Below is a Q&A with Jon Taffer, fiery and very outspoken world renowned bar expert and consultant from Spike TV's Bar Rescue show, about the latest trends in the industry as he travels across America rescuing failing and struggling bars. I'm sure many of you have seen it or at least heard about it. It's a neat show.
What are the most popular trends you're noticing in the industry?
Premium spirits and premium beers is a big one. Canada is way ahead of us in America when it comes to market acceptance of expensive draft beer. In America, draft beer is perceived as Animal House and fraternities. Craft beer and these specialty seasonal beers is also a great opportunity for bar owners to make money today. Also, never has there been more new spirits introduced, even in these tough economic times, with regard to everything from boysenberry berry rums to citrus infused tequilas. There's really cool stuff out there today. All you need is a couple of really cool drinks and a bar can be successful. The pendulum swings back and forth between a live music trend and a DJ trend, but these days the pendulum is swinging really hard towards smaller, more intimate bars over the big mega clubs because Starbucks is socializing the college campuses of today for the cocktail lounge. Another thing that's really driving sales is infused ideas where food and drinks are infused together, like a Cuban bar with Cuban foods and 100 rums. You can go out and get a gastro-pub kind of meal, but it doesn't need to be expensive and can be totally chef based, reflecting more of a lifestyle than just a meal.
Do you think that all themed bars are destined to fail?
Not at all. “Theme” is a big word; sports bars and jazz bars are themed, in theory. Concept bars, when you take on characters are roles, are different. You could probably have a pirates’ bar in St. Petersburg, Florida, but not in downtown Baltimore. Bars have to fit the market.
What is your favorite bar city?
New York. What’s wonderful about it is that it’s a city of neighborhoods. Each neighborhood has its own bars; some of the best neighborhood bars in the world, and New York is neither a nightclub kind of city nor a hyper-theme kind of city. The defined communities that the city has are truly special. Chicago also has some great bars down on Division and Rush Streets, but the city also skews more to nightclubs.
What are some of the worst concepts that you have seen for bars, other than pirates of course?
In California, there was a bar that took shoes from famous people and stuck them all over the walls. You’re sitting there eating food right next to a used shoe. There was a nightclub that had an S&M shot bar in Fargo, North Dakota. You’d go up and order your shot, and the bartender would come around as a dominatrix and whip your ass right there.
This is in the middle of North Dakota we’re talking about?
Yup, the middle of North Dakota. Now, I’m not adverse to doing things like that but too much concept and too much “cutsie” doesn’t work in bars.
Name some spirits that are hot right now…
It’s funny how the pendulum swings back and forth. I’d have to say that flavored vodkas are being welcomed more than ever. Fluff Marshmallow is an example. Who would have thought? It keeps curiosity going and it’s really helped keep vodka selling. On that topic, companies mixing spirits is now a big thing; products like Malibu Red, which mixes rum and tequila.
What about whiskey?
Whiskies are really starting to bounce back now. Consumption of whiskey by females is up 20%. You can make the traditionally male-oriented Old Fashioned, use Jim Beam Red Stag to give it a little cherry flavor, with some orange bitters, and suddenly women love it.
What are some factors that you think make the pendulum swing?
I think boredom! I’ve been in this business for 35 years, and the pendulum swings a ton. I think it just swings sometimes because of people’s quest for newness. There’s an incessant desire in this industry to find a niche.
And there’s such a quick turnover rate, it seems.
And one more thing: I think Starbucks has had a huge impact on the bar business. In college markets, Starbucks is like a bar without liquor: everybody goes and sits around, drinks beverages, talks, and it creates a social environment that college kids didn’t have before Starbucks, except maybe in a student union. So I think that Starbucks preconditions them for going out at night, sitting, and having beverages. A sort of training ground [laughs]. In the end, bars are a social experience: you can make drinks at home, watch your satellite and listen to music at home, the one thing that is different is that social interaction.
Tell me something about bars that not a lot of people would know.
The second public building constructed in America was a bar. The first was a church. Our Declaration of Independence was first discussed in a bar. Our state borders were first determined in pubs. The first distillery in America was George Washington's. I’m proud of the bar business: it’s a fiber of our country. That’s why I don’t like when the industry isn’t given as much as respect as others. This industry really is a fiber of our country: in 1812, I believe it was, Congress voted whiskey the official spirit of America.
Some bartenders stick to lemon water, or bitters and soda... until, well, 9:00 p.m. or so. Some rely on light-bodied beers for a smooth ride through the night, while some start on Negronis and switch over to Scotch. And some will take a shot with you—or name a shot after you.