In Restaurant Impossible, Robert Irvine goes into a failing restaurant (which has asked to be on the show), and with a budget of $10,000 attempts to “fix” this restaurant in two days. This can include any – and – everything: the menu, the cooks, the decor, the business/management/financial problems, cleanliness, kitchen equipment, advertising, and service. It’s a tall task. And it’s one that begs the question:
Is this in the best interest of the restaurant?
As with many things, this is not an easy yes or no answer. Let’s start off by looking at the general outline of the show and some of the obstacles that Robert is often up against in these shows.
Robert generally enters into some type of “diner-esque” restaurant, briefly chats with some of the customers eating there (if there are any) to get a snapshot assessment of their opinions of the food and restaurant. He then speaks briefly to the owners to get a brief statement on the extent of the restaurant’s trouble (i.e. “You’re losing x $ per month?” “You would be closed in x months if I weren’t coming here?”). This not only gives us insight to the dire straits that the restaurant has entered into, but it also sets up Robert to be the hero who comes marching in to save the day (often swinging around a sledgehammer dramatically).
He then samples several dishes and decides that it is all disgusting. He heads into the kitchen to ask the cooks why the food is so disgusting and generally finds the kitchen to be completely disgusting and in violation of several health code regulations. At this point he becomes exasperated, demands that the kitchen be cleaned or shut down, and then comes up with a short action plan for turning the restaurant around (nearly always consisting of: food quality, management, decor, and sometimes a couple of other throw-ins). Then Robert brings in his designers who decide on the new decor, he meets with the cooks to work on their skills and the overall menu, and he meets with the owners to talk about financial/management problems. We finally appear to get through to the stubborn owners and cooks at this point that in order to be successful and make money, they have to change and listen to Robert’s advice. Then there is a mad dash to try and get the decor of the restaurant settled so that the restaurant can have it’s grand reopening where everyone will love the new decor and food.
Then we fade out and Robert will usually give us some general idea as to how the restaurant is doing one or two months down the road (or he will tell you to check out the website). That is the formula of the show. Insert whatever restaurant and its few unique twists and turns and you’ve got just about all 50 episodes summarized.
Back to the question: Is this in the best interest of the restaurant?
Still not an easy question. Hmm…let’s consider at least a few pros and cons.
Tough love vs. Dramatic Confrontation:
Tough Love:I think that a lot of these restaurant owners need this. They have no idea how to run a successful restaurant but continue on as if they do… In fact, many of these owners insist that they know plenty about the restaurant industry (always an interesting assertion when you’re losing thousands of dollars a month). These stubborn owners often need someone with authority to tell them that what they are doing is wrong. Let’s face it, these restaurants are failing. The food quality probably is poor, they aren’t well-managed, and the kitchens are disgusting. They need a wake up call.
Dramatic Confrontation: I often wonder if Chef Robert has to be quite as loud and confrontational as he is. He is an accomplished chef going into little diners, whose cooks often have no formal training, and yells about how terrible the food is. While I do understand the need for the “tough love” especially with stubborn owners (see above), I think it’s a fine line and one that Robert often plays up for the camera. To tell someone that he/she doesn’t care at all, or to berate him/her in the kitchen (when only months ago they were washing the dishes or have had no formal training – not at all uncommon in these diners) seems a little over-aggressive in some cases.
Show business vs. Longevity
Show Business:People love these kind of dramatic make-over shows, whether it’s for individuals, homes, or in this case, restaurants. Trying to do the “impossible” in only two days only adds to the drama and excitement. Will Robert be able to do it again? Will the designers finish in time? Will this restaurant be a completely different place? These dramatic and quick “show business” fixes all make for great television…
Longevity: Will these quick and dramatic fixes last? That’s the real question that needs to be examined. Can working with an untrained cook for a day and a half really fix the food problem? Will a few hours of business and cost management strategies with an owner fix the months or years of mistakes and bad habits that have caused the restaurant to fail? Will an entirely new identity for the restaurant attract a sustainable customer base? (i.e. Will they lose the “regulars” that they did have and if so, will the new place be able to replace them plus additional diners?) These are the types of issues that the restaurant needs to think about long-term if it wants to survive and thrive into the future. If it were all about helping the restaurant succeed, then we would probably see a model that emphasizes some sort of long-term plan or mentorship that truly teaches successful strategy and behavior over a much longer period of time. Probably much less drama and excitement to this method.
In the end it’s all about that…
Second Chance: Regardless of whether these owners truly deserve it (some do more than others), they are being given a second chance to make their restaurant work. They are getting a “make-over” that they alone could not have done, as well as some guidance and basic tools for success. Though this may not be sufficient if we really have the best interests of the restaurant in mind (instead of simply making exciting television), it is still almost certainly better than nothing.
So while there are both good things and problematic things with the show, I would argue that they are getting a better shot at success through the show than if they were simply left alone. Could the show potentially put more emphasis on the restaurant and lasting solutions – absolutely. But it’s at least something.
*They did produce a “behind the scenes” episode of Restaurant Impossible not too long ago, and they do admit to some restaurants failing, though they point out they are usually “successful” (they claim about an 80% success rate). They also do state that what you see as far as Robert’s personality and the general process of the restaurant rescue is very close to the actual reality (i.e. there is not a lot of “staged” drama – it’s all real). This was produced by the Food Network, so of course, we should always consider the source of our information. I’d be very interested to check out some of these places from a more independent source a little ways down the road (a year or two – assuming they are still going).