Using the above statement as its premise, Food Network’s reality program Restaurant: Impossible premiered in January 2011. Within those time and dollar constraints, Chef Robert Irvine must resuscitate a failing restaurant, and hopefully, launch it to profitability.
Irvine’s culinary training began with the Royal Navy, and he later cooked in the White House and at several high-profile casinos. What he did not do is work for three presidents and the royal family, as he once claimed. That bit of resume hyping was discovered in 2008, and briefly cost him a role on a previous Food Network show.
After assessing the problems with the restaurant, Irvine typically creates a plan for new decor, oversees the cleaning of the restaurant, reduces/changes the menu, improves the food, develops a promotional event, and educates/trains the restaurant's owners and staff. Irvine is assisted by an HGTV designer and Tom Bury, a general contractor.
The results? The show’s episodes have featured 118 restaurants. Of those, 62 have closed, four were sold, and 52 are still open with the same owners.
THE NUTS AND BOLTS
In most episodes the project seems hopeless: the food is sub par, the staff inept and the premises are a mess. Then Irvine, wearing his trademark black polo shirt, arrives, and through a mix of drill sergeant attitude and industry expertise transforms the business.
Under a contract signed by the owner of every featured restaurant, Irvine and his team can make (and pay for) any changes they want. The owners, who apply and interview to appear on the show, can only watch, learn and hope customers will love the results.
The last scene of every show is a grand reopening reveal with a full house of customers dining happily from a radically altered menu in a redesigned restaurant. Owner happy; customers happy.
Questions, however, remain: will the new customers become regulars? Will the regulars continue to come? In about half the cases the answer has been “yes.” At the other end of the spectrum, about half of resuscitated restaurants eventually have closed.
In many cases, the key to lasting success has meant dumping or replacing items on the menu that Irvine created:
- Meglio’s Italian Grill and Bar in Bridgeton, MO had to bring back its beef cannelloni. The dish comes frozen, and Irvine insisted the restaurant needed to offer more fresh food. However people in Bridgeton have been eating frozen pasta from that particular St. Louis supplier 50 years. And they like it.
- Villari’s in Palmyra, NJ, which was featured in the 2011 pilot episode, kept the new menu and identity for two months. Irvine had insisted on fancier fare, such as fillet with risotto and a demi-glace. Unfortunately the restaurant’s customers just wanted the filet and “none of the other stuff.”
OWNERS GIVE MIXED REVIEWS
Many owners rave about their Restaurant: Impossible experience. During a Season 2 episode, Dodge City owner Doug Krick Sr. was in awe when he got a look at his newly decorated Harrisburg, PA restaurant. Before his establishment was chosen for the show, Knick had decided to close: “We had two months left.”
The remodel gave the restaurant’s Western theme an upmarket atmosphere. A few of Irvine’s dishes were hits, including a bison taco appetizer and a steak with smoked tomato and blue cheese orzo. Krick feels his Restaurant: Impossible-ized Dodge City has succeeded because he realized it needed to say goodbye to its old customers: “We had no choice but to attract a younger crowd.”
For some owners, the Restaurant: Impossible experience was not the answer to their problems. Timothy Queisser, owner of the Indianapolis-based the Snooty Fox, which showed up in Season 2, later closed the restaurant. Irvine gave his restaurant a pub motif and added British entrees to the menu. Queisser lamented the change: “How often do people say they want to eat British?”
Other owners, like Dennis Fogg, find that sticking to their guns has guaranteed success. Fogg’s stand came in June, 2014, when Irvine and crew were making over Fogg’s diner, Uncle Andy’s, in South Portland, ME. During the 11 years that Fogg has owned the 60-year-old eatery, the pancakes he makes in whatever shape a child desires have been a big attraction, whether it’s a car, a map of the United States, a flower or a heart. But Irvine put the kibosh on them: “He told me the pancakes took too much time, and I needed to stop,” said Fogg, 53, who prides himself on making Uncle Andy’s family-friendly. “I told him he’d never seen a kid’s face when they get one of these pancakes.”
The pancake tussle, which Fogg won because he still makes them, was just one of several battles over the direction of Uncle Andy’s. But Fogg reports he can’t argue with the results. In the first few months after the Uncle Andy’s episode of “Restaurant Impossible” aired the diner’s business increased about four-fold. That initial boost has leveled off, and today Fogg says the family-run place is doing about twice as much business as it did before the show.
Like most reality shows, the program requires preplanning and good editing. The decorator actually shows up a month or two ahead to take measurements and start planning. Containers filled with materials arrive before Team Irvine, but restaurant owners are not allowed to open them.
And even owners who have undone Irvine’s changes say they do not rue the experience. They got to watch a pro at work, got a well deserved kick in the pants, and because of their participation, the show created a kind of celebrity for their restaurant.
John Meglio of Meglio’s Italian Grill and Bar (the one that had to bring back the frozen cannelloni) is still not sure if his restaurant will survive, more than a year after the episode was broadcast.
“What they did for us didn’t work,” Meglio said, “but I wish they re-aired our episode every week.”