When Restaurants Go Bad

Restaurant: Impossible's Robert Irvine shares the scoop on fixing disasters

Each week on the Food Network's Restaurant: Impossible, chef Robert Irvine gets two days and $10,000 to save a failing restaurant. On Wednesday, February 8, that restaurant will be Moss' Prime Rib and Spaghetti House in Elyria. Scene caught up with Irvine to chat about restaurants, stubborn owners, and social media.

Who initiates contact: you, the producers, or the restaurants? The restaurant owner has to initiate contact with the producers. I don't meet the family until the day of. I choose not to learn anything about them, and I choose not to learn anything about the restaurant. I don't want to prejudge them.

Any qualification to be on the show? We look for people in trouble. We look for people who are having financial issues, family issues. Nobody wants to look bad on camera, but the only way I can fix things is by learning how bad things really are and build from there.

Many of the restaurants on the show seem stuck in the past. Every couple or three years, a restaurant has to be refreshed — not only the menu, but the china, flatware, carpeting, pictures, bathrooms, kitchens. People have a successful restaurant for 20 years, and all they do is keep pulling money out instead of putting money aside for a rainy day.

Not only are these restaurants dinosaurs; the dining world has changed around them. Because of the Food Network, cooking shows, the internet, Twitter, social media, people now expect more because they know more. You know what quality is because you've read about it, had it someplace else. People know what they want.

Who are more stubborn: chefs or management? Sometimes it's the chef, sometimes it's the owners. They won't change anything. I find it all the time. "We can't lose our existing customers; they're our bread and butter." Uh, you're going bankrupt; they aren't coming in. What makes my job difficult are owners who are stubborn and don't know any different.

Do you tailor the changes to the talent and equipment on hand? You have to adapt the menu to the staff. The stuff I do is always going to be good, but it's geared towards simple, elegant, fresh food that can come out of the kitchen in six minutes.

I'll bet you've seen some scary stuff. We just did one in San Antonio, Texas. When we got there it was so bad, we had to take everything — the kitchen and the restaurant — back to the studs. Have you seen the movie The Mummy, with all the mice? That's exactly how many cockroaches came out of these walls. It was so bad.

How much can being on the show really help? When I put menus in, I make it so we can serve between 300-500 people on opening night, because that's the biggest boost. It's not just all the chatter but the revenue. I can give a restaurant anywhere from $7,000 to $15,000 on that opening night.

What kind of follow-up do you guys do? It's funny, two weeks ago a guy in a restaurant we made over in Florida ordered a steak and a salad, and he tweeted "I got my steak before my salad." I had my executive chef call the restaurant and say the guy got his bloody steak — what's going on?! Thanks to social media, I get to keep my eyes on these people without even going there.

How often do restaurants revert back to their old, crappy ways? Some do change back to their old menus — and they fail. Those that have done what I said and tweaked their menus do very well. Out of 37 shows, 33 or 34 are doing gangbusters. It obviously works.

So, how'd it go at Moss' Prime Rib? It was a tough show. I got very upset with one member of the family because he tried to tell me that I was ruining his business. I said, "Who are you to spoil this moment for your mother when you are in so much debt?" I kicked him out of the restaurant.

A little dose of tough love? I'm OK being a tough guy. There are no second chances, and I always have the family's interest at heart. I never thought I would get vested in each family, but when you listen to their plight — a husband who shot himself because he couldn't pay his debts, leaving behind two kids, a wife and half-million-dollar debt — I take that personally. That's why I push for the best possible results.

What advice do you offer somebody who wants to open a restaurant? Unless you've got six months to a year of money in the bank, you've worked for somebody else and understand the kitchen, the service, the ordering, all of it — and you're good with people — don't do it. But you'd be amazed how many do it anyway.

About The Author

Douglas Trattner

For 20 years, Douglas Trattner has worked as a full-time freelance writer, editor and author. His work on Michael Symon's "Carnivore," "5 in 5" and “Fix it With Food” have earned him three New York Times Best-Selling Author honors, while his longstanding role as Scene dining editor garnered the award of “Best...
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