Say this for Restaurant: Impossible, the hit Food Network show that recently began its fourth season: It is not afraid to stick to a formula. In every episode, the menu and decor of an ailing restaurant are overhauled in 48 hours on a budget of $10,000.
The project always seems hopeless at first, typically because the food is lousy, the staff inept, and the premises a shambles. But salvation arrives in the form of Robert Irvine, a brawny British chef in a snug black polo shirt, who, through a mix of tough love, expertise, and shouting (and with an assist from an interior decorator and crew of carpenters), transforms the place.
The last scene of every show is a full house of customers dining happily from a radically altered menu in a bustling and beautified room. Cut to the once-desperate owner, beaming joyously.
Roll credits. Another week, another miracle. But does it stick?
When a business is in such dire shape, can it actually be turned from money pit to thriving enterprise in just two days?
In a few cases, surprisingly enough, the answer is "yes," as you will learn by interviewing enough restaurant owners given the Impossible treatment. At the other end of the spectrum, a handful of resuscitated restaurants have since closed. But the bulk have found a variety of strategies to cope with life after radical surgery.
In many cases, that has meant ditching menu items that Irvine created, often for surprising reasons.
"We had to bring back our beef cannelloni, even though that dish is frozen," said John Meglio of Meglio's Italian Grill and Bar in Bridgeton, Mo. "Chef Irvine kept telling us that we needed to make more fresh food, and that makes perfect sense. But what he didn't know is that people here have been eating frozen pasta from this one supplier in St. Louis for the last 50 years."
On its surface, Restaurant: Impossible is about the quintessentially American love of second chances and magic-wand makeovers. But the more you talk to owners who have been revamped, Chef Irvine-style, the more a deeper theme emerges: the myth of the management consultant.
Like all consultants, Irvine parachutes in and reconfigures a business, bringing to bear his skills and decades of experience. It would be hard to argue that the changes he imposes are, on paper, anything but a major improvement. On paper. In practice, there is the strange, hard-to-quantify variable known as people. And a lot of them have their own definition of "major improvement," which, in some instances, would confound anyone who has ever attended culinary school or frequents upscale restaurants.
''The food was good; it just didn't fly," said Meglio, who is still not sure if his restaurant will survive, more than a year after the episode was broadcast. "It's a Midwestern thing. You make too many changes too fast and all it'll do is upset people. And the changes upset people to the tune of not coming back."
Under a contract signed by every featured restaurant, Irvine and his interior decorator can introduce any changes they want. The owners, who apply and interview to appear on the show, can only watch, learn and hope customers love the results.
They always do, at least on opening night. A mini-burst of publicity and lines out the door ensue when word spreads that Restaurant: Impossible has come to town and is on the verge of a big reveal. The real drama starts soon after. Will the newcomers become regulars? Will the regulars stick around?
"We kept the new menu and the new identity for about 60 days," said Philip Villari, of Villari's in Palmyra, N.J., the restaurant featured in the pilot episode in 2011. "But we found out that we couldn't survive on the traffic brought in by the Food Network."
Irvine had steered the restaurant to fancier fare with higher prices, like a fillet with risotto and a demi-glace. But customers kept saying they just wanted the filet and "none of the other stuff."
"We're more of a neighborhood establishment," Villari said. "Our customers want fries and a burger on a Friday night."
A Food Network spokesman declined to comment for this article, except to say that the show planned to revisit its handiwork sometime in the future.
As the leader and taskmaster of each mission, Irvine is three parts drill sergeant and one part epicure, with a physique and resume to match. His 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, a bit of resume-enhancement that came to light in 2008 and briefly cost him his role on a previous Food Network show.
That experience did not soften the man. On "Impossible," Irvine is unsparing in his critiques ("This is probably one of the most disgusting kitchens I've ever walked into in my life") and perpetually irked by the pace of progress ("You're killing me. Hurry up!"). Several restaurant owners swear that he has a sense of humor, but if so, it is either well hidden or edited out. Then again, Irvine's gravity matches the tone of the program, which is about trying to rescue a family business in the midst of a near-death experience.
"Let's face it, most of us had a foot in the grave to begin with," said Timothy Queisser, owner of the Snooty Fox in Indianapolis, which showed up in Season 2 and closed last October after nearly 30 years. To Queisser's dismay, Irvine gave his restaurant a pub motif and some British entrees, a dramatic departure in cuisine, the Anglophilic name notwithstanding.
"How often do people say they want to eat British?" asked Queisser, who now works for a company that manages gasoline stations and convenience stores.
The rebranding actually worked for more than a month, thanks to curiosity seekers who had heard about the renovation. During this initial onslaught, Queisser recruited his brother, a chef, who took a look around and issued a dire prediction.
"He said, 'You won't have time to build a new reputation, and in the meantime your old customers won't like what's happened and will leave,'" Queisser said. "And he was right. Ten or 12 weeks later, it was like the lights went out."
Queisser wound up with a few thousand dollars' worth of shrimp, fillets and cod for fish and chips in his freezer.
"I'm not going to say they were the demise of us," he said. "They did a good job redecorating. They gave us a badly needed shot of PR. But they kind of left us in the lurch."
There are also owners eager to rave about Restaurant: Impossible. During an episode broadcast in Season 2, Doug Krick Sr. fell to his knees and murmured, "Sweet Jesus, God almighty," when he got a look at his newly decorated Dodge City in Harrisburg, Pa. His enthusiasm has scarcely dimmed.
"Before we heard that we'd been accepted to be on the show, we had made the decision to close," Krick said. "We had two months left."
The remodel put an upmarket gloss on the restaurant's Western theme, and a few of Irvine's dishes were hits from the start, including a bison taco appetizer and a hanger steak with smoked tomato and blue cheese orzo. Why did Dodge City succeed where others have faltered?
"I think it's because we knew that we had to say goodbye to our old customers if we were going to survive," Krick said. "We had no choice but to attract a younger crowd."
Like a lot of reality TV, the show relies on a bit of sleight of hand. It appears as if the renovation is dreamed up on the fly, but the decorator actually shows up a month or two ahead to take measurements and start planning. Containers filled with raw materials arrive before Irvine, but restaurant owners are forbidden from opening the boxes.
"You want to look, but you can't," says Georgia Savvidis, owner of Pastori's in Ellington, Conn., another success story for the show. "It's a surprise."
But not always one of the happy variety. Jody Dwyer, owner of the Wood Grill at Flood Tide in Mystic, Conn., was appalled to find the mahogany paneling in her dining room painted red, white and blue. There was a modest increase in revenue in the wake of her episode, but not enough, in Dwyer's opinion, to justify all the agita.
"Would I do it again? No," she said. "I'll take the paint off the paneling eventually, but right now we're in a bad situation financially and I can't afford it."
But most owners, even the ones who have undone Chef Irvine's dictates, have no regrets. They got to watch a pro up close, they got a motivating kick in the pants and, through the magic of television, the show bestowed on their restaurant a kind of celebrity.
"What they did for us didn't work," John Meglio said, "but I wish they re-aired our episode every week."