Like the booze business for which he serves as philosopher and king, Jon Taffer, host of Bar Rescue on the Spike¹ network, is a large, noisy man. Taffer shouts. Taffer raves. Taffer blusters. Taffer looms. I think more than any other program on TV, Bar Rescue has been shouted into popularity by a host who, barring some real witchcrafty stuff on the part of the camerafolk, is roughly the size of a baby giant. Taffer is larger than life, a true force of nature, and I love it.
The formula of Bar Rescue is by now familiar to all good Americans, having long since evolved into its own subspecies of food-and-beverage reality entertainment— distinct from competitions, culinary travelogues, and a good old fashioned Rachael Ray haunting/cooking show. It’s a formula on display in shows featuring (quite brassed off mate! Oi and bollocks!) British hosts like Kitchen Nightmares and Restaurant: Impossible. And just like in the rapidly expanding number of programs featuring four-Monster-energies-per-diem Gordon Ramsey, who is the crankiest Cabbage Patch Baby in all the world, the formula plays out along the following general timeline:
- Introduce an on-the-ropes bar or restaurant located somewhere in the country (let’s say a neighborhood watering hole called The Hog Pile Sportz Shack in, let’s say, Milwaukee, WI, USA.)
- Have star and host appear at said establishment to loudly and expertly diagnose its ills and the multifarious business sins of its owners (for instance, a dwindling customer base and, in the case of The Hog Pile Sportz Shack in Milwaukee, Cheese State, USA, the bartender’s habit of getting pretty bombed and taking off his jeans.)
- Let the audience marvel as the said host goes about redressing said ills and said sins of said tavern, making enlightening connections and offering up some hard-earned, sage wisdoms to those that would listen (for instance, the dwindling customer base could be due to the aforementioned removal of barkeep’s trousers, or even the ceiling rats, potentially.)
- In the end, unveil to the audience and assembled staff members a new and dazzlingly transformed establishment (“The Hog Pile Sportz Tavern” has voila! been reborn as “CUBE: a gastro-mixology experience bistro,” and all Milwaukee rejoiced uproariously, doffing cheese hats with chubby, cheesy-fed fingers into the cheese-scented air, as fireworks spell out the word forever upon their chapped northern lips: CHEE.²)
Bar Rescue follows this formula, and the formula works for Bar Rescue. Most episodes of the show begin with Taffer straight up Peepin’ Tomin’ it on a stakeout, remotely surveilling a faltering bar from the comfort of his SUV via discreetly-mounted cameras (and a somewhat less discreet camera crew walking around inside.) Taffer usually stocks his SUV with teammates (bartending or culinary experts but sometimes a comedian friend or honest-to-God Taffer family member) with whom he can ridicule the bar’s shoddy appearance and pee poor management. After a few minutes of jest– always the last time we the audience will witness the Taffman smile until episode’s conclusion— he sends in his spies.
These undercover minions— sometimes the SUV people but at other times barely-notable randos like local radio DJs— are tasked with scouting the bar’s food and beverage offerings and reporting back to Taff HQ via earpiece. This is sort of dumb, because the bar has already been outfitted with remote cameras and filled with a professional television crew, so everybody should pretty well know the drill already/be aware of the presence of Bar Rescue. But whatever, because spies! Earpieces! Espionage! And so the Taff narcs always hate everything in the bar (of course, because it’s a solid chance to act like picky little snots and get away with it) and report back by speaking into their cufflinks or what have you: “Taff HQ, we don’t like anything about Jimbo’s Gallery of Wings.”
Verification thus established of the beer as tepid (check!) and the chicken wings as pink (check!) and the bartender as pantsless and also pink (check!), Big T will eventually have seen enough—sometimes he will at this juncture state, “Guys, I have seen enough”— and like a great storm descending from out of the craggy mountains, he will make his entrance.
And it is always a most righteous entrance. (ala Kurt Russell from ‘Tombstone’)
I think what’s truly scary about Boss Taff is not only that he looks like the Mafioso who might, over breakfast, decide to order the swift freighting of your body to the harbor floor in six identical pieces of value-priced luggage but that, simultaneously, he looks like the low-level goon who could— with a kind of dull, bovine heartlessness— carry out the savage deed. He is just, like I said: a really big guy.
And he is also loud. Like super loud, and in an unexpected kind of way. For to even glance upon the Taff Daddy is to, in that moment, expect the grandest— the very boomingest— of stentorian baritones. But Emperor Taffpoleon does not sound grand; he does not arrive at one’s ear as a boom. What he does, at the crescendo of his emotion, in the fiercest fray of battle for the soul of a dive bar with a name like Uncle Butt’s Tequila Hutt, is shriek. Which I think, in terms of intimidation, is far worse.ᶾ
But back to the story: the SUV stakeout, the undercover minions, and the preliminary Taff blitzkrieg (later in this article I am going to say “assault by the Taffen-SS” and you are NOT allowed to be offended when it happens because I HAVE warned you.) Saltwater Taffy will always approach the owner/manager first (rarely are these roles filled by separate individuals prior to the show) and politely introduce himself, always genteel at the exact moment of the handshake. However, still waters run deep my friends, and to really confuse metaphors: the Taffalanche is mere moments from engulfing the basecamp. A typical meet-and-greet with an owner/manager will go something like this:
JT (extending his hand): Hi, I’m Jon Taffer.
Owner/manager of Stu’s Booze Palace (shaking hand): Howdy there Jon, I’m Stu.
JT (releasing handshake): Stu, are you a moron?
In No Country For Old Men, the murderous Anton Chigurh had this way of gradually tightening the conversational vice until what initially had seemed an innocuous exchange about the cost of peanuts or the weather had become a tense, life and death negotiation above which the threat of violence ineffably loomed. And that, I think, is the closest approximation to Taff Vader’s introductory conversation with a Bar Rescue candidate.
Owner/soon-to-be former manager of Stu’s Booze Palace: No, Jon, I’m not a moron.
JT: WELL CLEARLY YOU ENJOY LOOKING LIKE ONE, STU!
Stu: No I don’t.
JT: STU, YOU’RE A FAILURE AND WORTHLESS!
Pleasantries completed, the Taffdog will now begin the work of ripping the tavern’s morale completely and utterly to shreds, like a zoot suit-wearing bulldog with a Dickensian orphan clutched in its maw (sorry folks but that’s just nature.) As a rule, General Stonewall Taffson seems to share his theory of bar rejuvenation with the world’s most elite military cadres: break a candidate down, physically and psychologically, and upon that bedrock of psychic rock bottom, build the candidate up once again.
JT: Show me the kitchen, Stu.
Stu (presenting): Here’s the kitchen.
JT (exploding in a raging fire that does not consume him): LOOK AT THE GRIME ON THIS CUTTING BOARD, STU!
On every episode, there is always a ton of bluster about dusty lamps and smudged windows and fruit flies in the booze bottles (I think every dive in America must have fruit flies in the booze bottles) and, like, unemptied grease pans, because Taffy Poppins is nothing if not a stickler for tidiness. He is also super unforgiving about it— he sees all, and all doth anger him, like a grouchy deity.
There are a few cardinal sins that tick The Honorable Judge Taffy off more than all the rest. They are:
- A cocksure manager or owner. King Taffles demands total fealty and submission to his authority and the Bar Rescue. Often one or more bar people will attempt to save a little face by offering up excuses— “Once that barkeep’s britches come off, Jon, there’s simply no stopping him!”— or, even worse, decide to go on the offensive— “Nobody talks to me like that in MY bar bucko!”— and such insubordination can only but incense His Royal Highness the Duke of Taffington.
- An owner’s rudeness to, or denigration of, his or her barstaff/waitstaff. I go back and forth on the reason that this ticks Taffy Duck off so mightily. On the one hand, it typifies a repeated theme in Bar Rescue, which is that the successes and failures of a given business affect real people, with real families and real bills to pay, and so perhaps this is an example of his sticking up for the “little guy”; on the other hand, Taff the Magic Dragon clearly has zero qualms about breathing his dreadfire upon any number of the low level bar peons that he deems deserving of his wrath, and so perhaps the real transgression is the owner acting as if he or she is better than anyone besides maybe a sidewalk slug— let alone still in charge of their own establishment.
- Undercooked or unsafe meat. This is perhaps the most primal of all the Taffer: Texas Ranger bugaboos. If the Taff-narcs are served a pink-centered platter of chicken wings, or during his whirlwind inspection of the kitchen Tafflock should happen to discover a lukewarm bowl of raw animal protein, may God have mercy on your little mountainside village, because Mount St. Taffens will be set to erupt.
- Other various points of hygiene. Like a not bald, but just as big, actually heavier-faced version of Mr. Clean, Mr. Taff can root out dirt in even the hardest-to-reach nooks and crannies, and he will make a big ol’ stink about it when he does.
After fuming about one or more of these, the Taffnado will exit the bar— mangled debris of Quick-E-Marts littering his wake—after shouting something threatening like, “Fix it or I’m not going to save your bar!” Terrified at the specter of losing their clearly non-lucrative and thankless employment, the staff will scurry about emptying grease trays and throwing freezer burned chicken wings in the garbage, until such a time as The Legend of Taffer Vance should deign to reappear. When the next day he at last does, materializing from out of the ether like a puffier version of the Aladdin genie, it will be time for some cursory training from Professor T and his colleagues.
These colleagues, Team Taff, hail from high-caliber spots in New York and Los Angeles and Vegas and are billed as culinary mavericks and avant-garde mixologists. They are mostly attractive superhumans, who resemble the ethnically diverse, urban-dwelling cool set who appear on Bravo reality shows. They are telegenic. They dress well. They produce complex cocktails/dishes. They garnish their drinks with tropical flowers, and they fly in on Daddy Taffbuck’s dime to make the frumpy locals look like cold cat poop who didn’t even know how to fix up a Yacht Fire In The Bermuda Triangle.⁴
Following training— which usually results in one or two new “signature drinks” and a new appetizer out of the kitchen— the staff prepare for their “Stress Test.” The “Stress Test” is when anywhere from several dozen to, like, a couple of hundred patrons descend upon the bar— I don’t know if they are enticed, or bussed in from nearby asylums, or what— in order to apply Stress to the bar’s people and systems, ostensibly to reveal weak points in the physiology of the place and thus fresh opportunities for Doc Taff’s amazing herbal cure-all. But really the Stress Test just gives the Taffmanian Devil an additional venue for his unhinged shrieking amidst a general pandemonium— which is where he truly seems his happiest.
However, sometimes it is actually important, because sometimes a Stress Test leads to a good old American FIRING. Sometimes despite chastening and shaming by people with cool hairdos and tattoos, a barkeep will revert to his old, britches-divesting ways, and The Taffmeister will be forced to bring down the heavy hammer. Of course, Uncle Taff does not have any actual power to fire anyone, and must settle for browbeating the often cowardly/pale/shrinking owner-manager into some hard truth, and Old Yeller, Fredo-on-the-boat style action.
Every so often an inept owner himself will get the stanky boot⁵, busted down from active management to a purely figurehead type role for wet-sock-draped-on-a-folding-chair leadership. Whatever the case, and whoever has to be whacked, Machiataffy is adept at convincing people to poke a shank into a friend’s kidney for the good of the bar, the welfare of their family, and the future of the drinking biz in the United States of America.
Much of that persuasive power is derived from the next part of the show, the phase of the titular Rescue that is probably 100% of the reason owners sign up in the first place: the bar remodeling.
In the end, it is not the skillful mixologists he brings in, nor the accounting advice he supposedly offers,⁶ nor his shouted suggestions for clean glassware and less rodents in Steve the Peeve’s Fiesta Diner, which imbues Taffy Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone with such power over the wee bar and tavern folk.⁷ Time and again, Taff the Builder and his team will aesthetically outdo themselves, cutting off fatty bits and burning away dross, transforming sad, fetid hobo bars into glimmering palaces of 21st century libation technology.
And Mark Zuckertaff knows he shall do this, knows THEY know, and he wields it over the lowly bar folk, a costly bribe to keep them shushed throughout the program’s filming. When he offers up a Buddhist koan such as, “I will not remodel your bar unless you can convince both me and yourself that you want me to,” the implied threat of the overhaul being rescinded— maybe? possibly?— will be enough to force humble suggestibility on the part of the owner. Any resistance a bar clan might otherwise mount against the Taffen-SS assault (told you) will be dulled by their lust for the neon terminals of a state-of-the-art POS system.
Thus, in the end, after 36 hours sped-up hours of the Rescue construction crew’s labor, we have the big reveal of the new digs. Above all, Bed, Taff, and Beyond is big on themed bars wherein all furniture and décor and drink names and costumery reference one central branding concept; and so the “Mega Salsa Sports Lounge” becomes “hitchhiker bar,” featuring a glass thumb sculpture and framed photos of famous thumbs and a drink called The Smelly Trucker. Or “Enrique’s Place” becomes “The Speakeasy,” featuring antique lighting and an old jukebox and a drink called The Women’s Suffrage Movement.
Usually the overhaul is a big hit with the staff, their barkeep faces all aglow. Sometimes, though, not so much, and the staff and management band together to reject the new identity, casting it off like a head rejecting a full body transplant performed by a reckless Italian doctor, achieving levels of insanity never before seen in the history of the embodied mind.
But these instances are rare. Most of the time, when all is said and done, A Taffair To Remember will hand back the bar keys to a chastened and dazzled and educated bar owner— a veteran, now, of The War in Taffghanistan— and galumph away like a big galoot out of their vastly bettered bar and sort of improved lives,⁸ like a fairy godmother in size 27 alligator skin shoes.
And while it may sound as if I think President Tafft is a hard man, perhaps even a cruel man, this could not be further from the truth. His is certainly a tough love— but I believe it is, at some level, a love nonetheless. Really, I do! Like just yesterday I was watching a recent episode (and this one is true, unlike the others in this article) wherein a bar’s co-owner was explaining how his son had died recently, and how that tragedy had made it much harder for him to focus on managing the business. The owner cried as he shared this, and to my surprise, our host cried too, and gently asked the man, “What do you want to say to your son?”
And as the owner began speaking, our host was silent. It was as if for a few moments, he was just a guy named Jon.
¹Formerly called Spike “TV,” lest we had confused it with a vicious dog or juvenile delinquent.ᶧ
ᶧLike the second grade classmate who once murdered a lizard in front of me in one of those big concrete pipes that for a time were inexplicably included on every playground in America, presumably so kids could enjoy recess periods filled with concrete pipe classics such as Doomsday Shelter, Hobo Nap, and Kidnapped By The Sewer People.
²The ‘SE’ exploded at ground level, claiming two fingers and an eye.
ᶾAnd, in fact, may even represent an affected technique on Old Taff’s part— a Taffnique, if you will. Because, whereas a deep and reboant bass note would A) Fit with his physical appearance and so better agree with our expectations, and B) Possess some of the moral authority of God, and lions, and Narnian God-lions (the roars of which, while certainly intimidating in their own way, nonetheless impart a sense of patriarchal stability and righteous indignation that one can predict and maybe even rely on), the cries that instead emanate from the mighty Taffsquatch, quite oppositely, A) Do not really jive with his appearance at all, thereby shocking one all the more, and B) Impart very little of a sense of moral authority, sounding instead like the unhinged ravings of a madman. And if there is one thing you can neither predict nor rely on, and which is scary, it’s the unhinged ravings of a madman.
⁴Or some other multiphase adult beverage that costs I’m guessing like $15 and invariably looks too upscale for the bar’s particular area of town— but nevermind.
⁵Credit/ thanks to Councilman Jamm for this phrase.
⁶I say “supposedly” because in the rock music opening to the show the voiceover says, “So and so has agreed to pull back the doors, bust open the books, and make a call for help to Bar Rescue.” We even see the owner sorting paperwork and poking away at a calculator. But you never actually see the Taffbot sit down and quietly do accounting. I would be surprised if he knew how, and anyway, that would be Snooze Clues.
⁷Who, if the Revolutionary War and movie Roadhouse have taught us anything, are pretty darn ornery folk.
⁸Improved, that is, until a Buffalo Wild Wings moves in across the street.