Restaurant: Impossible — When a Do-over Becomes a Don’t-over

When a business is flagging and a fix is needed, one option is a so-called make-over – changing the value proposition in some fundamental way.  But whether it’s a new coat of paint or a full shock treatment, it needs to be done thoughtfully – – even the most brilliant plans require consistent execution, cultural buy-in and consideration of the existing audience.  We naturally illustrate this complex business concept with a reality TV show.


Viewers of Food Network’s Restaurant: Impossible are familiar with the premise:  Robert Irvine, the heavily muscled and overbearing ex-British Royal Navy chef (think BCG consultant with no quadrant charts but much bigger arms), is given $10,000 and 2 days to fix a failing mom-and-pop restaurant, usually with some loyal customers but mostly declining sales.   Using a time-tested recipe of fast-track remodeling, menu conversion, come-to-Jesus chastising of waitstaff and awkward family interventions, liberally seasoned with shouted bullying, he ‘helps’ the owners open a new version, to unanimous (although not always articulate) acclaim of the capacity-straining first night patrons.  Voila!  Happy tears and promises to stick to the plan.  Using  a solid executional game plan, these restaurants look transformed and set for future success.

Each episode’s epilogue boasts about resulting increased business; these stories are catalogued on the FN website.

But does everyone really live happily ever after?  I snooped around and discovered that the show’s final scene is not necessarily indicative of the longer-term outcome.  There are numerous breakdowns in food, consistency, and service.

Nicholson FEP

Using reviews of a few transformed restaurants, here are some typical comments.

Show Claim:  “Since Robert left, sales have increased 85%“.  Typical review: “The food is just as bad as it was prior to Robert’s makeover.  The menu is no longer one page.  They are book style, dirty, and sticky.   As far as the wait staff they need to go. Final thoughts…don’t go.”

Show Claim:   “Business is up by $30,000 following the renovation”.  Typical review: “…you can see where Robert’s team did their magic for decorating, but it ends there!  Tables have paint chips/scuffs and look kind of crappy…floors weren’t swept, waitress wasn’t at desk when we walked in and had to wipe off our table prior to us being seated!  I think we could have gotten food just as good if not better at a bowling alley!  I will not be going there ever again!”

Show Claim:  40% increase in YOY business for first 2 months.  Typical review: “I would return for the wings but everything else was pretty average.”  Note:  Restaurant CLOSED.

The point:  without an organizational commitment to faithfully execute the plan, all the planning in the world can be for naught.


In addition, a number of the owners subsequently brought back some of their restaurant’s traditional featured items, which Chef Irvine had cut from the menu – – and they did it based on customer demand.

Testimonial from one makeover recipient who needed to make his own adjustments:

“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.

Meglio continues: “The food was good; it just didn’t fly.  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.”


Another owner was aware of the need to balance current and future customers.

He recruited his brother, a chef, who took a look around and issued a dire prediction in the wake of the initial publicity.

“He said, ‘You won’t have time to build a new reputation, and in the meantime your old customers won’t like what’s happened and will leave,’ ” Mr. Queisser said. “And he was right. Ten or 12 weeks later, it was like the lights went out.”

There is a well-done account of this from the NY Times.


In fairness, some of the made-over restaurants clearly have benefited.  But it’s clear that without both excellent executional follow-through and attention to customer acceptance, the best-laid plans from the best consultants in the world will be as stale as yesterday’s Tiramisu.


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