On any given episode of Paramount Network’s “,” the establishments featured are in a catastrophic state of disrepair: awash in grime, bugs, rotted food and/or mysterious stains. The surroundings are matched by the decay of their owners, who have no idea how to run a business.
Enter the show’s tough-talking but big-hearted host,, a nightlife veteran whose extensive resume includes running legendary L.A. hotspot The Troubadour in the early ’80s and being one of the first inductees of the Nightclub Hall of Fame. In 2011, he started “Bar Rescue,” then on Spike TV.
Although Taffer is often met with resistance from flailing bar owners who think they know everything, he’s never turned down people who need help.
“I’m the kind of guy who needs to fight for something, not against something,” he says. “So there’s an owner with a wife at home, there are kids at home — sometimes I’m fighting for them. I’ve never met them, but I’m fighting for them. I’m fighting for their home sometimes. There are a couple of employees who really matter. I’m fighting for them. They love that place. You’ve seen that there’s a jerk owner, but the staff really cares. I use the term ‘hang my hat.’ I try to find someone or something to hang my hat on that I can fight for.”
As he approaches 250 episodes of “Bar Rescue,” Taffer walks Variety step-by-step through the breakneck pace of the show’s production.
Step 1: Prepping for the Rescue
“The casting process I have nothing to do with. I provide standards: I want this amount of people, kitchen, blah blah blah. The casting company does the casting and the networks approve it. I have no involvement. I’ve never heard of the names of the bars, I don’t want to know the names. I don’t want to see the casting reel.
“I show up about an hour before the cameras start to roll. I get in a makeup chair, and I literally get a 60 second briefing: ‘Bill and Ron own this bar. They’re in debt $500,000. They’re about to lose their houses. They’re ready to kill each other.’ I always ask the same question: ‘How much money do they have? How long do they have?’ ‘Well, they have ten grand — enough for one more month.’ That’s all I know.”
Step 2: Recon
“I then go in and do recon. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know where I’m going to stand, where I’m going to go. My crew is amazing at following me around because I don’t even know where I’m going next. So recon happens. If they’re nice, I’m nice. If they’re jerks, I’m not as nice. I can be a little tough. You’ve seen it. Filth and irresponsibility drives me crazy. Business practices are easily fixed, but attitudes are not.”
Step 3: Design
“When recon is over, what you don’t know is we put all the employees in vans in the parking lot and I go in and design the bar. That night, I’ve got about an hour. My crew gives me a demographic report that I’ve designed for about a four or five-mile ring, and a competitive report. If there are 10 sports bars, I won’t build a sports bar, obviously. So I know the competitors in the area, I know the demographics and psychographics of the marketplace. That’s all I know. I then look at the verticals and the horizontals in the room, and I pull a design concept together.”
Step 4: Stress Test
“So now I have a concept, and I have a design. We go home, and day two, you see me training and doing the stress test on camera. What you don’t see is I have to sign off on every design element. I’m in the middle of everything. So every wallpaper, barstool… everything I pick. But everything I pick I need in 24 hours. It’s a little funny, inside secret. If you look at the remodels in ‘Bar Rescue,’ you’ll often notice the bar stools don’t match, because I couldn’t get 60 of the same ones overnight. I could only get 12 of these and nine of these.”
Step 5: Remodeling
“At the end of the second day, the stress test is over, the logos are to the sign company, the recipes are done, the food orders are in, the beverage orders are in and all the materials are designed. The design is completely finished. After the stress test, at about midnight on day two, we start remodeling. We remodel that night, day three, and the morning of day four. So we do remodel in 36 hours. That’s why day three in ‘Bar Rescue,’ I’m shooting offsite at another location, because we’re remodeling their bar. We really keep them away. And day four, that afternoon, those same vans pull up. And the staff is in the back with blindfolds on, and I reveal the bar. So I do remodel it in 36 hours.”
Taffer says that the spontaneity of the show is a big reason for its continued success.
“I can tell you, as an industry professional, on my mother’s grave, there’s never been a script,” he says. “There’s never been an actor. There’s never been a setup. I think that’s why the show has lasted so long. I respect my audience. I think they’re brilliant. I don’t try to fake them out.”
Despite the show’s success, Taffer admits that the grind can take a toll.
“It is exhausting, and as I get older and older, it gets a little rougher to do,” he says. “The show is brutal, you know? And you go two days off, then off to the next one. I take the show very personally, not from a TV standpoint as much as: This is a guy whose life is on the line. He’s going to lose his house, his wife’s ready to leave him, his kids don’t respect him. This is a really serious responsibility.”
Despite the pace of the show and his other ventures — a growing chain of Taffer’s Taverns, a podcast, a bourbon, etc. — Taffer isn’t ready to shut things down just yet.
“I intend to go on for a few more years,” he says when asked about his future on the show. “The stories are heartbreaking. But they’re inspirational, too. I mean, these are people you really want to help if you can.”