As a marketing agency with a focus on the food and beverage industries, we were understandably excited when we learned that the Food Network’s new hit show, Restaurant: Impossible, would be making a pit stop in Harrisburg to offer its signature makeover to an aging eatery named Dodge City. The Western-themed restaurant was founded in 1980 and is a popular Pavone breakfast destination, in part because of its location (just half a mile down the road) but also for its affordable menu.
For the uninitiated, Restaurant: Impossible is a show that rescues struggling restaurants on the brink of closure. The premise is simple: With 48 hours and $10,000, the show’s crew gives the establishment a complete makeover, updating the kitchen, the menu and the atmosphere, but also giving the owner some valuable lessons in how to manage the restaurant’s staff and the business side of things. (Think Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, but without the multimillion dollar budget and a little more tough love.)
At the center of the show is Chef Robert Irvine, a British export known as much for his work in the gym – Men’s Fitness magazine once named him one of the “25 Fittest Guys in America” – as he is for his work in the kitchen. Irvine’s take-no-prisoners, failure-is-not-an-option attitude have made him one of the Food Network’s most bankable stars. Previous Irvine hits include Dinner: Impossible and, more recently, working alongside Chef Anne Burrell as a mentor/host on Worst Cooks in America.
We managed to work our way onto the set of Restaurant: Impossible, which is normally closed to the media, thanks to some connections with Shooters, a Philadelphia-based production company Pavone has worked with in the past and which produces the show. After an hour chatting with Irvine’s longtime agent and business partner, we were finally introduced to the chef outside the restaurant’s main entrance. He seemed hurried – as you’d expect anyone involved in a two-day restaurant shake-up to be – with barely enough time to make eye contact during a handshake. We made our way into Dodge City’s tiny foyer to escape the dull roar of stop-and-go Paxton Street traffic, but the racket of a restaurant makeover in full swing offered little relief.
Once inside, the in-progress transformation of Dodge City was astounding. The cashier’s station was gone. The tile floor was gone. The tables and booths were gone. The kitschy wagon wheels and assorted Old West accoutrements – all long, long gone. It was hard to believe the restaurant would be opening its doors to customers just 24 hours later (tonight).
The chef motioned to a cluster of men in the center of what used to be the Dodge City dining room and ranted, to no one in particular, about a “(bleep)ing pole” standing floor-to-ceiling in the middle of the gutted space. The metal fixture, it seems, was load-bearing and could not be removed, forcing the design team to either install a wall or work around it. This did not sit well with a man who’s used to getting his own way regardless of the obstacles.
Chef Irvine – or “Junior” as his business partner calls him – then propped his hulking frame against a Pennsylvania lottery machine, which we can only assume had seen its last days at Dodge City, and gave us four-and-a-half minutes of his very valuable time.
PAVONE: The show is called Restaurant: Impossible, yet you always seem to turn a struggling establishment into something that can thrive again. Are there any restaurants that are truly impossible to fix?
CHEF IRVINE: There’s no restaurant that’s impossible to fix, it just depends to what degree it needs fixing. That dictates how long it takes, what equipment and people are needed and what things need to be done. Do I get them all done to the degree that I want to get them done? Every one so far, yes, but I only have 48 hours. That’s two days to create an amazing restaurant after 30 years of mismanagement or no money to work with, which makes it challenging.
PAVONE: On the show, you spend a lot of time renovating the restaurant, improving the service and overhauling the menu. All are important parts of a successful restaurant, but what role does good marketing play in a restaurant’s success?
CHEF IRVINE: Good marketing is huge, especially when you’re relaunching a restaurant that has a bad name for itself. Radio is important. Social media is another area that’s important in marketing a restaurant. With social media you can reach thousands of people in seconds, just like radio.
PAVONE: What’s the biggest mistake you see most restaurant owners making?
CHEF IRVINE: There’s a thousand mistakes restaurant owners make. The first thing is getting involved in a restaurant when you have no restaurant background. A lot of it also has to do with money. If you don’t have one year’s worth of money in the bank to keep the restaurant going, don’t do it.
PAVONE: Rank these restaurant ingredients in order of importance: Atmosphere, menu, service, location.
CHEF IRVINE: All number one. Actually, location is a minor part. There’s an old saying that if you build it, they will come. If you create the ambience, if you create the food and the service, people will travel from all around the world to visit your restaurant. It doesn’t matter where it is.
PAVONE: What will the restaurant experience be like 20 years from now?
CHEF IRVINE: It’s changing dramatically. People are less and less into fine dining. Now it’s more about sharing and a fun atmosphere. The world we live in today is so fast-paced and so highly strung, people just want a place where they can relax and not have to think about things, and I think that’s going to continue.
PAVONE: Your culinary career began when you joined the Royal Navy at the age of 15. How did cooking meals on the high seas prepare you for a career as a world-renowned chef?
CHEF IRVINE: The navy, or any branch of the armed forces, gives you a lot of things. It gives you discipline, training, man management, stress management, and how to deal with situations as no other individual can. Military training is very important. You learn about mass feeding, but you also learn about fine dining. Sometimes you’re forced to not have food, but create meals, or not have good ingredients, but create great food. As a military chef, your ingenuity has to be pretty good.
PAVONE: What is the one piece of advice you would give to people who want to start their own restaurant?
CHEF IRVINE: Go work in a restaurant. Understand it and understand what food costs and what labor cost means. Know your overheads and how to run a restaurant correctly, and don’t do it unless you’re really confident that you can succeed in it.