Restaurant Impossible

17 Sep

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.

Tom, the head builder of RI.

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.

Hashing things out with the owners…

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).


Posted by on September 17, 2012 in Budget/$$, Food, Media/Movies/TV


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16 responses to “Restaurant Impossible

  1. Robert irvine

    September 18, 2012 at 1:48 AM

    Do they last , well out of 50 restaurants done this year , 45 are still up and running making money .
    Do they change elements of there menu over time ? Yes of course that’s Business.
    The real question is ???? Where would they be if I hadn’t visited , Answer closed and families out on the streets and many Divorced.
    I don’t play to cameras , I play to people as I listen to there problems . I am there last hope . Thanks . RREAL PEOPLE , REAL PROBLEMS, REAL SOLUTIONS


    • Jeff

      September 18, 2012 at 11:48 AM

      I agree that Chef Irvine’s presence probably does help the business from failing. Here’s my question: Are the businesses remaining afloat because of the changes implemented, or is it merely an “Irvine bump”? I often check the website of the place when I’m watching the show. That’s fascinating. Not only do a lot of the places “change the menu over time” which we are reminded above is “business,” they are likely to shed the revolutionary things that Chef Irvine puts there and revert back to the way things were. Yelp reviews and the like will attest to this (something else I check out).
      So, if we control for changes in menu (which a lot of these places do for us by reverting), a large part of the show, we are given two reasons for the continued or renewed success of the business. First, we can say that the decorum of the dining room, kitchen, and staff have been altered for the better. While I may not agree with all of the design team’s choices in terms of aesthetics, it’s pretty objective that they change these things for the better. Second, and likely to trump the first, is that the show gets people to head to the restaurant. The show is in syndication; I believe it appears on both Food Network and other members of the Scripps family. Reruns are easy to run into. The RI in my neighborhood went six months without me seeing the show. But, these places gain exposure from this constant stream of reruns. Also, people are interested to see the change, and go to a place that was the subject of the show. If not, I’m sure none of the restaurants would advertise this on their websites. Many do.
      I agree, the show depicts “RREAL PEOPLE, REAL PROBLEMS, REAL SOLUTIONS (sic),” but I’d think the relationship between those things and the renewed success of the restaurant is nothing if not spurious. I don’t think much, if any, of the show is “fake,” but I do have to question if it is the “REAL SOLUTIONS” that change the business or the influx of business related to the entertainment machine. So, the question is: If Robert Irvine revamps a restaurant in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it stay afloat?
      Keep in mind, this comment is written by a complete novice in the workings of a restaurant, but a PhD student studying the relationships between entertainment and economics.


      • trokspot

        September 18, 2012 at 3:59 PM

        I had similar questions about the “Irvine bump” (nice coinage there) vs. actual habits being changed. Again, I have some doubts about the skills and business practices being fully reformed (and bad habits broken: ‘old habits die hard’) in only 2 days. So your assessment about the likely bump from publicity is a good one. Another reason, I’d like a slightly later evaluation (2-3years down the road) as this publicity has probably worn off, at least in part.


    • trokspot

      September 18, 2012 at 3:52 PM

      If this is Chef Irvine (I sometimes have friends who like to comment under celebrity aliases),
      First of all, thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment! I appreciate it.

      I think the best place to start is with your question: “where would they be if I hadn’t visited?” I think that’s a perfectly legitimate point, and one that I tried to make clear in my assessment – having you come is certainly better than not having you come. You provide funds, expertise, and publicity that the restaurant desperately needs. It’s very obvious that these places you visit are on their last leg and ready to close down without the outside help you provide.

      My only real question is – is the rescue fully designed to help the restaurant to its fullest in the long-term… I think that some sort of long-term mentoring (both in the kitchen and management/finances) would probably be needed. Teaching these kinds of skills in 2 days and expecting all of those lessons to stick seems unlikely (as the commenter above asks: do they revert back to their old bad habits? Still, I will agree that a 2 day crash course in restaurant management and a 2 day crash course in cooking is much better than nothing!). That is also why I ask the question as to where these places might be 2-3 years down the road (have they gone back to their old ways??).

      That being said, 45/50 is an extremely good success rate that is hard to argue with (assuming they are operating in the right direction and not just operating at a loss like they were before). And again, even if they don’t make it long-long term, then you did at least give them a second chance which is definitely better than nothing!


    • trokspot

      September 18, 2012 at 3:53 PM

      PS. Even if you aren’t the real Chef Robert, I appreciate you stopping by and making some comments. They are good points for discussion and debate!


    • Your English Teacher

      September 19, 2012 at 11:16 PM


      THEIR menu, THEIR problems, THEIR last hope. You are obviously better at restaurant turnaround than grammer. I enjoy your show.

      Signed, Your English Teacher


      • Mick

        March 29, 2013 at 5:39 PM

        @ Your English Teacher: I trust your reply was meant to be a joke!
        The word is grammAr not grammEr. Yikes.


    • Tina Rector

      November 13, 2013 at 9:49 PM

      Chef, I love your presence and abilities, admire your strength and compassion, really enjoy your show. Actually cry sometimes. Not a big cry! But what happens in those 48 hrs can be very moving. Thank you. Tina


  2. giaguara

    September 20, 2012 at 4:57 PM

    I like the show – I think it’s the only one in Food Network that I bother to watch any more actually… everything else is cupcakes something, extreme something, or food trucks (and not even creatively combined – just imagine cupcake wrestling for instance). Or Iron Chef (which lost the charm after reading about how it’s actually filmed. No surprise ingredients and they know the secret ingredients way in advance)

    I find it amazing that people who have zero experience in food industry buy restaurants costing hundreds of thousands, and put their house and life savings to it, without then as much as doing some basic management school for it. What would $10k be if you learned how the business works? Cheaper than just ignoring what you don’t know but you should. This week’s show was amazing in the cluelessness of the owner. No clue about restaurant industry, and also could not cook. How could they even stay in business that long?


    • trokspot

      September 20, 2012 at 7:20 PM

      Exactly. got it at an auction on a whim because it seemed like it might be fun?!? Crazy to dump money into something that you have no clue about. Not just business, but she wasn’t even a good cook and didn’t like cooking. crazy.

      but I do like the show and watch as well.


  3. Rhys

    October 10, 2012 at 12:13 PM

    I have to agree about some of the methods used in Restaurant: Impossible. There isn’t a long-term strategy that we get to seem employed n the episodes and that may have something to do with the failure to success rates. Sometimes the inabilities to follow through with basic steps of keeping your business successful make it impossible to stay in business. This show tries its best by preparing the owners with the basics and then leaves the rest up to them. I’ve recorded every episode this season on my Hopper so I can go back later and catch up on the show. I can’t help but wonder if the show would be more successful if there was a follow up show that checked in on the progress of restaurants and then expanded on the ideas that were originally left with the restaurant. My DISH co-worker says that this would make the show too much like Gordon Ramsay’s franchise of shows. I can see that but the point is to help the restaurants be successful.


    • trokspot

      October 10, 2012 at 1:14 PM

      Exactly! Providing the basics in a 2 day crash course is good (most of these owners need it!), but I just don’t know if that’s enough to change these long-time bad habits….

      There are all sorts of those “rescue” shows now – Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares, Restaurant Impossible, Bar Rescue, and even Tattoo Rescue! It makes for great tv and people love to see these quick fixes…but again, are they the best long-term solutions!?!


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  5. Tracy Wynn

    November 21, 2013 at 2:23 AM

    The makeover of the kitchens bothers me. If you try to renovate a commercial kitchen where I live, the building and health inspectors could take weeks to sign off on the project. How can Robert get away with it in under 48 hours?


    • trokspot

      November 21, 2013 at 6:59 PM

      That’s a good point to bring up. The only thing I could think of is that the show alerts the inspector before they actually arrive to film/do the renovation and get some kind of special permission.

      The other thing to consider is that they often aren’t doing much in the way of construction renovation in the kitchen – it’s often just a deep clean (that is much needed!), or replacing older/damaged appliances (i.e. new oven range).



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