I know that we have stresses upon us. I know the uncertainty of our regulations, the uncertainty of our taxes, the uncertainty of insurance, particularly for my industry that has typically a lot of part-time employees who have other jobs. All of these things scare the heck out of us. I get that. But you can still win. You can still dig your heels in and win. And there are people winning in every city and every market, so inasmuch as it might be more difficult, certainly more than it was a few years ago, you can still win. So I don’t accept those excuses.

VM: How often are the struggling owners guys who had the fantasy of running Cheers?

Everybody gets in our business because it is social. People don’t get into the business of manufacturing wooden widgets because it’s sexy. But they do get into the bar business because it is sexy and it’s fun and it’s social. That’s not the reason to start a business, because it’s social and fun. Because no business is fun when you’re losing money.

VM: You’re better off as a regular than an owner.

JT: Absolutely. Spend your money because it’ll cost you a lot less than losing $20-$30,000 a month.

To be continued.

Is It Getting Better?

I’ve always had the impression that U2 hoped Rattle and Hum the movie (1988) would be more like The Last Waltz (1978). In interviews afterward, Bono expressed his unhappiness with the way the rockumentary turned out and the direction by the young Phil Joanou. Sure, there are embarrassing bits in the film (why is Larry crying over Elvis?) and it is at times campy (“Rock and Roll, Stop the Traffic!”), but there’s still some terrific concert footage. (What disturbs me are the shots of the fans who are now well into their 40s. Was it really that long ago?)

By the end of the ’80s, U2 had exhausted their American-roots phase and wondered what would come next. Or would anything come next? As next month’s rock-doc From the Sky Down should reveal more fully, the band was very close to dissolving over creative tensions. I’d read about this all before, but this film airing on Showtime on October 29 (20 years after the release of Achtung Baby) and directed by Davis Guggenheim should be entertaining—at the very least for the U2 faithful. And perhaps it will finally deliver the sort of movie the band always wanted. (Notice in the trailer how Waiting for Superman is not mentioned as part of Guggenheim’s oeuvre.)

Anthony Bourdain: Unreserved (cont’d)

A quick recap of last week’s archived transcript of my interview with Anthony Bourdain: Rachael Ray “is closer to Paris Hilton than to Julia Child.” Also, “Ina Garten makes decent, good, quick to prepare unthreatening food that any home cook could make.” As for Sandra Lee, “that is just pure evil. I put her right up there with Ted Bundy.”

The Bourdain interview from 2007 continues:

VM: Are we watching food shows just to watch?

AB: I think maybe even a majority of people are, in fact, just watching. It’s like the salads at McDonald’s. You know, nobody eats them but they feel thinner knowing that they’re there. “Well, it’s nice to know I can have a healthier salad, not that I’m gonna.” But it makes you feel better about going to McDonald’s and much the same way you feel better about the Cheetos you’re working on when you’re watching someone actually cook something a little bit better on TV. I think though that on balance enough people, even if it’s a minority of people who watch the Food Network, are actually raising their expectations and knowledge of what food is, particularly their expectations. When they walk into a restaurant they’re willing to try new or different things. They know a little better. There are higher expectations. If only that it has increased the status of chefs and the kind of pride and unit pride in the kitchen, you know, it’s better for everybody. Nobody spits in the soup in kitchens anymore. That would be unthinkable. There’s a pride. You’re getting a better educated [cook]. A proud kitchen is a good kitchen and just by virtue of raising the prestige of chefs and cooks, and of the profession, that’s been a good thing for diners. And I think, let’s face it, as I wrote on [Michael] Ruhlman’s site, it really doesn’t matter why we first started eating sushi. It changed the world for the better when we did start eating sushi.

VM: To go back to your original post on the Food Network. You ever hear back from them about it?

AB: Not from them directly, no. I’ve heard from a couple of their people though. What I’ve been hearing is a lot of them—I heard from a few people who were at the Food Network Awards and they described it as a mortifying, deeply embarrassing experience for all involved and pretty much thought it was pretty funny. The guy at Dinner Impossible, a guy heard from a producer of his who was—they’ve been a really good sport about it.

Listen, the Food Network knows they suck. They know what they do. They exclusively stated their business model is to get away from these annoying chefs, these demanding, annoying chefs. It’s working. That award ceremony that I complained about was their second-highest rated show they ever had.

I understand why they do what they do, and it’s good for business for them and their shareholders and frankly it’s good for business for me. I just don’t have to like it.

VM: Do you watch Hell’s Kitchen by any chance?

AB: I’m good friends with Gordon [Ramsay]. I really loved Boiling Point. I think Kitchen Nightmares in England, the British show he made, is really the best show of its kind. I was really hooked on the [2006] season of Hell’s Kitchen. This one is just awful. It’s embarrassing. None of these bed-wetters would be a viable candidate for employment in any restaurant I’ve ever heard of.

VM: But the winner of this show is going to run a restaurant.

AB: They couldn’t run a popsickle stand. And it is immediately apparent to anyone that they larded the group with—they picked them for purposes of drama. It’s so juiced for conflict and drama. You don’t see the food. I kind of feel bad for Gordon who is extremely cool. I see this as kind of like, you know, a Mario and Alton Brown. These are three really, really smart, incredibly talented guys who are capable of doing so, so much better. It’s amazing how much good Mario and Alton have done and how many good shows Ramsey has done. But I think it really caught up with him this year. He looks silly up there.

VM: How bothered are you on the show by Aaron, the large, 48-year-old Asian chef who is constantly crying?

AB: If he walked into any restaurant I’ve ever worked in, he wouldn’t have made it five minutes. If he started crying his first hour, I’m saying, “Listen, you know, I’m real sorry things haven’t worked out, clean out your locker, and get the fuck out.” It’s an alternate reality show. It’s not a reality show. Again it suffers by comparison with Top Chef, which I think is an excellent show. I’m on it, by the way, I’m one of the judges. But I really enjoyed doing the show. I really enjoy watching the show. I think it’s fair. I think it’s all about the food. For every success of a dumb competition show, a reality show, it opens the door for somebody to do something better. I mean, if it wasn’t for all the dumb shows on Food Network, I probably wouldn’t have one on Travel.

VM: In Bill Buford’s profile of Ramsay in the New Yorker, Ramsay says the whole point of these shows is to get people into his restaurant.

AB: The people who watch the show are not eating at his restaurant. Absolutely not. I think the idea of the show is to make enough money making the shows so that he can afford to funnel it into the restaurant business, his American ventures, which is very sensible. I mean, I understand why he’s doing what he does, and God knows he deserves to make a lot of money, and it’s working out well for him, and he doesn’t have anything to prove to anybody at this point in his career. It’s not a show I would have done. I was offered the Brit version and politely declined.

Read the conclusion to the interview next week.

A Catalog For All Seasons

Somehow with that one purchase of a wicker basket those many years ago, we ended up on a mailing list that’s been traded around like Dana Plato on Circus of the Stars. For a while it was basically the Big Three: Crate & Barrel, Williams-Sonoma, and Pottery Barn. Then came the pseudo-mod CB and Pottery Barn Kids editions. But suddenly there were catalogs arriving at our door from places I’ve never visited, like Grandin Road, The Land of Nod, and Front Gate. And then came the multiple issues not only marking the months and seasons, but also “Early Summer,” “Late Spring,” and “Holiday,” which came in addition to Thanksgiving and Christmas. The worst was when I beheld two Pottery Barn Kids catalogs—one for Fall 2011 and the other for Autumn 2011. Whole forests are being annihilated because of this.

And yet I wondered how odd not to receive a catalog from Restoration Hardware, the hardware store for Bobos. But then it arrived: At 616 pages and weighing a massive 2 pounds 14 ounces, the Fall 2011 Source Book is, according to Restoration chairman Gary Friedman, “our largest ever Source Book/Magalog/Catalog.” He knowingly adds, “And we ask that you hang on to it, as we do our part to support conservation and won’t be sending you another one until next spring.” Let’s hope he keeps his word and that next week I won’t be seeing something with similar heft entitled Restoration Hardware Kids.

Jonathan Last calls it porn (the issue did come in a brown bag). He confessed to looking longingly at the $2,195 Aviator Wing Desk, whose description is worth quoting: “Inspired by streamlined World War II fighter planes, our desk is a shining swoop of metal, its shape mimicking the bent wing of a plane. Poised as if for take-off, it features a polished aluminum patchwork exterior accented with steel screws, built around a solid hardwood frame.”

If catalogs are indeed porn for Bobos, the Fall 2011 Source Book is Club International.

Or so I’ve been told.