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News From the Front

When I first heard about Spike TV’s Bar Rescue, I thought, “What a fine idea! A noted bar expert rushes around the country bailing out at least a few of the 6,500 or so bars that fail each year.”

My excitement fast faded when I actually watched an episode. In case you haven’t seen it, let me lay out the show’s formula for you. An oversized and generally angry “bar expert” named Jon “Crazytown” Taffer is called in to fix a bar that is spiraling toward financial ruin. He sends in spies and observes the bar with cameras then—once he has seen enough obviously staged bad behavior to work himself into a sputtering, shrieking frenzy—he barrels in to berate the owner and staff for their many crimes. The Big Four being:  1) Overpouring, which is stealing, even if the owner tells the bartenders to overpour.  2) Bartenders drinking on duty.  3) Owners drinking in their own bar.  4) Customers getting drunk.

In other words, he is offended by everything that makes a dive a dive. After a lot of shouting erodes the initial defiance, the owner swears to change, and Taffer brings in experts to Stepford the staff. Principal among them is a shaker-twirling mixologist whose main idea seems to be The customer hates the taste of booze. Which means adding sweet and subtracting alcohol from the drinks.

Taffer then tries to imprint  his particular brand of “bar science” on the owner. In one breath he condemns what he views as overpouring and overserving, in the next he reveals tricks to get the customer to linger longer and order more drinks.

“Everything is to make money,” Taffer says, and you start getting the idea that in his mind the perfect bar would be manned by robots that would simply pick your pocket the moment you walked in the door then shove you into the street before you could do anything dangerous like drinking alcohol.

Along with the universally reviled measured pour spouts, he also encourages the use of  “butt funnels.” This is where you intentionally create chokepoints so narrow that customers are forced to “rub their butts together,” thus creating, in Taffer’s mind, some sort of intimacy.

Finally, the bar gets new equipment and a redesign, which usually includes a new name. Most of the names seem arbitrary, some are just bad: Dual Ultra Nightclub. Moonrunners. Metal and Lace. Spirits On Bourbon. The End. BARcode. The most tone deaf of all was undoubtedly The Corporate Bar, which was made to look like a corporate office so as to appeal to the minions from nearby business towers. Because God knows that once you get off work, you want to go to a bar that looks just like your cubicle.

So, does any of it work? After 50k in free improvements and about a million bucks of free publicity, the bars usually do better for awhile. Then about a fifth close anyway and about half ditch some or all of Taffer’s science.

Taffer claims to have once owned 17 bars. Presently he owns zero, which doesn’t surprise me. All the tricks he teaches work only in the short run. Once the customer realizes he’s being viewed as a side of beef with a wallet, he tends to move on, maybe even to one of those awful places with strong drinks and human bartenders.