SALON TALKS

“Bar Rescue” boss Jon Taffer wants to show you how to argue better

Taffer, known for confrontation on his reality TV show, reflects on his rookie mistakes and says conflict is good

By D. Watkins

Published May 8, 2022 5:30PM (EDT)

John Taffer from "Bar Rescue" (Photo courtesy of Paramount Network)
John Taffer from "Bar Rescue" (Photo courtesy of Paramount Network)

I had a great friend in high school named Jay who could make anybody laugh at anytime –even during a funeral or right before grandma went into surgery, he was sharp and witty enough to conjure up something that would put a smile on your face. My friends and I spent hours upon hours laughing at his jokes and it was always a good time, unless some sort of disagreement happened during one of our adolescent exchanges – because in these moments, he would transform into a completely different guy, a guy that wanted nothing but conflict

As years passed, Jay seemed to become addicted to arguing, it didn't matter if it was 8 a.m. during homeroom, during basketball practice or at someone's party, he always wanted to fight and was obsessed with being right. These weren't constructive arguments at all, just violent spats that always ended with him yelling over everyone else in an effort to make his point. When rejected, he would go silent, and be distant, giving all parties involved some space, only to try to make his point again before allowing any of us to move forward. Hanging around Jay had become insufferable, and we found ourselves doing any and everything in our power to avoid conflict, but according to Jon Taffer, we were wrong. 

Taffer – who you may recognize from his Paramount Network TV show "Bar Rescue," where he intervenes to help failing bar and restaurant owners turn around their businesses – takes a deep dive into confrontation in his new book, "The Power of Conflict: Speak Your Mind and Get the Results You Want." If you've seen the show, you know Taffer surely isn't afraid to yell and definitely does not avoid conflict. As he told me during our "Salon Talks" episode, he has told network executives to go f**k themselves more than once. But, he told me, "You don't have to go to the 'f**k you.' We can engage in really respectful, meaningful conflict. If we understand how each other feels, the world is a better place for it."

Taffer, who lives in Las Vegas and has spent over 30 years in the restaurant, bar and nightclub business, has a lot to say about what healthy productive conflict looks like. Taffer believes that conflict is as guaranteed as death and taxes – so it would be in our best interest to make sure we use it as a tool to strengthen our relationships. For my friends and I, avoiding conflict with Jay was a temporary fix that didn't heal our problems. Instead, it led to us becoming estranged.

Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Jon Taffer here or read a Q&A of our conversation below to learn more about Taffer's journey into mastering conflict and some of his favorite explosive moments from "Bar Rescue." 

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

At the height of the pandemic, you met with the President to talk about the restaurant industry. Do you feel like things are finally starting to look up for bars and restaurants?

"In Alpharetta, Georgia ... you put a mask on your face in that city, and I got to tell you, they're going to stone you."

Almost every restaurant is about 20-25% ahead of pre-pandemic levels in revenue. So people came back. Everybody said it was going to take a long time, but obviously, there was a pent-up demand that people were eager. For example, I live here in Las Vegas. The casinos have had the two best quarters in our history. People came back in big numbers. 

The problem is, we can't get the employees to serve them. Our food prices are higher. When meat prices go up 15% and we got to raise a burger 15% and then another 15%. We can't sell a hamburger for $30. So at some point it's starting to impact us. But right now, the revenues are great. We just have to get inflation and our labor problems in control.

When is going out to eat going to feel normal again? I go to these different restaurants and sometimes I see families trying to stuff food under their masks. And then sometimes I see people who look like they never even put a mask on the whole time this was going on. When do you think it's going to be normal?

What city are you in, may I ask?

I'm in Baltimore.

So it's interesting. A lot of it is where you are. I own a Taffer's Tavern restaurant in Alpharetta, Georgia. You put a mask on your face in that city, and I got to tell you, they're going to stone you. When I put mask restrictions in my restaurant in Georgia, which weren't state required, but we wanted to do it to be responsible as operators, there was almost protests in front of the restaurant. That's a state that believes you have your own choices to do what you choose to do. 

You go to California at the same time, this is a year ago, if you weren't wearing a mask, they would stone you. It's amazing how regional this was and how different cities and different groups of people treated it in such different ways.

In Georgia, we dropped a mask mandate out of consumer demand. I had my employees masked because as an employer I wanted to be responsible in that way certainly, and we had other sanitation procedures in place. But I must say we had no breakouts in a restaurant. We never had to close. We never had any major issues. I look at some of the other states that were so massively control-oriented, and I wonder, was it really worth it? I was studying the statistics between Florida and California. You want to talk about two states that took opposite views. And it's interesting. The COVID numbers are about the same between the two. So numbers don't lie. And I don't think this should be a political thing. I think it should be a health thing and a statistical thing. We're all mature enough to make our own decisions.

But isn't that the problem? It's like everybody has to make everything political. How fitting, as we're here to talk about you new book, "The Power of Conflict." What made you decide to talk about conflict right now?

I had the idea about two years ago, and you look online and people are beating the heck out of –

Absolutely.

Insulting each other, being disrespectful to each other, robbing each other of their dignity. Then candidly, in as much as I like some of his policies, I thought President Trump was one who engaged in what I called meaningless conflict. If you're going to engage in conflict have it be worth something or don't do it at all.

I realized how this world of conflict is exploding. I started to pick it apart and really study it. And I found that without conflict, we'd probably be a fascist society today because Adolf Hitler would've taken over the world. Conflict is a dirty word in a sense, but it's not a dirty thing. 

"They edited that cut and they put it online as if it was an endorsement for Trump, which it wasn't. Man, I got a quarter of a million f**k yous online."

Let's say you and I were brothers and it's Thanksgiving dinner and we have opposing political views. If I engage in what I determine is meaningful, dignified, constructive conflict to talk about issues with you in a positive way, that's a good thing. We expand each other's minds. We learn about each other. We understand each other more. The minute it becomes undignified, that's when all hell breaks loose. That's when our society falls apart. 

I wanted to write a book that was completely non-political. The book takes no sides. It's really politically neutral. But the premise of the book is whatever your values are. And we all have opposing and different values, some of us. Whatever your values are, speak up or they're going to disappear. And that's where we're at as a society today. I don't think society should be silencing us from dignified, meaningful, constructive conflict. The word conflict has gotten too broad.

My generation, the social media generation, I feel like we owe an apology to the Boomers and the Gen Xers, because it seems like we've erased nuance. You plant your flag and that's what it is. We're not engaging in meaningful conflict. And you got to that in this book when talking about the different types of conflict. Your show "Bar Rescue" is a show that is full of conflict. You're dealing with people and their businesses. And, of course, they're bringing you in as the expert. Is that how honed your arguing skills? Or were you already like that? 

I certainly honed them. I've done about 240 episodes now over 11 years. So I'd like to think I'm better at it. But "Bar Rescue" taught me the whole premise of meaningful conflict. That I'm not here to fight with this person, I'm here to change them. If engaging in conflict is going to change them, then so be it. I'll engage in conflict because I'm doing it for the good, not for the bad. And I think that's the key point is, we should have a good purpose in conflict, not to squish each other. That serves no purpose.

RELATED: "Bar Rescue" in Puerto Rico: Helping a business — and community — rebuild after Hurricane Maria

You open the book with an exchange you had with a producer. I believe you tell him to go f**k himself.

I did.

I was thinking about how empowering that is to be able to have that power. But then it also made me think, well, when you make it in business, you have the luxury of being able to control how you interact with people. But what would you say to a person who couldn't afford to tell the producer to go f**k himself?

Well, it was easy for me to say that, even though the show was shut down and technically canceled for a couple of hours because of that. And people flew into another city and you read the story in a book and the president of the network, walked me around a block and said, "Look, Jon. We could have creative disagreements, but you can't tell the vice president of the network to go f**k himself." Well, I've told them all to go f**k themselves more than once after that, walking the block. I was willing to take the risk, but that wasn't meaningful conflict. See, I was a rookie back then. That was only the fourth episode. 

Today, I would go about it very differently. So telling your boss, your executive, to go f**k himself is probably not the smartest thing to do. But not engaging in meaningful conflict that can be constructive for your relationship or for the company is also not a good idea. So how do you do it right? You don't have to go to the "F**k you." We can engage in really respectful, meaningful conflict, and you have something to teach me. And I have something to teach you. And if we understand how each other feels, the world is a better place for it.

A few years ago when Trump was running for president and I went on one of the news shows and they asked me, "Of all the candidates in the Republican Party, who's best for business?" I said, "Donald Trump," because I thought he own business. He started a business. He sold a business. The other guys didn't. They edited that cut and they put it online as if it was an endorsement for Trump, which it wasn't. Man, I got a quarter of a million f**k yous online. "You're an a**hole," blah, blah, blah.

A few weeks later, I'm in New York City and I'm having lunch with a friend of mine, Whoopi Goldberg. Whoopi is my buddy. We post a picture of Whoopi and I online a few weeks later. And now the other side of the world, "F**k you, Taffer. How dare you'd be with Whoopi Goldberg?" But no matter what I did, I got cursed out.

It's this inability for each side to hear each other. I think you offer some valuable lessons in the book. What I would like you to do is if we can recreate that situation, right? I'm the executive producer, and I'm looking for drama. I'm looking for conflict. I want you to put some fake trash on the floor and some fake rats by the door. And then, instead of you telling me to go f**k myself, what would be the appropriate way to get the messaging across? 

That's a great question. I would start by saying, "Mr. Producer, you and I have a very common objective here. We want a great TV show. So what does it take to make a great TV show? Well, first of all, the employees have to trust me. They have to think this is real. If they think this is fake, then I can't make it real anymore, and it's over for me. You got to keep it real for me. And doing fake things, disempowers me from achieving your objective, which is a great show that's based in reality." That's how I would do it today. I would agree on a common objective that you and I have. You and I have a common objective. We would like harmony in a world, wouldn't we? We would love it, if people got along better. We would love it, if people communicated better. All these things would be great for us, for our kids, for everybody.

So let's embrace that common objective together, and say, "OK, how do we live together in a dignified way? How do we keep our ideas alive without insulting each other? We can do this." 

"'Bar Rescue' taught me the whole premise of meaningful conflict."

We've done it at different points in our society where we bind together. Look at Ukraine, almost all of us agree on that. None of us wants to see that go down. There are so many things that we all agree upon that are important to us all. We all share the same purpose, happiness in our lives. I think common objectives need to take the lead, rather than the little details that interfere with those common objectives. Big picture, let's keep each other happy. Let's keep each other dignified and let's respect each other's views.

When you're having these exchanges with people, one of the most powerful things you can do is identify what the common denominator is. We both want something, how do we collectively get there?

You bet.

What do you think is the most common thing people get wrong about conflict?

They think conflict is fighting. Conflict is like a dirty word. It's a nasty word. If you and I engage in conflict talking about, "What is the best hamburger?" "Oh, I like onions." That's just fun, but it's conflict. We're conflicting. "Oh, you're crazy. Onions are terrible." The fact of the matter, it's not a dirty word. Parents do it with their children all the time. Children test their parents in ways like that. Conflict is constructive. 

If you don't engage in conflict and you live that submissive life where you keep all your views and stuff to yourself, that's not healthy. It has bad physiological effects upon you. The fact is, sticking up for yourself is emotionally and physiologically healthy.

In your process in going on this journey, especially with being in television and everything, was there ever a time where one of your clients, or even you, had gotten it so wrong that it just couldn't be aired?

There's never been an episode that didn't air, except for one, which was in Nashville where we rescued a bar, and three weeks later, the owner shot somebody.

Wow.

Was convicted, went to prison. Of course, we had nothing to do with any of it. It happened weeks after we left, but it would've been in bad taste to air that episode. So we never did. Other than that, no. Everything has always worked out. If it doesn't, however, it plays out, it plays out. 

I've walked out and not rescued some bars. I've told people, "You're not worth it. I'm not doing it for you." I'm very fortunate. My network allows me to run my own show. I'm executive producer and host of it. I do what I want to do when I want to do it. I keep it real. I have no network people ever on set at my show. It's just me and my team. And I'm really lucky to have that freedom from the network that allows me to keep the show real. But I guess I've earned it too.

RELATED: Why it's (almost) impossible to argue with the right

You also talk about purpose-driven conflict. It's what we've been touching on throughout the conversation. What exactly is purpose-driven conflict?

Purpose-driven conflict is understanding I'm going to engage into a conversation with somebody with a very succinct purpose. I want to pull this person to me. I want to have a better relationship with them. I want them to think that we're not as separated on things as we want to be. That's a generic purpose. I just want to make us tighter together. Another specific purpose is, I want to change the way you have a view about something. 

So if I want to change your view and that's my purpose, I better go at it respectfully, which means I better listen to what you have to say. Really listen, really understand. We talk about that a lot in the book, and I need to go at it in a way that is purposeful, which means I stay on point. 

If I'm talking to you about how much your beard and your mustache look good on you, there's no reason to talk about your glasses, is there? We're talking about your mustache. So when we get emotional in conflict, that's when we go crazy. "Oh, your shirt is terrible and you're this," no. Stay on purpose. Win that singular purpose. That's what a great conflict is all about. 

"Someone who opens a bar and runs bars like me, never does it for myself. It's all about the customer."

I think if more people did that, then they wouldn't be scared of expressing their feelings and talking about what they need to talk about. There's a lot of people who just try to duck and dodge conflict. Isn't that sad when you think about?

It's terrible.

In the moment they believe that their views aren't important enough to stick up for. That to me is incredibly sad and almost speaks to a wasted life. You and I aren't best friends. We just met each other, right? But if we went out to lunch together, I'm curious to hear your views on things. You're a good guy. You're a smart guy. You're a man worthy of respect. I'd be curious to hear what you have to say. And if you disagree with me about things, I would expect that. We come from different cities with different kinds of people, et cetera. Isn't that wonderful that we're different?

The other day on social media, after the "Bar Rescue" episode on Sunday night some guy wrote on social media, "Taff, you rescued a great bar. You're a great TV host, but I don't like your politics." What the hell does that have to do with anything? And the guy's watching me rescue bars. His purpose was to say, "You put on a great show." Why bring politics into it? That's not the purpose that he even had. It's interesting how people just go crazy and lose sight of what their initial purpose was.

I don't know if you ever been to Baltimore, but the bar set up in Baltimore is a lot different when it comes to the small neighborhood bars. It's cut-rate in the front where you can come in and it's like a bulletproof glass and you buy, you get your carryout. Or you can get buzzed into the back and relax and have a drink in the lounge. Before I got into writing, that was my first business. There was a bar on that corner, and I was right in the middle of the block and I struggled. I struggled. I struggled. I struggled. What got me over the hump was the poker machines. I tried to leave some space for a dance floor and nobody would dance. People didn't want to dance. People wanted to have a drink and say, f**k their boss or whoever they work for, their family or whoever. When I added those poker machines, I tell you, I couldn't get into the door in my own place. This is before they legalized casinos in the state of Maryland.  It was a wild business though. It's great when it's working and when it's not working, when people are throwing up in the bathroom, then it goes off a little bit.

I was involved in Baltimore many years ago with Baltimore Live, an original sports bar, in the Inner Harbor there downtown. I know that city well. Every bar is a little different. The music that you play is a little different. Demographically, you have to be sensitive to who's coming. What do they like to eat? What do they like to listen to? How do they dress?

Absolutely.

All these things matter. Because you go to a bar that fits you, and that's a very personal thing. Someone who opens a bar and runs bars like me, never does it for myself. It's all about the customer and finding out what it is. And you found it, which is great.

Your book is full of stories of different disagreements and opportunities for conflict. And something that I found myself thinking about is, how do we start the conversation? How do we begin the conversation of understanding that every situation can be win-win? Is that too sappy?

No, I think that's right on the money. Let's say you and I disagree on some important issue. And I don't want to talk about politics, but let's say we disagree on immigration, whatever the hell that disagreement would be. And we engage in a conflict, and it's respectful and it's dignified. I hear your views. You hear mine. When we're finished, we hug each other and go have a beer. Isn't that a positive result? I didn't change your mind. You didn't change your mind. But we're closer together as human beings. We gained some respect for each other's views. I might not agree with you, but I understand why you feel the way you do. 

If we all understood the way we feel that we do, we would be inclined to be kinder to each other. We would be inclined to be more communicative with each other. That's the point. I don't have to make you agree with me. I want you to respect me. I want you to understand why I feel the way that I do. I know you feel the same way. You want me to respect you and understand why you feel the way you do. You don't want me to say, "He's a jerk because he feels this way." No, you're not a jerk because you feel that way. There's a million reasons why you feel that way, who you are, how you brought up, where you come from, all these things make a difference.

Absolutely.

That's positive. Whenever we learn about each other and pull closer together, to me, whether we agree or disagree on the purpose that we're conflicting about, the two of us are in a better place when we're done, if we do it right.

Let's close out with giving some advice for that person who is ducking arguments and hiding in alleys and all that.

You can't hide for the rest of your life. Your views are important. Don't diminish yourself. Don't think your views are unimportant. Don't think you're unimportant. Your view is just as important as the other person in the room. Have the confidence to believe in yourself and know that your opinions matter, and then fight for the ones that are most important. I probably shouldn't use the right, engage on the ones that are most important. And defend the things that are important to you. If you don't, I think it's a life wasted in many ways.

Watch more "Salon Talks" episodes with D. Watkins :


D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America” and "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new book, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," is out now.

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