Tag Archives: Food Network

10 Observations from the Real Man’s NRA Show

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What sort of a charmed life is one living when Chef Robert Irvine factors into it twice in a single month?  I had the pleasure of walking the floor at the National Restaurant Association show in Chicago this week, and was treated to a delightful array of sights, smells, tastes, huge portions of protein, and in the case of Chef Irvine, sounds!


Overall, while there were no gangbuster introductions, the show seemed to achieve a cosmic balance of the healthy (e.g. gluten-free), the indulgent (pastry galore), the novel (spinach balls) and the old-school standbys.

Here’s a sampler from this roving do-it-yourself Lazy Susan:

1)    MO’ MEAT!  An unlimited assault of meat.  Australian Wagyu beef (unbelievable!), Ditka’s chicken sausage (should real men eat it?), bangers from Jolly Posh, jamon iberico de bellota, plain old hot dogs, and the list goes on.  A veritable on-the-fly charcuterie.  Ron Swanson’s vision of heaven.  Perhaps the only product equally welcomed at either NRA show.


2)    Celebrity!  The boundary between cooking as craft and cooking as entertainment has been erased forever.  Anthony Bourdain, a few of Food Network’s A Team (Aarón Sanchez, Robert Irvine, Alexandra Guarnaschelli – and that was just the day I was there), and many others.  They attracted long lines, and in the case of the showcase demo area,  made a lot of noise (yes, that’s Chef Irvine wearing a tight black short-sleeved shirt for a change).


3)    Rising international influence.  The international representation of exhibitors was exceeded only by the internationality of the attendees.  Not just many countries, but lots of delicious cross-fertilization of ingredients and techniques. More proof of the unstoppable globalization of foods and flavors.  Peru debuted at NRA this year.

4)    Salmon –  oak or maple smoked, flavored, salty, delicious – – and in unlimited supply.  Like the brunch table at that swanky Bar Mitzvah you heard about but weren’t invited to. Maybe it’s been there all along, but I was astounded at all the options this year.

5)    Tchotchkes – Flo bobble-heads (from Progressive Insurance), t-shirts, cozies, pens, etc.  I was lucky to be on the floor close to the show’s end, and scored a nice bottle of Magueye Sweet Sap – – an old-but-new, tasty alternative sweetener.  You heard it here first.

Maguey Sweet Sap

6)    Umami – OK, there are 5 flavors now, just like there are 8 planets.  Forget what you learned as a kid.   It’s here, it’s savory, and it means great taste.  A whole area was devoted to just umami.

7)   Greek Yogurt – – it’s alive!  And not just in plastic containers any more.  Not only were Greek yogurt-based dessert options shown that more closely resembled ice cream sundaes, there was also Greek yogurt cheesecake, mac and cheese, and more.  Hmm…starts out as a healthy option, now loaded with sugar and other stuff.  We’ve seen this before:  energy bars, muffins, etc.

7)    Technology – from the large booths of companies like NEC and IBM, to small software entrepreneurs, at times the NRA looked more like a technology convention.  Whether hi-tech signage, online menu management software, or nutritional scoring, technology seems almost as important as the food in enabling operators to compete profitably.  Judging by a lot of sameness in some of the standard food offerings, perhaps it’s already passed food in importance…

9)    Alternative ordering/delivery  – GrubHub/Seamless, MobileTummy and others were pitching all manner of new ways to hook people up with food.  Order online, order by mobile, have it delivered, have it ready – – another case where technology is enabling options that are designed to match the way people live.

10)  Focus on kids’ health – consistent with NRA’s own Kids Live Well program, there were quite a few exhibitors focusing on not only healthier fare that kids might actually eat, but techniques to evaluate nutritional content and make good choices as foodservice operators, as well as consumer-friendly apps to make it easier to find a restaurant with kid-friendly offerings.

And now to the Stairmaster.


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 Yelp.com 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.