Jon Taffer, star of “Bar Rescue,” has a bold plan for his namesake restaurant, Taffer’s Tavern.
The industry veteran is aiming for roughly 120 units in five years.
“A little aggressive, but not outrageous,” Taffer says.
The brand, which debuted in 2020, has three streetside locations in Alpharetta, Georgia; Watertown, Massachusetts; and Washington, D.C., and two concessionaires at FedEx Field, home of the NFL’s Washington Commanders, and Mercedes-Benz Stadium, home of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. Nearly two dozen more are in development. The NextGen Casual has secured multi-unit franchise deals in several markets across the country, including Las Vegas; Savannah, Georgia; Northern and Central Florida; and Montgomery, Alabama.
The brand’s upcoming Las Vegas location will have the same menu and decor package, but will be 12,000 square feet in size. Taffer’s Tavern also created a smaller prototype—about 1,750–3,000 square feet—to fit in secondary markets. Taffer says the model would be ideal for a strip center and endcap situation.
“We’re about to begin selling that smaller version of the franchise, and we’re finding a lot of our franchisees who have bought in major markets like Boston or Atlanta are saying, ‘Boy, we love the big unit for downtown. How about some smaller units for this for the suburbs?’ So we see that as a way to attack a marketplace—a combination of the large flagship unit with some smaller satellite units around it. So we’re looking very, very hard at that expansion approach right now.”
The TV personality and entreprenuer is confident in scale because of the brand’s simplicity. The idea for Taffer’s Tavern began five years ago when Taffer challenged himself to redesign a kitchen that reduces back-of-house labor by 60 percent and one that cuts a week of training into seven hours. His team worked in test kitchens for two years experimenting with sous vide product, which he describes as a “very, very high-end preparation technique used by Michelin and five-star chefs around the world.” There’s no traditional stoves or hood. It’s all combi and Turbo Chef ovens and unique cooking equipment designed to finish sous vide products.
Taffer says a customer could walk into a packed restaurant at 9 p.m. on Saturday night, and there would be only two people working in the kitchen.
“They’re not screaming and yelling,” he says. “It’s air-conditioned. You could almost carpet the darn place. It’s so cool and calm and the product consistency is wonderful. So we’ve really mastered and embraced technology in the kitchen. And reinventing the kitchen, as an end result, we have great product consistency.”
The format fit COVID parameters quite nicely. Taffer’s Tavern has a third of the counter space of a regular casual-dining concept, preparation is contactless, and ticket times are six-and-a-half minutes. Taffer believes it’s the “safest kitchen in the world.”
All product is specified by Cuisine Solutions and comes portioned by a central commissary kitchen. Every oven is preprogrammed for each product, and no one at the property level can change the settings.
“There’s no way the incoming product can be manipulated,” Taffer says. “It’s perfect every time. There’s no way the cooking process can be manipulated. It’s perfect every time. It’s unbelievable. We’ve eliminated the human factor from purchasing. We’ve eliminated the human factor from prep. We’re not butchering, dicing, slicing. We’re not doing any of those things. Our cooks on a line don’t even season anything. That’s how tight we are.”
Additionally, no location picks its own music. Stores are equipped with an FM radio receiver, which corporate uses to send audio programs. Songs are curated—down to beats per minute—based on the demographics in the restaurant. The same goes for video systems. Customers won’t see sports anchors sitting behind a desk on ESPN, Taffer says. Everything is active—either a live game or some type of other action.
These pieces are what create perceived value, Taffer says. It adds to the experience and length of stay. Taffer’s Tavern also makes sure to leave technology in the back of house. Taffer prefers front-of-house staff to be interactive, smile, offer menu recommendations, and build relationships with guests.
“It creates an energy, a dynamic,” Taffer says. “The pace of the staff. The connectivity. All these elements come together. Put boring music in there, staff attitudes change. Pace changes. The whole damn thing falls apart. These are important parts of perceived value that many restaurateurs don’t talk about as much.”
In terms of menu, Taffer’s Tavern is 50 percent beverage sales, which has a “massive impact” to the bottom line, Taffer says. The concept has also found that as much as customers are suffering from inflation, they’re still treating themselves. The company hasn’t seen a drop in average check or any shift in menu mix. The restaurant’s short rib is one of the most expensive items, but still a top seller. The spicy chicken sandwich, a middle-priced item, is performing well, too. There hasn’t been any reductions in cocktail consumption, either. But Taffer’s Tavern is still proceeding with caution. In the next couple of months it plans to introduce more offerings that are cost-effective and lower-priced, such as salads and pastas.
As restaurateurs keep “getting killed” on commodities like chicken and fish, Taffer says customer understand that prices must go up. However, he warns operators to not take advantage of guests’ goodwill.
“They’re going for it,” Taffer says. “You know what, if a price increases 15 percent, raise it 15 percent, raise it 16 or 17 percent. Don’t raise it 30 percent. And I see some restaurateurs taking advantage of the current state of mind and digging a little too deep. That’s not good for the industry. That’ll destroy the value proposition for the whole industry if we take it that far.”
Taffer has spent 40 years as a consultant helping build hundreds of restaurants, but he’s quick to acknowledge that Taffer’s Tavern is a team effort. He praises the leadership of Sean Walker, who serves as president. He calls out the accomplishments of the human resources, marketing, and production departments.
It wasn’t always this way. A few years ago, Taffer struggled with turnover and finding the right people. These days, he able’s to spend a couple of months on his boat in Florida while his team handles business. That’s because all employees are led by three key words—get customers back.
“That’s what we do,” Taffer says. “That is our consciousness. We walk to get them back. We talk to get them back. We cook to get them back. We play music to get them back. … If you walked up to any [employee] and said, ‘What is your objective here tonight?’ They would tell you to get them back.”