Restaurant Revisited: Muskrat Mayhem at Wagon Wheel Family Restaurant

by in Shows, May 19th, 2013

Robert Irvine on Restaurant: ImpossibleIn Smyrna, Del., the Wagon Wheel Family Restaurant is indeed a family-run business, owned and operated by three generations of women: grandmother, daughter and granddaughter (Patty Gallegos, Sheila Furman and Jessica Furman, respectively). Their restaurant is known for its classic preparation of a local delicacy — muskrat — but beyond that, it has struggled to succeed, serving primarily frozen food in an old-fashioned space. If their business was to have any hope of thriving in the future, Patty, Sheila and Jessica would need Robert Irvine‘s support to revamp the menu with crowd-pleasing dishes that go beyond muskrat and to enliven the interior with a fresh, welcoming design. In just two days and with a $10,000 budget, Robert and his Restaurant: Impossible team helped this family learn to work together and ultimately reopened Wagon Wheel as a made-over eatery that they could be proud of. We checked in with Jessica a few months after the transformation to find out how the business is doing today.

Her mother, Sheila, is no longer working at Wagon Wheel, so Jessica will be relieving Patty and running the restaurant immediately after her graduation later this month. “I am excited to get back to work, to do what I wanted to since the beginning: make the Wagon Wheel profitable,” she tells FN Dish. “I want to become more involved in the community and create a place that people can go with their families to have a nice dinner with a great vibe.”

She plans to institute a system of guidelines at the Wagon Wheel, which she hopes will in turn create a more positive work atmosphere for the employees and pleasant dining experience for customers. “I feel that setting standards is an important part of returning the restaurant to profitability,” she explains. “Everyone is doing what they can and also what they want, because no one is in charge to reward good behavior or reflect on negative issues.” Increased communication between all workers at the restaurant — managers, front of the house and back of the house included — will also help to equalize expectations. “With open communication from not only owners and managers but with the entire staff, no one is left in the dark to wonder what is going on,” she adds.

Since reopening, the updated decor at the Wagon Wheel has been well-received by customers and staff alike. “My favorite part of the new design is the hostess stand and the divider wall,” Jessica admits. “It makes the restaurant look more professional and is a great thing to see when you first walk in the door.”

In terms of the menu, they’ve kept muskrat on the list of offerings. According to Jessica, “It is what we are known for and it is only seasonal.”

Looking ahead, Jessica tells Dish that she’s confident Restaurant: Impossible has given her and the business the foundation they need to succeed. “I feel that the show has really helped to set a basis of what I want to go back there to achieve.”

More From Restaurant Revisited:

Mom & Dad’s Italian Restaurant (May 12)
Smitty’s Restaurant (April 28)
Old World Italian Restaurant (April 21)
Joe Willy’s Seafood House (April 14)
Sweet Tea’s Restaurant & Catering (March 24)
Soup to Nuts Diner (March 17)
Caseyville Cafe (March 13)
Maniaci’s Italian Restaurant (March 10)
Dinner Bell Restaurant (February 27)
Nanny Goat’s Cafe & Feed Bin (February 20)
Sapori D’Italia (January 23)
Windseeker Restaurant (January 16)
Whiskey Creek Steakhouse (January 2)
Rising Sun Bistro (December 19)
Boys & Girls Club of Southwest Missouri (December 9)
Bronk’s Bar and Grill (December 5)
Rohrer’s Tavern (November 28)
Poco’s on the Boulevard (November 21)
Oleander Bar and Grill (October 17)
Valley Inn (October 10)
Whistle Stop (October 3)
The Maple Tree Cafe (September 26)
Michele’s (September 19)
Paliani’s Restaurant (September 12)
Frankie’s (September 5)
Gusanoz (August 29)

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Comments (129)

  1. Don Azpiazu says:

    The “details” are important and so is perception. I don’t doubt that some folks like the muskrat and that it’s a profitable dish. But what really needs to be looked at is how much better can they do without it, especially now with the changes made. Just saying that they have served it for fifty years is not a valid reason. In those fifty years the demographics have changed, the clientele, the competition, etc. Change is inevitable and to succeed you have to change.

    I believe that most folks would not want to be eating and enjoying a nice “normal” dish while the patron next to them is eating a rodent. I think folks would also be concern with the hygiene in the kitchen and not too thrilled to be served by a waitress that was just carrying the muskrat in her hands and cooked in the same area as the food they ordered. It matters little if they are wrong in their views, perception is a strong “driver” and it can well drive many patrons out of the restaurant. I suspect that when you measure the pros and cons of the dish, the negative perception far outweighs the profit and/or any reason to continue to serve muskrat.

  2. Don Azpiazu says:

    The “details” are important and so is perception. I don’t doubt that some folks like the muskrat and that it’s a profitable dish. But what really needs to be looked at is how much better can they do without it, especially now with the changes made. Just saying that they have served it for fifty years is not a valid reason. In those fifty years the demographics have changed, the clientele, the competition, etc. Change is inevitable and to succeed you have to change.

    I believe that most folks would not want to be eating and enjoying a nice “normal” dish while the patron next to them is eating a rodent. I think folks would also be concern with the hygiene in the kitchen and not too thrilled to be served by a waitress that was just carrying the muskrat in her hands and cooked in the same area as the food they ordered. It matters little if they are wrong in their views, perception is a strong “driver” and it can well drive many patrons out of the restaurant. I suspect that when you measure the pros and cons of the dish, the negative perception far outweighs the profit and/or any reason to continue to serve muskrat.

    —to be continued

    • Guest says:

      I could argue that the same could be said of a restaurant that serves both "american chinese" food and sushi. I love chinese, but detest sushi, the smell, the taste, the look….i mean its RAW, but does that mean I wont go to a japanese or chinese resaurant and order something cooked? no.

  3. Don Azpiazu says:

    I think the best place for muskrat to be served would be in a restaurant that just caters to this niche. Then all the patrons would be there for the same reason and no one would feel disgusted. If at some point people changed their perception, such as it happened with sushi, then fine. But that is not going to happen anytime soon in our culture.

    I get a bit tired of hearing people complain about how “insensitive” we Americans are to other cultures and their way of eating. Hello! You are in America now and you need to respect our culture as well. Not to mentioned how “stupid” that observation is…do we not have Italian, Chinese, Cuban, Mexican, and every restaurant from over 160 nationalities in our country? What other country can boast that?

    — to be continued

    • Annnd our culture it to eat what's available. We're not that detached from the days of trapping and eating what we could, two generations at most. It's not just 'other' cultures, we, as Americans, eat whatever doesn't runaway fast enough.

    • Guest says:

      I completely agree with the first half of your post. Too bad that by the end of the post you had flown into a half-a$$ rant that had nothing to do with anything. My advice? You should stick to only expressing about 50% of what you think.

  4. Don Azpiazu says:

    In the end it comes down to what the mission of the business is and how it fits with the vision that the owner has of her business. She needs to make the right strategic move that will allow for the business to continue to strive and prosper with or without the muskrat. My gut feeling is that most patrons do not give a rat’s a_ _ about the muskrat.

    I do wish the family much success. I hope that they realize that no amount of business savvy is going to help them if the “dysfunction” of the family continues and poor people skills continue to rule the day.

  5. Jennea says:

    Muskrat, ok, I'm a wimp!!!!! Just the thought of it has ruined my dining experience for awhile. Being from Montana, people love elk, deer, antelope, fresh trout. I'm not a fan of venison either. I'm a wimp! When Robert tried to eat the muskrat I thought I'd get sick. I noticed his dining experience ended at that point and everything went in the garbage, plates and all. I wish them well but reconsider the muskrat. Just my own thought! No need to jump down my throat for my own preferences. Best wishes!

  6. Scarlet says:

    Shelia reminds me of a child, constantly looking for praise. I bust my butt for my employer…..I know that my works speaks for itself and I dont ever expect my boss to smother me with sappy affection and over done praise.

  7. Mike says:

    Replace the Rat with Cat and then see how everyone reacts! Hey in some cultures…
    How 'bout Possum stew?
    How do I find out when the episode from Pier West in Twin Lakes, WI is airing?

  8. cherrycooks says:

    Robert definitely wasn't showing any Muskrat Love – LOL! Captain & Tenille song from yesteryear.

    I doubt that the muskrat that is served in this or any other restaurant hasn't been butchered before it's delivered to the venue. RI wanted the "roadkill" muskrat featured for shock effect, and it worked. There is a group of restaurants in metro Detroit that have a bumper sticker that says, "We eat our road kill." These restaurants feature Michigan fish and game and occasionally menu items like antelope, moose, rabbit, etc. I've never eaten at one of these places, but they are popular and serve good food. Check the venues out here: http://www.campticonderoga.com/campti.htm

    Bon Appetit!

    • shirleycts says:

      Hate to say it cherrycooks, but it comes just the way it was shown, fur and all. I am local and know it was not for shock effect.

  9. rallen1st says:

    I know who would absolutely love this place and their muskrat dish – Jed, Granny, Ellie-Mae and Jethro!

  10. JohnMix says:

    Smyrna is in a very rural part of Delaware. Farming is a way of life and trapping Muskrat is also a part of the local history. I've heard the locals tell of annual carnivals where the animals used to be sold in the open market. In another 10 or 20 years there won't be anyone living who was around in those days and the Muskrat will leave the menu of anyplace it's served. But for now, many of those people view it as a part of their upbringing and heritage.

    I would never touch the stuff, myself, but many people talk about it with fond memories. They feel the same way about Scrapple around here. Local pride.

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