Robert Irvine Reflects on 100 Episodes of Restaurant: Impossible

by in Food Network Chef, Shows, May 4th, 2014

Robert Irvine and the Restaurant: Impossible TeamThe nature of Restaurant: Impossible is such that Robert Irvine doesn’t know what he’s going to walk into when he begins his missions at eateries across the country. This week marks the show’s 100th episode, and while he’s found filthy kitchens and ruthless employees at some business, he’s stumbled upon disjointed menus and disjointed decor at others. But no matter the condition of the business when he arrives, he and his team have always used their two days and $10,000 budget to give restaurants the best second chance at success possible.

Just in time for Wednesday’s special episode, airing May 7 at 10|9c, to celebrate the 100th show, Robert looked back on the nearly eight seasons of renovations and reflected on some of his most-memorable missions to date. Read on below to hear from Robert in an exclusive interview and find out what he’s learned along the way, as well as his top tips for business owners.

What’s been the single most-rewarding moment from 7+ seasons of Restaurant: Impossible?

It’s impossible to just choose one moment. The restaurants that we visit on the show are not just “missions,” they are like children to me. Each has its own challenges, personalities and outcomes. Each family will always be special and hold an important place in my heart — even the really difficult ones.

What’s one thing you have learned from or experienced on this show that you didn’t expect to when you first began it?

I began the show focused on fixing businesses but quickly realized that, more important than food cost and menu changes, the families and relationships involved need to be fixed first if anything we do is going to remain a success. That’s why you may have noticed the change in dynamic from the first season to now, where I evolved too, from business consultant to being more of a counselor.

What do you think is the most-common mistake made by restaurant owners?

Poor communication is a common thread throughout most every restaurant we have helped. At the onset of a restaurant’s downturn, most owners turn to the staff and managers as the cause. Resentment begins to build to a point where lashing out becomes the sole means of discussion. At a certain point communication ceases completely and any chance of improvement goes out the window. This is even more destructive when family is involved. The anger is more intense and the arguments are twice as volatile because there is often a history attached to the family’s past.

What are the top-three pieces of advice for first-time restaurateurs who may have just opened their first business?

— Stay on top of the cost of your goods and adjust for the changing markets. The cost of supplies is constantly in flux and if you aren’t staying on top of those costs you might as well flush your money down the toilet.

— Evaluate daily the quality of your product. Some owners set recipes and menu spec and then foolishly trust that it is being executed to their standards without ever checking. They rely on customer feedback as a measure of standards. At this point, the damage is done and it is too late! Preparation and presentation of dishes becomes routine over time and can lead to steps being skipped and key ingredients missed …. You have to consistently re-evaluate dishes and the quality-control measures that were set into place when you first created your recipes.

— Talk to your customers! And not just when problems arise. Having a proactive conversation with your customers nurtures loyalty and relationships, addresses issues before they become problems and provides feedback to determine your business’s performance. Take what they tell you to heart, and take swift action to readjust when an issue comes to light as a reoccurring item of contention amongst your customers.

What are the top-three makings of a successful menu?

— Keep it concise: Long menus mean longer selection times for customers, thus longer table turns and less income. Long menus also mean more product stock with more complex inventory management and a higher food cost.

— Be diverse: Customers have a wide variety of tastes and dietary requirements. Having diverse offerings on your menu saves you from alienating your potential customer base. This doesn’t mean having a massive menu, but it does mean that if you offer fresh fish, don’t have a menu consisting of 15 different shrimp dishes. If you don’t have something specifically for someone with a dietary requirement, ensure that your staff is trained properly on how to make adjustments and substitutions to accommodate that person. It shows the customer that you care and they will LOVE you for it.

— Know the customers: Knowing what your local community wants and needs is paramount to what you should offer. Also, determining any culinary deficits in your community and discovering whether it would be smart to offer those items on your menu is a strong move. You may notice that there is a particular type of cuisine that is not available in your area. Is that because no one has tried it, or has someone tried it and failed because no one wants it?

What are the top-three makings of a successful staff?

— Be invested in your success: If making a dollar is the only reason why your employees show up to work, you’ll never succeed. Employees should have a vested interest in seeing your restaurant succeed because of their respect for you, their fellow employees and the customers that your business serves. If this is not the case, it shows.

— Get educated on your product: No server should be allowed to serve your customers unless they know your menu backwards and forwards. No cooks should be in your kitchen unless they know not just their own jobs, but the execution of all of the other dishes that are created in your kitchen. Education is the cornerstone of proper execution and customer communication.

— Know the value of proper communication: The #1 most-destructive force in your restaurant is lack of communication. If the kitchen cannot properly communicate with the servers, then the servers cannot properly communicate with the customers (and vice versa). However, owners must understand that THEY set the standard for communication in their own business. How they interact at all levels determines how their employees follow suit.

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Comments (22)

  1. Valerie Craun says:

    Just saw the show and loved it. We have watched since day one. So amazed at your career. Love the Happy Dances. Wish you had "taste-a-vision". Thanks so much for puttiing yourself out there!

  2. Bonnie says:

    I watched the special on your beautiful wedding. Your attention to detail is amazing even when you have trusted associates helping. My best to you and your bride for much happiness together. And thanks for helping failing restaurants and giving America some wonderful places to eat good food.

  3. Leland says:

    Questions:
    1. Some of the kitchens on the show are absolutely disgusting. How come local code enforcement hasn't previously closed them down?
    2. If an episode of the program doesn't mention the cleanliness of the kitchen, can we infer that it is ok?
    3. I'd like Robert to taste a restaurant's iced tea. Many times, establishments don't clean the iced tea containers and it takes on a slimy taste.

    • Kelly says:

      This is a guess on Question #1: Either (a) the local health inspectors are not aware, or (b) the local inspectors give the restaurant owners 90 days to fix the problems and the RI crew comes in during that 90-day period. If there was something seriously wrong that would be an imminent threat to customer safety I can't see the local inspectors doing anything else but shutting the place down, assuming they know about it.

      As for Question #2, I'm guessing the kitchen is at least passable if it's not mentioned during the RI episode. So many RI episodes make a big deal out of unclean kitchens — I doubt the producers would pass that up.

      You're right about the iced tea — that's why I don't order iced tea at a restaurant that doesn't look like it's well-cared-for and cleaned every day.

  4. Bruce Hundertmark says:

    As a fellow restaurant owner, with the third generation celebrating out 75th Anniversary in a few days, I have seen most of the challenges that you face in resurrecting these restaurants. I commend you on giving the many owners that you have helped a chance at success. The families that you save are a great legacy of the work you have done.

    An x Navy Man

  5. Marleen Loff says:

    I own a beautiful restaurant in Sparta, TN. My husband and I had planned to open it and he suffered heart problems and were not able to run the business. We tried twice to lease it and both times had a bad experience. I currently have it listed on Ebay ((221490480433). The restaurant is absolutely beautiful and has a lot of equipment. Plus there is a 2,200 square foot apt. on the second floor. I have had no success in selling the building with the apt and equipment. I watch your show and thought perhaps you might know someone who may be interested in such a great place. When the restaurant was open you had to wait to be seated. Your help in any way would be greatly appreciated. Respectfully yours, Marleen Loff (931) 808-2684

  6. John Horstman says:

    I have a real challenge for Robert. Improve the food in a skilled nursing home with a limited budget and poorly trained staff. The residents would be thrilled as would the staff. Think about it!

  7. Arlene says:

    Having just watched the episode when R/I remodeled EL Bistro into Renae's it was painfully obvious to me that Renae was insincere in her "new spirit" to make her restaurant a success and more likely was looking for "free remodeling" to boost the sale price of this establishment. As I have read the follow up on this episode, I see that she has , in fact, placed her business up for sale. I as a viewer feel cheated. As Robert invests his knowledge and efforts in helping failing businesses, I believe viewers feel a compassion for the business owner. To see a almost immediate sale seems to defeat the premise of the show.
    In any event, if the food network made potential show participants sign an agreement to not sell their improved restaurants for at least 6 mos. after the episode airs or pay back at least the $10,000 invested by the network this type of insincerity would be lessened.

  8. Vic says:

    Great show, congrats! I never miss an episode. Coming from a financial background, I find that part awesome. You never hear about the biggest problem in small businesses/restaurants, accounting & financial mismanagement. When Mr. Irvine eventually brings out that P&L 'white elephant', priceless! He had one episode where he took great pains to tell them where to buy, how much to charge, amazing…

  9. mckaylasmith says:

    i would love for u too help us out in agawam mass we have a friendly bar but so dirty would love it fixed before they go under and robert u make me cry on all ur shows i love them so much mckayla smith this would be a dream come true

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