How to Fail in Business Without Really Trying

Jon Taffer's Misguided Rescue Missions

Why do I love Bar Rescue and Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares so much? This isn’t a rhetorical question; it’s legitimately incomprehensible to me. The two programs share a basic conceit: a curmudgeonly expert visits a failing business and attempts to turn it around in roughly a week. Gordon Ramsay only visits restaurants and Jon Taffer only visits bars. I wouldn’t hate it if the boys stepped out of their comfort zones every now and again for, say, A Very Special Ramsay’s Burst Tech Bubble Nightmares, but I suppose they stick to their areas of expertise for a reason.

The fun of these shows is manifold. First of all, few of us have much idea of what goes on behind the scenes of the food industry—even I, with my seven years of experience doing every front-of-house job under the sun, had little knowledge of the arcane minutiae of what it takes to run a restaurant until I started watching Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. The restaurant business is fascinating, sometimes scandalizing. Filthy kitchens? Megalomaniac bosses? Expired food? Sign me up, Ramsay!

The bar business is less immediately fascinating. Few of us look at bar owners the same way we look at chef-proprietors; the latter are artists, with all the mercurial mannerisms that come with being artists; the former are businessmen, buttoned up and dull. Perhaps an extension of this dichotomy is the fact that restaurants, even exceptionally fine ones that attract only the stratospherically wealthy, serve a prettied-up version of a basic necessity: food. Bars serve liquor, wine, and beer, and since this is not thirteenth-century England and we aren’t too busy shitting into our water supply to drink from it, we no longer rely on those drinks for sustenance. Restaurants are
(sometimes) practical. Bars are frivolous.

I would never call Jon Taffer frivolous to his face, as I suspect that he would become enraged and shoot venom at me from his fangs, but he just isn’t the proven artist that Ramsay is. Ramsay has earned a total of sixteen Michelin stars in his twenty years of cooking. His prestigious standing in the culinary world is a matter of public statistical record. Taffer is, by all accounts, a sound and savvy businessman, but he’s never won an award for bar artistry unless you count his induction into the Nightclub Hall of Fame, which I’m willing to bet you’d never heard of until this moment. Say what you will about the culinary world’s elitist perquisites (and I’ll probably agree with you), but sixteen Michelin stars give a person significantly more stature than an award from a Hall which has no physical location.

Still, Taffer’s missions carry just as much weight as Ramsay’s do on an individual level. A bar owner losing his bar is not functionally different from a restaurant owner losing his restaurant; the losses are equally devastating. While my knowledge of the food industry’s business side is patchy, I know how hard it is to run bars and restaurants, how many long hours and how much sheer luck it takes to succeed, how many people’s livelihoods are at stake if you don’t. As such, please believe that I am sincere when I say this: I really, truly wanted Jon Taffer to be able to turn things around on the episode of Bar Rescue in which he Rescued Silver Spring’s Piratz Tavern.

I’ve been to Piratz Tavern a few times, always at the suggestion of a drunk friend who wanted to go laugh about the employees in their pirate costumes. (Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like; yes, it’s exactly as painful and embarrassing as you’re imagining.) It would feel a lot meaner, laughing about these pirate costumes, if the employees didn’t throw themselves into the pirate theme with intimidating, bons-temps-rouler enthusiasm. It would also feel meaner if the male employees weren’t such unrepentant creeps. The Disneylike pirate theme is attended by a joyful disrespect for women. I could tell stories.

“This isn’t just any bar. It’s…a barrrrrr,” says Piratz Tavern’s own One-Eyed Mike in the episode’s introduction, hopefully before immediately stepping into the path of an oncoming eighteen-wheeler. (Just kidding! One-Eyed Mike lives on to this day, as far as I know, creepily stroking female customers’ backs in whatever shithole agreed to hire him after Piratz imploded, just like he stroked my back all those years ago.)

Tracy, the owner of Piratz Tavern, claims in the introduction that she’s racked up six figures of credit-card debt while running the bar and that she and her husband are living in her parents’ basement. Tragic. Dreadful. Except I did a bit of research and found that Tracy protests this version of events vehemently, claiming that the Bar Rescue team engaged in a hefty amount of fakery to make her plight seem as pathetic as possible. Taffer, you devious bastard, I trusted you!

Jon Taffer believes that the trouble with Piratz Tavern is the pirate theme (and especially the employees’ headstrong devotion to the pirate theme, right down to their cutesy Pirates of the Caribbean accents), and that what they should be doing is working to capture the corporate clientele who work in the neighborhood’s surrounding high rises. This is one of the Nightclub Hall of Fame’s first inductees ever, so his opinion carries some weight here in the galley from hell. Taffer also believes that Tracy’s ne’er-do-well of a chef-husband needs to be fired because he’s a bad cook. I can’t find any confirmations on the spelling of said chef-husband’s name, so you’re just going to have to take my word for it that his actual Christian name is Juciano.

So, the theme is wrong, the staff is incompetent, and there is a man named Juciano in play; essentially, everything that could be bad about a bar, is. I think now would be as good a time as any to interject that the now-defunct Piratz Tavern’s employees objected wholeheartedly to their Bar Rescue episode for what seem to be perfectly sound reasons, ranging from its sensationalized portrayal of the bar’s problems to Jon Taffer’s insistence on installing a self-serve draft beer station that turned out to be illegal in Montgomery County. This latter fact tickles me in a way I can’t fully explain. It strikes at the heart of everything that makes Bar Rescue less good than Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. I keep thinking, “there’s no way Gordon Ramsay would unwittingly drive his poor protégés to break a local ordinance.”

The rest of the episode is formulaic. If you watch enough episodes of either Bar Rescue or Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, the plots start to feel interchangeable. Jon Taffer shows up. He’s met with resistance from the unthinkably fucking nerdy staff, all of whom are lucky not to receive atomic wedgies from Taffer and his crew. He explains the method, as it were, to his madness (presumably leaving out the part where he wants to install an illegal self-serve draft beer station in an already dying bar). Juciano storms out. The others sullenly make an effort with Taffer’s suggested theme, a soulless renovation of the tavern that will be called the Corporate Bar and Grill. One-Eyed Mike becomes just Mike. And so on and so forth.

It’s no surprise that Piratz Tavern (or, if you must, the Corporate Bar and Grill) is closed now, any more than it’s a surprise when one of Ramsay’s retooled Kitchen Nightmares closes. Taffer and Ramsay both specialize in briefly reviving what is already dead. It may sputter forward for awhile after its revival, but its chances of ever thriving again are slim. The relationship maintains an exact symbiosis in this way: Taffer and Ramsay collect a small amount of fame from each rescue, while the rescued bars and restaurants collect a small profit. If the rescues went on to do too well, the symbiosis would be thrown off. Taffer and Ramsay must always, always win.

I might make the argument that what Taffer and Ramsay are doing is gross, and that what Taffer did with the Piratz Tavern is gross. They make their living (Ramsay less so; his primary gig is still the ownership of great restaurants, but Bar Rescue is what Taffer is best known for, at least to the general public) from making a spectacle of dying things. They gain our respect by dealing with these eccentric prima donnas who don’t want to change their failing businesses. They show us a side of the business that most of us have never seen before, all while making us laugh at, say, adults in pirate costumes serving headsplitting grog to suspicious middle-class people. It’s edutainment at its meanest.

Still, if I wanted to make that argument, I’d have to put my money where my mouth was and stop watching. And I’ll tell you this here and now: nothing will ever yank my attention from a passel of incompetent adults being mommied by the cantankerous Jon Taffer. Nothing.

Art by Jun Joestar. 

Alex King

Alex King

Alex King, a culturally irrelevant Jew who still listens to the Bee Gees without a touch of irony, is also Empire of Loathing's food correspondent. If you don’t like them or their writing or their opinions on the Food Network, you’re right.

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