“Bar Rescue,” the bar makeover show born just a handful of years after the Great Recession, is now entering its eighth season — and hitting a milestone 200th episode — as a battered hospitality business once again attempts to emerge from another economic downturn, this time caused by the devastating COVID-19 pandemic.
Host and executive producer Jon Taffer says to expect the upcoming season on Paramount Network to be an emotional one — “more emotional than any other we’ve done in the past because these people aren’t failures. These are people who are running successful businesses and the pandemic or Mother Nature, if you will, took their businesses away from them. It’s reminiscent of the hurricane episodes that we’ve done over the years, where the owners weren’t failures, but circumstance put them in that situation.”
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It’s also a very personal season, since it takes place entirely in Taffer’s hometown of Las Vegas, where the leisure and hospitality industry has been especially hard hit by the past 15 months of restaurant closures and travel restrictions, sending unemployment rates spiking.
“We’re a singular economy here, with strictly a tourist-based, hospitality-based economy,” he says. “I really saw Las Vegas as a city that was most devastated by the pandemic.”
One family featured in an upcoming “Bar Rescue” episode lost their house three days before the film crew arrived, forcing the business owners and their four young sons to sleep on the floor above the restaurant. The producers put them up in a hotel room while shooting the episode.
“The stakes this year are much higher,” says Taffer. “People’s lives are really on the line now.”
The pandemic presented a number of challenges to filming safely. Instead of coordinating initial in-person visits, Taffer’s team installed cameras inside the targeted bars and built a command center of sorts, from which he could review all the footage while surveying each bar for the first time.
“I actually see more in the command center than I used to see when I did normal recon because I have so many cameras and am looking in the kitchen and bar and customer areas all at the same time,” he says. “So that’s worked out very, very well.”
Taffer prides himself on what he calls “shadow production,” in which he aims to let the drama unfold realistically and without interference beyond his presence. “If any of the employees know any of the names of my producers at the end of an episode, the [producers] blew it.”
The coronavirus-related restrictions also meant that other parts of the production had to be coordinated differently. For the public stress test — i.e. the part of the show in which Taffer invites customers to visit so he can see the bar in action — producers could only allow each bar to open at 25% capacity. The same went for the post-makeover grand reopenings.
That doesn’t exactly mimic a realistic pre-pandemic setting, so Taffer and his team asked each customer to order four times as many dishes and drinks to offset the reduced capacity, especially since Nevada state officials planned to reopen businesses at 100% capacity at the start of June.
They were “getting these businesses ready for that opening, so we tried to simulate what 100% would be like, even though we had 25% of the room,” he says. While he lauds the government relief packages that have sustained the restaurant industry over the past year, he also says that there’s been a “massive problem” getting hospitality staffers back to work, blaming it on extended unemployment benefits. A recent J.P. Morgan Chase Institute study, however, found that more than half of all jobless workers receiving a $600 weekly benefit went back to work before it expired.
Among Season 8’s featured bars are a Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) hall whose older patrons are at high risk of COVID-19. “Because they’re older demos, we put in special air-scrubbing equipment and hand sanitizing equipment and all sorts of things to make sure that they would be safe,” Taffer says.
The dire economic circumstances do not mean the season will be devoid of Taffer’s signature tough love, however — an attitude that has been an undercurrent of the show from the very beginning.
“Bar Rescue” debuted in 2011 on Spike TV, which has since been rebranded Paramount Network, with a shouty Taffer telling owners of struggling bars exactly how he thinks they’ve steered their business wrong. Former Spike TV originals executive vice president Sharon Levy, now chief content officer at Endemol Shine North America, remembers the initial sizzle tape well.
“It was Jon doing what Jon does,” she recalls. “I remember there was [one of] those horrible paper fake flags that cheap bars hang [that say], ‘Michelob,’ and Jon ripping one of those down and laying into this poor bar owner. I thought, ‘Oh my god, this guy tells it like is.’” Paramount Network’s then-president Kevin Kay would ultimately greenlight the series.
While Taffer has “insanely honest personality,” Levy also recalls his concern for the health of the business.
“As much as he would get loud with one of the bar owners or staffers who weren’t pulling their weight, he really cares that these people turn their businesses around,” she says. “There was a genuine caring. It wasn’t yelling just to yell.”
Taffer’s public scoldings aside, much of the show’s fireworks come from the tension between bar owners and their employees, or conflicts between the families that often run these small businesses. That is also part of the show’s resonance and appeal, says Levy.
“I always looked at ‘Bar Rescue’ as a really interesting way to do a family drama because the bar business and the restaurant business to an extent, a lot of them are run by families,” she says. “It’s that working environment where perhaps they should have more HR.”
While Paramount Network features a great deal more variance in programming than Spike TV’s very men-focused slate, “Bar Rescue” remains on the schedule. The show is a fan favorite on Sunday nights and “complements our general entertainment schedule,” says Tanya Giles, general manager at MTV Entertainment Group, noting that the most recent season premiere’s ratings were up 18% versus the prior season’s average on share. “Paramount Network has succeeded in its evolution from a male-skewing network to a gender balanced destination. We are the home of the No. 1 show on cable with ‘Yellowstone’ and feature strong movie titles throughout the week in primetime.”
Of all the bars Taffer has made over, he does have a few favorites, such as Spirits on Bourbon in New Orleans and MoonRunners Saloon in Garner, N.C. Ultimately, all of them got him one step closer to this important milestone, though, and achieving that — as well as seeing “the numbers that we do every week, I feel like I’ve been hugged by America every week,” he says. “And it’s an incredible feeling. So I’m just incredibly appreciative to the industry and all the fans.”
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