Robert Irvine’s tough-love approach with restaurant owners on the Food Network reality show “Restaurant: Impossible” has endeared him to millions of fans. That includes a large foodservice audience, who tune in not only for Irvine’s unique brand of tell-it-like-it-is entertainment, but also for valuable business insight and operations tips.
Taking restaurants from “failure to fantastic,” as Irvine says, shows viewers on both sides of the counter how to raise expectations and satisfaction, and how to hold the industry to higher standards.
Irvine originally wrote the show, which rescues a struggling restaurant with a two-day, $10,000 makeover, with the intention of making a restaurant look good. But it quickly took on what Irvine describes as a life of its own, driven by the people behind the restaurants.
“I find myself getting into their story,” Irvine says. “People relate to it.”
And Irvine relates to them—restaurateurs, hoteliers, convenience-store owners—responding to anyone who reaches out to him for help and advice on everything from financials and point of sales to menu development. Irvine welcomes every outreach and personally responds to them all via e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter during the 345 days a year that he travels. “If people take the time to watch you,” he says, “there’s a responsibility [to them].”
Some of the blatant, if not brutal, things Irvine tells operators may not be what they’d like to hear, but he says that if they listen to him, they will improve their business. He’s got the stats to prove it: 63 of the 71 restaurants he’s worked with are still running strong.
With more than 25 years of experience in the culinary profession—including in the British Royal Navy, U.S. Navy, the White House, and on “The Next Iron Chef: Super Chefs,” on top of six seasons of “Restaurant: Impossible”—Irvine has developed a keen eye and a pointed perspective on how successful restaurants operate.
Complacency on the owner’s part is a major reason restaurants fail, he says. “When they don’t take money to save, they have no money to compete.”
A restaurant needs to change its looks every three years, he says, which calls for a vision and advanced planning. It’s no coincidence that the design makeover is such a big part of the show’s focus.
Further, serving “simple food that tastes good and is cooked correctly,” he says, will keep a business in the black. He recommends the use of fresh instead of frozen foods when possible, including for quick-serve operators, who often opt for frozen food for the sake of cost-saving; they should use trusted suppliers that handle the food correctly and mix fresh foods with frozen, he says. A hamburger, for example, can be made with a frozen patty but with a fresh bun, lettuce, tomato, and onion. “You can afford fresh food,” he says.
“The way we purchase food, hold food, and the way we educate the staff” is how customer satisfaction is earned, Irvine says.
Fans of “Restaurant: Impossible” know cleanliness also tops Irvine’s list of musts within a successful restaurant, and have come to expect his rants of disgust with anything dirty, unsanitary, or unhealthy. “The restroom is the first place I look,” he says, adding that it’s an excellent indicator of how clean—or not—a restaurant is.
Another red flag is the ice machine.
“They’re dangerous,” Irvine says. “I don’t think people should own them; 85 percent of them are contaminated.” He says he’s seen enough mold, cockroaches, and pink slime around ice machine chutes and in filters that he never orders ice with anything.
Because ice machines are a health risk and expensive to own and maintain, Irvine says, he promotes the use of an ice service that can provide the machine, labor, repair, and maintenance for a monthly fee. When Easy Ice was asked to help on a “Restaurant Impossible” shoot, Irvine was so impressed by the service that he approached the company with a partnership opportunity and is now its spokesman. Easy Ice now has several veteran celebrity chefs as customers.
As company spokesman, Irvine appears in a spirited commercial featuring a chimpanzee, which represents the “monkey on your back” ice machine, and a series of infomercials for business owners.
“The message that Robert can deliver comes from his unique experience across the foodservice environment,” says Easy Ice senior vice president, John Mahlmeister. “He’s seen hundreds of thousands of restaurant operations. Others focus on food, Robert goes front to back in restaurants. His perspective is nobody needs to own an ice machine, nobody should waste their resources, time, and energy.”
“I do what I truly believe in,” Irvine says of his career and his endorsements, which are few.
While a thorough cleaning, menu overhaul, and fresh décor—maybe even an ice service—can put a restaurant back on its feet, it’s the passion behind it all that rings true with Irvine. “I feel honored and blessed to do this,” he says. “We’re still there after the show to help with struggles. We do it because we care.”
By Lori Zanteson