What Happens After ‘Restaurant: Impossible’ Leaves Town

July 11th, 2012

Kalim Bhatti for The New York Times

Doug Krick Sr. had planned to close his restaurant before it was saved by “Restaurant: Impossible.”

SAY this for “Restaurant: Impossible,” the hit Food Network show that begins its fourth season Wednesday: It is not afraid to stick to a formula. In every episode, the menu and décor of an ailing restaurant are overhauled in 48 hours on a budget of $ 10,000.

Dan Gill for The New York Times

John Meglio said he was still unsure if his restaurant would survive, more than a year after its episode was broadcast. “The food was good; it just didn’t fly,” he said.

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 Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. 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.” Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.

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