An app to save your bar: Jon Taffer talks us through BarHQ (Interview)
Anyone with an interest in the bar business and a stomach for reality television is probably familiar with Bar Rescue, the SpikeTV phenomenon that’s brought bar and nightclub expert Jon Taffer to living rooms worldwide since 2011. The show follows Taffer as he drops in on failing bars and restaurants all over the nation, solving their business woes through a regimen of on-the-job training, elaborate renovations, and often-scathing criticism.
But Taffer’s not content merely with hosting a hit TV show and overseeing a consulting empire that includes one of the biggest annual conventions of its kind. His next move will see him jump from the TV screen to the tablet and smartphone scene with BarHQ, an app designed to revolutionize the bar and nightclub space, available now for Android and iOS. And Taffer didn’t just sit on the sidelines for BarHQ’s development. He guided the app’s creation from storyboard to delivery, and he’s finishing construction on a studio built specifically to shoot video content for BarHQ users.
We sat down with Jon to talk about how the app works, why he built it, and what it’s like to go from TV personality to app designer.
Pocketnow: I want to start by asking you where the idea for BarHQ originated. What made you decide that the next step for you is an app?
Jon Taffer: I run the Nightclub and Bar Convention in Las Vegas and I’ve been supportive of the industry for thirty years, so giving back and teaching has always been very important to me. And in the thirty years of my career I learned everything about success, but I did not learn, really, about failure. In Bar Rescue I got exposed to failure at a very deep level. You’ve never been exposed to failure like I have … I did a bunch of rescue tours the past few years, and every city I did was sold out [full of] bar owners who were in trouble. And [at every tour] I got literally thousands of emails from bar owners who a) couldn’t get a seat, or b) didn’t have money to travel. I’ve just been faced with thousands of emails from troubled bars over the years, and it’s hard to read these every day and not do something.
So I came up with this idea to create an app. And the premise of the app is this: every problem in the bar business goes away when there’s sales. You increase revenue and you solve every problem. It’s when the revenues are low that [the business] doesn’t work. So I wanted to put together an app that focused on top-line revenue, guest experience, and business management in a more organized way.
P: How does an app do that for a bar?
JT: I know that this audience –many of them– are not technically savvy; many don’t even have POS systems. So I wanted to make it easy, fun; I wanted to put videos in it so that it would be as user-friendly as possible. I wanted to give them real tools to boost sales … to schedule their employees … and I wanted to provide a platform where I could provide bar owners –for free– with training that they could give to their staff.
P: We’ve toured a lot of those features in BarHQ, and it definitely looks robust. But it’s not the only app out there; there are other titles in Apple’s App Store like RPM and FoodOps, for example. What does BarHQ do better?
JT: Well first of all I think some of it has to do with me and my brand. I’ve had a best-practices reputation in this industry for a long time. I don’t know anything about those other apps, because in the bar space, there really are none. So what you’re talking about is more restaurant apps … and I wonder if those have the top-line revenue potential of my app.
Let me just walk you through the BarHQ process for a moment. You sign up for the app, you put in the name of your place, call it “Dean’s Bar.” You get your ID code, you send it out to your employees, and they sign up for the app – and when they do it goes out over their social channels as well. So the app now knows who you are, as a bartender let’s say, what your social channels are, and knows a little bit of information about you.
With all that in place, the app tracks your sales every day. So if your [bar] guest counts go down from one day to the next day, it’s gonna tell you you’ve got a problem. It’s gonna flag it and it’s gonna steer you to solutions to reverse the trend.
P: So if I have 25 people in Dean’s Bar one night, and the next night I have 22 people, the app will tell me I have a problem.
JT: Yes. In that case, you lost over 10% of your guests. Son of a gun! That’s a big deal! So yeah, we flag that in real time. And then there’s a promotions area with fifty promotions. There’s promotions for sports bars, for ladies’ night, for happy hour, for late night, for dance clubs, there’s everything from sexy promotions to trivia promotions to music promotions, entertainment promotions, singles promotions, et cetera.
P: There’s a diamond one in there too, I saw.
JT: That’s right. So you decide which one you wanna run, how often you wanna run it, what your featured beer is, what your featured wine is. When you’re all finished, you push a button and a flyer is sent to your mailbox in PDF format so you can print flyers if you choose, that same graphic is placed on your social marketing page for Dean’s Bar, and it pushes through to all your employees’ social media pages on the schedule you chose. All of that happens in literally five minutes. I don’t believe any app does anything like that anywhere.
P: I was looking at some of the costs of those other apps, one of which wants $40 per download. Your app is free, yes?
JT: That’s right. And then there’s the scheduling component, which is usually a nightmare. Say you’re an employee at Dean’s Bar and you submit a request for a day off. Dean then gets a push notification prompting him to approve the day-off request, and he approves it. Later on if he tries to schedule you on that date, the app won’t let him do it.
Or let’s say that you’re sick the morning you’re supposed to work. You do a “who wants to work my shift” broadcast and the app sends it out to all the employees. And some guy named George who’s scheduled to work another night immediately responds and says “I’ll take the shift.” The shift request comes to Dean, he approves it, and the minute he does, everyone’s schedule changes in real time on all their phones. It’s a push of a button. What we used to do in an hour, takes literally minutes now.
The employees don’t know each other’s personal information. So you can send a request to, say, Cathy to pick up your shift, but you don’t know her phone number; you don’t know her address; you don’t even know her email. Employees usually throw all that information around and are sometimes endangered by this, so there’s a whole security aspect. It’s a great, safe system.
P: And this means that every employee has to have a phone running the app.
JT: Yes. And we’re on both [iOS and Android] platforms. And if you look at the younger demographic where our [employees] usually are, then you’re getting into pretty contemporary phone equipment.
P: Are there any plans to build this app for some of the less popular platforms like Windows Phone or BlackBerry in the future?
JT: We’re really putting all of our resources into growing this app; I don’t see us making that move at this time.
P: There’s some more functionality in here too.
JT: The training part. I built a studio in Las Vegas; it’s a big beautiful studio with a bar in it and we’re producing content. Some is for management development; some is about upselling; then we have a whole series of employee programs. All the videos are short, 2-3 minutes tops and they all get pushed first to the owner and through him or her to the employees. An informational video on whisky, let’s say. Teaches you what you need to know and how to up-sell it. If you complete the video and then complete six questions after the video, you get a “Whisky Master” badge.
P: Why do I want to earn a badge?
JT: You do the same thing on the other programs and keep getting badges, Promotion Master, Whisky Master, Service Master, et cetera. As you accumulate [enough of] those badges, you can come to Las Vegas for free to the Nightclub and Bar Convention. And of course the bar owner can create his own promotions. So the employee with the most badges gets preferred shifts, or first shot at day-off requests.
So I’m growing the top-line sales ability of the employees. I’m growing the top-line sales potential through promotions and social media. I’m having [owners] focus on top-line sales potential by tracking it by the day, and giving them updates on how they’re doing. And there’s no app in the food and beverage space –that I know of– that does all that for free.
P: Now with these videos being made in the studio, will they feature all you, or a mix of you and other experts?
JT: This is about providing the best training we can in the world. In some cases I’m the guy to do that. In other cases I bring in a lot of my experts, just like I do on Bar Rescue. So you’re gonna see my chefs come in, my mixologists come in … a beer individual will come in and teach.
P: How much volume are we talking? A video a week, several per month?
JT: We kick in with the video program right after the first of the year, and we’re planning on 4 to 5 per month. We’ll have months where bonus videos are scheduled; for example on the commencement of football season we’ll do a video on how to promote football [at your bar], how to promote baseball, or how to get the most out of playoffs.
P: BarHQ is kind of a niche app; how’re you planning to get the word out?
JT: Can I be cocky for a minute?
P: I wish you would.
JT: I won’t share numbers, but I was told that in our first two days on the Apple App Store, we achieved far more downloads than the typical app does in its first thirty days.
P: Congratulations. And as the app grows, there seems to be built in space for it to expand. And you’re always pushing POS systems on your show; do you see any point in the future where BarHQ could assume that functionality?
JT: That’s the next update. First quarter of next year. We’ll add in eThor, if I’m not mistaken – a system that interconnects with POS systems, tracks real time data, and we’re even gonna be offering a package where owners can lease a POS system from a third party that BarHQ can interact with. So yes that’s the next logical step for us. And we’re also adding an inventory system that actually takes inventory with the camera on your phone.
P: Building an app is a lot different than saving a bar or hosting a TV show. What’s been the biggest challenge for you in developing BarHQ?
JT: You know it’s not dissimilar from doing a TV show. It starts with storyboarding the screens: what’s the screen sequence and how does it work? How does it flow? Those are the images you start with, in creative, and then you really really excited about it. You understand the interaction of every screen and it’s “storyboarded” out. And everything’s perfect.
Well, then it’s coding time. And you sit down with the coders. And that’s a very frustrating process. And I’ve gone through, I don’t know … sixty builds? To get where we are now. So, you know, every build is its own challenge. Every build has problems. But every build also yields better ideas. Sometimes a build is a successful build –we did it right– but we came up with a better idea [in the meantime] so we have to build it again anyway!
So the fact of the matter is: when you’re doing a project like this, you try to make it better every moment. And a lot of people get frustrated. But I surrounded myself with a good team of people and I’m really proud of the work we’ve all done. All I can say is –I’ve learned this in my business– don’t let the process frustrate you; focus on the end. Because the end is pretty wonderful. Just fight it out.
P: You’re no stranger to using technology and that shows in the feature load. It’s gonna be interesting watching this grow over time.
JT: It’s like my baby. I’ve never quite had something like this; it’s fun. I get to watch engagement on this now; how often people use it and what they use and that will teach me how to make the app better … which promotions people pick and what generates the highest sales.
P: One final question for Bar Rescue fans: will this app save restaurant owners from turning their place into a meat sauna?
JT: Oh yeah. I see less meat saunas. I see a lot less pirate bars too.