Bar Rescue's Jon Taffer Says the New Season Will Have a Different Tone: 'People Have Lost Their Souls'
The nightlife expert also tells PEOPLE about the surprisingly "interesting thing" about the hard seltzer trend
"We shut down March 13, 2020 — abruptly — with seven episodes to go last season, which we never did," Taffer, 66, tells PEOPLE. "They can put you in a hiatus but after a certain period of time, the hiatus has to end and you have to go to the next season."
For the new season, which will feature Bar Rescue's 200th episode, Taffer focused his revitalization efforts on Las Vegas because he says Sin City "was hit more than any other city" by COVID-19. The hospitality expert didn't want to turn his attention to major spots on the Strip, but rather "local independent operations that have been devastated by the pandemic," Taffer shares. "I felt I could make the biggest impact here."
While he typically deals with stubborn owners, incompetent managers and untrained bartenders on Bar Rescue, Taffer didn't encounter disgruntled staffers and mismanaged bars this time around. Rather, he found people devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with their entire lives on the line.
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"I haven't walked in filth this season. I haven't walked into an owner disrespecting employees. These are not failed operators this time," he says. "Instead, I'm walking into a place of people that are demoralized. These people have lost their souls. They don't see light at the end of the tunnel. So rather than beating them up this year, I've got to motivate them. I've got to get them to feel good about their establishment again, so coming in and putting in great drinks and great food and doing a remodel for them."
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Taffer and his crew, who got tested daily for COVID-19 while filming, couldn't do their typical recon and stress test due to local health guidelines, so he set up a remote command center and brought in as many people as the capacity limit allowed — but had them place four times the number of orders to put the staff to the test. "I've had each person order four items, so I'm still creating the load of 100 percent capacity," Taffer explains.
The pandemic also made it hard for the Bar Rescue team to get a hold of fairly priced materials needed for the remodels. "There is no advance design. I design the bar when I get there that night, so we have literally 24 hours to order and get all the materials and supplies we need," Taffer says. "In a COVID world, man, that's not easy."
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But he of course pulled it off, with some high-tech features, such as hand scanners that check for viral matter and special air-scrubbing and sanitation technologies. "We've created, I believe, some of the safest bars in America this season by infusing these technologies into the space," Taffer says.
He relied on flavored spirits, especially whiskeys, for some fun cocktails, and sees flavored whiskey growing in popularity, especially among female-identifying customers. And not surprisingly, Taffer says "there's no end in sight" to the hard seltzer trend.
"The interesting thing about the seltzer business is we're finding that people aren't loyal to brands of seltzer, they're loyal to flavors," the TV personality, whose Taffer's Mixologist line offers hard seltzers, continues. "So if you love black cherry and you walk up to the case and you open the door and there's Taffer's Black Cherry and Truly Grapefruit, you're going to pick the black cherry."
This differs from the beer industry, where Taffer says people typically prioritize brand loyalty. Beer, however, "is getting destroyed," he says. "The only beers that are really doing well at the moment are Mexican beers and the light beers, and they're barely hanging on."
When Taffer wants to unwind with a drink, though, he doesn't head out to a restaurant or bar.
"I got a beautiful home bar," Taffer says. "I'm around so many people all the time, it's really nice to just sit and have a drink with my wife. Those are the things that I tend to enjoy."
Bar Rescue season 8 premieres Sunday (10 p.m. ET) on Paramount Network.