Robert Irvine and Jon Taffer on Why Tipping is Here to Stay, Restaurants Fail, and Who Would Win in a Fight
TV personalities Robert Irvine and Jon Taffer hold court on the state of the restaurant industry.
Robert Irvine and Jon Taffer are two of the most recognizable faces in television. Yet, despite a relationship that Taffer heartily refers to as a “love fest” between the two, the forthright hosts of Food Network’s Restaurant: Impossible and Spike’s Bar Rescue, respectively, have never joined forces. Until now. At this year’s National Restaurant Association Show, which is set for May 21—24 at Chicago’s McCormick Place, Irvine and Taffer will present Reality Gets Real at 10:30 a.m. May 23 in the Grand Ballroom. Hosted by NRA chief innovation and member advancement officer Phil Kafarakis, the pair will talk about the state of the industry, as well as identify the pitfalls often responsible for sinking new operators. And both have seen their share of mistakes. Restaurant: Impossible and Bar Rescue are similarly premised shows where a struggling business tries to turn around their futures in a limited window.
Irvine and Tafffer took some time to speak with FSR associate editor Danny Klein, discussing why tipping isn’t going anywhere, so many restaurants don’t survive their first year, and how it’s possible for two people so alike to actually, well, like each other.
Tipping or no tipping? Where should the industry go from here?
Robert Irvine: I travel 345 days a year, just like Jon does, and tipping for me has always been, you know, you get good service, you make a lot more money. The minute we stop tipping, and this is my opinion, the minute we stop tipping, I think the service standard drops. And I'm using that as a broad stroke. I can't say that for every service standard, but I believe that you have to pay these folks what they're worth—they’ve got bills to pay. But I also don't want to be this person that turns around and says, ‘Well, now it’s OK to let excellence slip, and you can get away because you're getting paid anyway.’
Jon Taffer: Chef Robert and I agree on this completely. I’m going to say it a different way but I’m going to say the same thing. When we eliminate tips, we're eliminating the relationship between the guest and the employee. There’s a direct relationship between the two of them: I do good for you, you do good for me. We’re taking that direct relationship away and that really concerns me. I also really believe that at the end, when a restaurant taxes a 15 or 18 percent service fee on a check and pays the employee an hourly rate, the restaurant is going to make more money off the employee. And I believe that the employee gets ripped off, and I think this is self-serving for the restaurateur more than any employee. I told the story, I’ll tell it briefly, I used to do the 68 suites in the Target Center in Minneapolis; I charged an 18 percent service charge on my checks; I paid my employees $9 an hour back then, and I ran a negative 4 percent labor cost. So, there’s a lot of reasons to be uncomfortable with it, and both of us are.
With all of those negatives in mind, why do you believe some restaurateurs have decided to deploy no-tipping policies at their restaurants?
Robert Irvine: Danny Meyer, and all those guys, they’ve got big restaurants. They’ve got plenty of reasons. You know, $300 million of them, in fact, with Shake Shack included. For him, it probably makes sense based on what Jon just said. Because he can benefit as much as the server. But again, I go back to me. I tip based on service. I always tip 20 percent, but if someone is amazingly good, it can be as much as 50 percent. So, I think we’re hurting ourselves in the long run from a quality standpoint. That’s my take.
Jon Taffer: Imagine if you’re a server and you’re working one table because it’s not very busy tonight. You’re making $10 an hour, $15 an hour, an hour later, you’ve got five tables going—you’re making the same $15 an hour but yet during that hour you would have earned $100. The numbers don’t work. And I believe it’s self-serving, candidly. I do.
One of the major components of the no-tipping policy is the desire to benefit back-of-the-house employees. What are your feelings on this?
Robert Irvine: You talk about back of the house—I don’t know many restaurants, New York, Chicago, D.C., Philly, you name it, these guys in the back of the house are making $15, $17, $22—they’re all making great money. Sorry, our world of poor cooks is gone. Unless you’re working in, I don’t know where, but all of the places I know, they’re making great money. I employ these cooks. I’m opening a restaurant in four weeks in The Pentagon and I’m paying $20 plus, plus, plus per hour.
Jon Taffer: You know what’s interesting? In the bar space it’s a little bit different. Robert works primarily in restaurants that have bars, and I work primarily in bars that have restaurants. To me, very often, they’re very willing to throw minimum wage cooks in the bar environment because food is secondary to them. And the big fight that we have is that you can’t throw a guy that doesn’t know how to cook on a cooking line and expect something great to come out. I believe that taking from the front of the house to feed the back of the house is unreasonable. Invest in your back of the house, invest in your line cooks, invest in your guys, get quality back there, and it will succeed. Taking from the front and giving it to the back, I don’t think is a solution.
Robert Irvine: I’m 1,000 percent behind you on that. Again, when you talk about successful businesses, and both Jon and I are in that business of making people successful, you can’t put a $2 a hour guy in the back and expect something good to come out. People come back to your establishment and they create your reputation based on what you give them—that food, alcohol, and service. And if you can’t hit all three notes to excellence, you have no chance. A server can save a bad meal. A bad meal can’t save a server, sorry.
Moving on, what are some of the tips you share with restaurateurs when it comes to being successful? What are some pitfalls to avoid in this industry?
Jon Taffer: Restaurants are often like football games, you don’t necessarily lose the game, you run out of time. You can open a restaurant and run out of money in the first 90 days. If you had enough money and financial controls, you could have made it six months and turned it around. So restaurants fail for two reasons: they fail A. because they don’t have enough money and they run out of time. Or B. time wouldn’t have solved it because it was screwed up in the way it was run in the first place. And either case, there has to be a discipline of financial planning, controls, and leadership. You can’t wake up today and realize, ‘Uh oh, I’m out of money. How do I make payroll tomorrow?’ And they do that too often. Financial planning and leadership are the two big issues for me. One last point, and I know, unfortunately Robert and I don’t disagree on too much (laughs) …
Robert Irvine: No we don’t.
Jon Taffer: To me, rookies get in this business too often. They watch a Chef Irvine on TV and they say, ‘Wow, I can do that.’ And they go get in the business for social reasons. This is a HARD business. It’s not social. It’s not fun. It’s 20 hours a friggin day, sitting in front of your screen four hours a day managing your numbers. And they don’t get that when they go into it too often.
Robert Irvine: I would say the exact same. People get into this business that have no business getting into this business. They see a successful restaurant, and the biggest failing restaurant in the United States is an Italian restaurant, believe it or not, because everyone makes great sauce or gravy depending on where you come from. And your mom says, ‘Here, I’ve got some money. Go and start your restaurant. Either a pizzeria or a trattoria or something like that, and exactly what Jon just said, they bring all their friends over, and they’re having a good old time for the first three to six months. Then all of sudden they realize, ‘Oh, there’s no money.’ They haven’t managed it, they’ve got people stealing from them, and they’re not managing their business. And there it is. All of sudden that’s when Robert Irvine or Jon Taffer knocks on the door and you’re $600,000 or half a million in debt and you’re expecting 46 hours or 38 hours, or whatever the number is, for either of us to fix it. On top of that, then you throw in you’ve hired all of your friends, all of your family, and nobody’s leaving. It’s like the blind leading the blind. And you’re afraid to fire them because Uncle Fred said that Uncle Frank’s got to stay because they’re all family. You can’t run a business like that. There has to be clear leadership. There has to be clear roles and responsibilities. Financial accountability. And you have to be able to fire people. If you can’t fire somebody than you have no control. That’s 99 percent of businesses. We hire people based on a specific job. You’re the front-of-house manager, you’re the bartender, whatever it is, do your job. But I’ll say this again: If we don’t give them the training, the expectations that we have of them in their job and their role, and the tools to do that, then we have failed miserably in A. hiring them, and B. in giving them the tools to do their job and hold them accountable, which we can’t. Because we haven’t done that.
Jon Taffer: I always blame myself, Robert. Either I shouldn’t have hired him, I didn’t train him right, or I didn’t manage him right. In any of those cases, it’s my fault.
Robert Irvine: Somebody said to me, ‘I went to work with Donald Trump in 1997.’ They said ‘1,142 employees all sucked.’ And my answer to that boss was, ‘There’s no way they can all suck.’ Three hundred of them did, and they got rid of 300 of them. But you’ve got to look at yourself. If you’re not a good communicator, you’re not a good leader, and you’re not a good visionary for your business, and you have no idea, than how do you expect them to have an idea?
Are operators, in general, too unwilling to take the blame for their restaurant’s problems and failures?
Robert Irvine: Oh, yeah (laughs). It wasn’t me. It’s never me. There’s an old saying, I say this every episode of Restaurant Impossible, when you go in front of a mirror, if you don’t like that person, change it. Don’t change the mirror; change the person in the mirror.
Jon Taffer: Robert has never heard me say this, but I know he’s going to agree with me. After 130 Bar Rescues, I found the common denominator of failure. And the common denominator is what Robert just said: excuses. If Chef Robert wakes up in the morning and blames Obama, Congress, and the environment, construction, and the mayor for his failures, than he has no reason to change. But yet during the worst recession, during construction, somebody’s making money. So if he wakes up in the morning, looks in the mirror, and blames Obama, than he has no reason to change. But if he owns that failure, and wakes up in the morning and looks in the mirror and says, ‘I’m failing because of me.’ He’s not going to like it. And he’s going to change. Guys like Robert and I, when we show up and only have a limited time on TV, we have to make them own their failure or they’ll never own their success. And I bet you agree with that 1,000 percent, Robert.
Robert Irvine: Listen, I’ll give you 20,000 percent on that. Unless we take responsibilities for our own actions, that’s the good part and the bad part. It’s great when you open a restaurant and you can buy a round of drinks for your friends. But what happens when you can’t pay the person who’s got to pay the bills and has a 2-year-old in the household, and they can’t feed them. That’s the responsibility that we have. And I wake up every morning, and I have employees just like Jon has, and we have to go to work and do what we have to do whether we like it or not. So these people who get into this business, and I work with NBC, I work with Comcast, I work Sysco, I work with a lot of companies, and their business strategies have to be thought out just like a restaurant or a bar. We talk about Danny Meyer and tipping and all that, and there’s a guy who started off with a mission and made $300 million. Why was he successful? Because he thought about it. He didn’t go to sleep at night thinking, ‘Oh, it’s going to be great tomorrow. Let me just stay in for another two hours.’ It’s about passion; it’s about excitement, and compassion, and a great attitude. If you have them, you can learn anything you want. There is nothing, and again—I believe either of us would say this—nothing is is impossible if you have the commitment, the courage, the education, and knowledge to back it up.
Jon Taffer: I agree. There’s only one thing that guarantees success—my grandfather said this to me—only one thing guarantees success: you’ve got to be the smartest guy in the room. If you’re the smartest guy in the room, you’re going to be successful at some point. You’re never going to be successful being the dumbest guy in the room.
Robert Irvine: I know I’ve done OK at that, come on (laughs). Or surround yourself with smarter people than you!
Jon Taffer: The common experience that Robert and I share is different than other people because normally a consultant is hired—Robert and I are paid a good amount to go in and help a guy who wants to be successful. His head is in the right place, he’s just got operational issues. In Robert’s shows and mine, we deal with a depth of failure that’s unbelievable. And that depth of failure gives us a mountain to climb that’s steeper than most people. I would venture to say that experience, unlike anyone who hasn’t been on TV, we’ve learned more about failure than most people know about success. And when you learn the walk of failure, the talk of failure, the words of failure, the excuses of failure, Robert and I can smell that 200 feet away.
Robert Irvine: And you can see it. You’re exactly right, Jon. When you walk into the door, you know. It’s weird. You know as soon you walk in what the issues are. You know before he opens his mouth what he’s going to say, or she’s going to say because it’s right in front of you. And it’s funny, we’ve done over 800 TV shows. On 168 Restaurant Impossibles, we are 74 percent successful. Why? Because those people agreed to change. One thing we hate to do as human beings is have someone come in and tell you you’re doing something wrong. Then we go out, and they go back to their own way, and they fail.
Jon Taffer: I’m really proud of this. Robert and I have the same number. My track record is about 70 percent as well. And I would venture this, I won’t say names, but our peers don’t run half the numbers Robert and I do.
Robert Irvine: We care about these people and that’s the difference. I’ve got a guy that was five years ago, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Dodge City restaurant, he was a million something in debt, and I’m telling you, I surprised him a couple of weeks ago on a different show I was doing. I went in there for dinner, he just turned $1.7 million a year, and he’s doing crazy. And this was a guy that was on his hands and knees wanting to commit suicide. If they listen, they can change. Jon, I watch your show, because we are the same person, except I’m a younger, better-looking version, but that’s OK.
Jon Taffer: Let me leave it with one thought, and I know chef would agree with this, every failing restaurant has a failing owner. There’s no such thing as a failing restaurant with a winning owner. It doesn’t work that way. There’s no business, in my view, that’s more of a reflection upon a personality and the traits of an owner than a restaurant. Robert and I have to deal with the failing owner before we can deal with the failing restaurant. I’m guessing you agree with that, chef.
Robert Irvine: One hundred percent, really. There’s not much I disagree with you because we’re the same person, we have the same mentality, and the no nonsense attitude. I was in the military, we don’t have time. We get in there, we assess the situation, and we change it the best possible way we think it should be based on the surrounding bars, the surrounding restaurants, the surrounding whatever—the people we have in there to work it and the equipment they have in the kitchen to be able to put food out. A lot of people think, ‘Oh, yeah, you can put a 24-item menu in there and you’ve got one fryer and a grill top.’ No you can’t. Because if you can’t put the food out in 40 minutes, what’s the point of having a kitchen? We have to do something in a very short period of time, and to me and Jon—and I know you’ll agree with me on this—it’s not about television; it’s about helping people who are in dire straights because they put themselves there. And they expect us to come in like a knight in shining armor—and we do—and we give it everything for the time we’re there, and we give them the best that we’ve got. That’s it. You can’t do any more than that, except the follow up. And that’s what it is. We care.
Jon Taffer: The reason the two of us have been on TV so long is that we don’t give a shit about the cameras, excuse my language. It’s about us and the people, and the cameras are along for the ride, and I know you feel the same way, Robert. We go in and we do our thing and they’re along for the ride. The minute we play to those cameras, or think about those cameras, the show’s not real anymore, and the two of us won’t be on TV anymore.
Robert Irvine: And it has to be real, because people can see through fake. I had an 11-year-old, 300-pound autistic kid that was about to be evicted from his house a year and a half ago. I paid out of my own pocket for that house to stay in that mortgage. Unfortunately, last week that kid died. They sold the restaurant and got out of debt. That affects me, it affects Jon, and it affects people who care. Because we do care. Otherwise we wouldn’t do what we do every day. If people had not even half—if they had 10 percent the passion of what Jon and I have in what we do for helping people, then that’s not even just bars and restaurants—that’s our military, that’s people crossing the road. Everybody that we touch, even if they’re not in the bar and restaurant business, that watches either of our shows, they get something from it. And we forget about the auxiliary help that we give to folks.
Jon Taffer: We get hundreds of emails a month.
Robert Irvine: I had one this morning. His wife was 29 years old, I met him, they watch the show religiously—she died of cancer. She died watching the show and it was the most amazing thing for him. And we don’t realize that.
Jon Taffer: I had one who wore ‘Shut it Down’ T-shirts. That was their whole theme, ‘Shut it Down’ around their cancer. And their doctor’s name was Taff believe it or not. At the end of this, I can speak for chef when I say this, two things happen, figuratively. We get a hug, and we get a check. To me, the hug means a lot more than the check these days, and I bet you agree, chef.
Robert Irvine: Yeah, we donate the checks. We’d have built 400 homes by the end of the year for severely handicapped warriors and for me, and I’m going to get you, Jon, on some of this stuff, too, because I know you do a lot of this anyway, that is the thank you. I want to do some stuff and maybe one day we’ll get a TV show together, that would be cool.
Let’s talk about the state of the industry. What are you seeing in today’s restaurant world that piques your interest?
Jon Taffer: Everybody talks about trends and trends, and where are things going. You know, the oldest restaurant in any city is a steakhouse. Typically, the second oldest restaurant in any city is, of course, a seafood house. The trendier a restaurant is, the shorter its life cycle is. Trends are wonderful but trends have to be long lasting, and too often, rookies get into a restaurant environment that they create that’s so trendy that the nature of the trend is going to have a trend, and when the trend ends, so does their business. To me, I rely on things that I know are long lasting. I will manage innovation within an envelope of expectation that I feel manages risk. But managing concepts and managing placement concepts and fitting into the mainstream rather than fringe and niche markets. All of those things play a part in this, too.
Robert Irvine: You know what a trend is? Comfort food, great food, great service, great product at a great price.
Jon Taffer: That’s a trend that will last forever.
Robert Irvine: That’s never going away! We all want that. A value proposition to a guest is very different than a value proposition to an owner. And sometimes owners forgot that.
Jon Taffer: Great quote from J.C. Penny. J.C. Penny once said if you don’t take care of the customer, you’ll have no customers, and if you don’t care of the business, you’ll have no business.
So, how did you guys meet?
Robert Irvine: Actually, we met on Twitter. I have always admired Jon, even before the TV show. He’s the epitome of what I believe is an excellent operator, and an excellent human being. I only surround myself and talk to people—the Tom Hanks of the world—that do things for other people because they’re selfless. Jon is one of those folks that in the small amount of time I knew him on Twitter, I’m like, ‘I’ve got to meet this guy, I’ve got to talk to this guy.’ And we ended up meeting. Funny enough, you had just come back from France, right?
Jon Taffer: Yes.
Robert Irvine: Last time we saw each other at the airport. I was with my wife and you were with your wife and we ended up bumping into each other—literally into each other. It was funny.
Jon Taffer: We try to hook up in whatever city we’re in, but it doesn’t work out that often. I would say the same thing. I have huge respect for Robert, that’s why we’re looking forward to doing this panel together at NRA. To me, he is the epitome of success and everything that I stand for as well. We’re a love fest between the two of us, professionally and personally.
Robert Irvine: That’s because we’re real people. Real people stick together in life.
Jon Taffer: By the way, just as a funny comment, people post on Twitter all the time, ‘You and Robert, who’s going to win in a fight between Irvine and Taffer?’
Robert Irvine: It’s funny. Jon and I are best friends. I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me? I would probably kiss him more than I would fight him.’
Jon Taffer: People get a kick out of our friendship, and that’s great.
Robert Irvine: It’s because they don’t think two people who are very similar can actually co-exist. Everybody says, ‘You should do a show together.’ If I wasn’t on Food Network and Jon wasn’t on Spike, then maybe there would be a spinoff on CNN or something, I don’t know.
Jon Taffer: Oh, there’s no question we would do it, Robert. But we’re doing it for NRA. So, historically, Robert Irvine and Jon Taffer have been trying to do something together for years and this NRA event is the first time we’ve had a chance to do that, and we’re really excited about it.