Chef Robert Irvine’s Revitalization Reality

Behind the Scenes of Restaurant: Impossible

As of December 2020, more than 110,000 U.S. restaurants were closed for business temporarily, or permanently, according to the National Restaurant Association. America’s eating and drinking establishments finished 2020 nearly 2.5 million jobs below the pre-coronavirus level, and total restaurant and food service industry sales fell by $240 billion in 2020.

Staggering data by almost any measure, the restaurant sector was negatively impacted more than any other industry in the country, according to the Washington-based association.

But be they films like Rocky and Rudy, or that restaurant around the corner that’s suddenly fallen on hard times, Americans tend to love a good comeback story.

Comeback stories are entrepreneurial Chef Robert Irvine’s stock in trade. His popular show, Restaurant: Impossible was turning around restaurants well before COVID-19. But now the stakes are even higher. Airing since last year has been an offshoot of Restaurant: Impossible called Restaurant: Impossible Back in Business, which addresses pandemic-specific issues.

From the set of a recent filming, Irvine shared some advice and insights with Advisors Magazine.

RI 246“We revisited a lot of restaurants—many of which we had just been to—and helped them deal with the changes they’d need to make in the new climate,” Irvine said, explaining, “How to revamp the menu for take-out or walk-up service, how to implement new social distancing and cleaning protocols—everything that would keep their doors open during the pandemic.”

The Back in Business shows were done with a skeleton crew that drove around in a bus when it wasn’t easy to fly.

“It’s kind of a miracle that those episodes came together, but I’m proud that they did. I think it was a natural—and necessary—extension of the work we do,” Irvine added. Those episodes and others can be seen on Food Network and Discovery+.

The original Restaurant: Impossible started airing on Food Network in 2011 and ran to 2016. After a three-year hiatus, the show returned in April 2019. The basic premise of the now more than 200-episode series is that within two days and on a modest budget, Irvine and team renovate a struggling American restaurant, aiming to help restore it to profitability and prominence.

The producers screen numerous applications, according to Irvine. A wide range of factors are considered, but the two major ones are: How bad is the situation? And how long have they been in business?

“Preserving a neighborhood cornerstone that’s fallen on hard times would usually get priority over something that just opened and never developed a foothold in the community,” Irvine said.

48-hour turnaround

Irvine and team have 48 hours to restore the failing restaurant; hence the name Restaurant: Impossible, because the mission is intense. Irvine noted that the 48-hour deadline is self-imposed, and not just there to create dramatic television.

The 48-hour turnaround is meant to provide a powerful jump start for the restaurant owners, and to remind them of what is possible.

“Remember, by the time we arrive on the scene, they’ve been struggling for years,” Irvine stressed. “To have a menu redesign and renovation happen in such a compressed time frame—as opposed to taking place over a course of several weeks or months—immediately puts them in a totally different head space.”

1461681201325He’s quick to credit his builder, Tom Bury and designers Taniya Nayak and Lynn Kegan. “You could search the world and not find people who do better work under such intense pressure and they’ve been with me for the long haul, Tom since the very beginning,” Irvine said.

He explained that often the builder needs to serve up a cold hard reality check on the designer.

“The designers may come up with something beautiful and then Tom discovers a load-bearing beam that can’t be moved, and it throws a wrench into the whole idea,” Irvine noted. “And yet they don’t linger on those miniature defeats.
They pick up and keep moving immediately. It’s inspiring.”

Irvine added that he and the designers/builders don’t feel constrained by the deadline and are not limited by what they can offer. After that it becomes a matter of implementation and the restaurant owners’ ability to keep it all going.

“We leave and they have a new lease on life,” Irvine said, “And of course it’s an emotional experience, hence all the tears you see.”

1394049844896He always mentions in his shows: "I can fix the menu, I can fix the decor that's easy, but real change starts within you." And Irvine, who can be tough on the owners on day one, doesn’t abandon those he’s helped. There is some aftercare.

“I think because it’s such a big change and a such an emotional experience it creates the conditions for real, lasting change,” he said. “Intense pressure creates a diamond, right?”

He points out that it’s important to remember that the renovations cannot be done without a lot of volunteer help from the community.

“So yes, I leave after two days, but your friends and neighbors who all turned out to sand down your tabletops and reupholster your chairs, they will continue to live with you and be your customers,” Irvine said. “That creates a pretty powerful motivation to not fall back on old habits.”

For any newly implemented recipes or operating procedures, which the owners might struggle with, there are regular check-ins after the cameras stop rolling to help them make any necessary adjustments.
“Data is the only thing [owners] should feel beholden to,” Irvine said. “If I give them a new recipe and they call me up and say, ‘Hey, it’s not selling,’ well then we get rid of it and we can work on creating something new. We do not just throw up our hands and walk away.”

The real deal: everything’s at stake

During a time of so many scripted “reality” TV shows, Restaurant: Impossible has often been called the most real of the lot.

“If you ever have an opportunity to watch us film, you’ll see there’s virtually no difference between how those two days play out in real time versus how the whole thing is presented on television,” Irvine said. “We don’t inject drama into anything. We don’t coach anyone on what to say.”

Indeed, at the show’s core are the honest conversations between Irvine and the restaurant owners.

“To be on the brink of losing everything you’ve ever worked for is inherently dramatic. You shouldn’t need creative editing to make that compelling. Reality itself is compelling,” he said.

As far as the advice shared with restaurant owners, Irvine said nothing is left to the imagination. He insisted that every piece of advice he offers to the owners is captured on camera.

At the heart of it, Irvine operates as a therapist. He deals with many families and business partners in stressful circumstances. Often, he uncovers perceptions holding people back from success and has an uncanny ability to pinpoint long-held resentments between people.

RI348“I think I learned early in life that I was a good reader of people, that I could figure out what a person really wanted even if they weren’t spelling it out,” Irvine said.

Turning philosophical, he believes that when a person has met many different people and has much life experience, that person recognizes basic human needs are pretty much the same. The underlying motivation for just about all human activity, according to Irvine, is rooted in a desire for personal fulfillment, a sense of community, a sense of accomplishment and most importantly, a desire to matter.

“Where someone else might just see a stubborn chef who won’t change his menu, I see a guy who’s afraid that his idea doesn’t matter, and by extension that he doesn’t matter,” Irvine explained. “That doesn’t make him a bad guy; He just hasn’t learned how to be honest with himself.”

As for how that plays out on the show: “I don’t dance around it. I jump in and confront it head-on,” he said. “I understand people and I can ask an incisive question. In most instances, I can take you by the hand and lead you to the revelation.”

Then and Now

Irvine admits to signing up for home economics in high school to meet girls.

“I didn’t meet any girls,” he laughed, “but in a pleasant twist of fate it turned out that I had a knack for the kitchen and really enjoyed transforming raw ingredients into a finished dish. I love to serve others, and being a chef is a very rewarding way to do that.”

Irvine’s first show for Food Network was Dinner: Impossible, which aired from January 2007 to 2010. The premise of the show challenged chefs to prepare a multi-course dinner for a big group of people, with limited resources, in a short period of time and with no advance planning.

“I’m very fortunate that it became a hit, and I couldn’t be happier that we’re back making new episodes after all these years,” Irvine beamed. Dinner: Impossible returned this spring (March 11) to Food Network for a four-episode run. In the premiere, Irvine was whisked away on a helicopter for his first mission in Oahu, Hawaii – to make a feast without a kitchen for local residents using only produce and proteins he could gather on Kualoa Ranch, the location for the film Jurassic Park.

Nowadays, television is chockfull of cooking and food-travel shows, and as with anything garnering a lot of media attention, the trend creates a lot of new interest. Irvine thinks many of the shows are great and deal very honestly with how hard it can be to run a restaurant or work as a chef.

But anyone thinking about opening a restaurant needs to look beyond the hype, the perceived fun and glamor — and focus on the reality.

“There’s nothing that can really prepare you for the daily grind and how many hours it takes to be successful in the restaurant industry,” Irvine said.

That’s not to sound negative on the business, it’s just Irvine keeping it real—as he does on the show. “It’s an unforgiving marketplace with very little room for error,” he said.

Irvine’s core message, however, is applicable to all businesses and virtually any endeavor: nothing is impossible.



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