What I learned from Restaurant Impossible

Aside from ESPN, Food Network is my favorite TV station.  And even though their competition shows can feel contrived at times (“5….4….3…..2….1, TIME’S UP!  KNIVES DOWN!”), I can be a sucker for them.  One of the best is “Restaurant Impossible,” in which the hyper-aggressive but generally well-intentioned Robert Irvine tries to reverse the direction of a failing restaurant in 48 hours with $10,000.

So what did I learn about change in general from Restaurant Impossible?

1. Change requires pain – Every episode begins with a section on the owners and how much money they are losing (usually tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars), and how they will go out of business in a couple months, usually losing their home, retirement fund, and favorite pet cat in the process. Then they cry (they always cry), and promise they are willing to do anything to change.

2. Change hurts – At this point in the show, the host (Robert Irvine) shows up at the restaurant and bluntly describes all the things that are wrong. Now, since this is TV (and a reality show at that), he does this with a Simon Cowell-esq level of provocation, inspiring sympathy for the restauranteur.

Which brings up the central tension (and most interesting part) of the show: you know the restaurant must change (after all, it’s going out of business for a reason), and that the professional chef/host knows best, but you have to feel bad for the owner who is having their business and ripped apart, figuratively and literally, and with it his sense of self.

3. It costs more not to change – In order for the show to be compelling, it can’t just have endless resources to remodel the restaurant – then it would just feel to the viewer like Food Network took it over. Rather, the show imposes on itself a $10,000 and 48 hour window to bring about change. What is conspicuous about this is that the owners have sunk often 50 to 100 times that amount in making the restaurant a failure, though they have spread it out over years and not received the return on investment.

Sometimes I will talk to people who resist going to individual or couples counseling because they balk at the $120/hour price tag. But think of it this way: weekly therapy for two years with a good therapist would cost $12,000. Yeah, that’s a lot. But $12,000 (in the realm of the rest of your life), is a small price compared to increased earning potential or the cost of a divorce.

4. Change is rarely simple – The last ten minutes of the episode give the feeling of “It was worth it!” and “They’re going to make it!”  The restaurant is beautiful, the restaurant is packed, the kitchen staff are focused and reformed, and the owners are talking about how this changes everything for them. But if you stick around past the credits, the producers of the show provide a brief update on how the restaurant is doing since the episode was first filmed.  While some are positive, a number have reflected that the owners fell back into the same patterns that got them into trouble in the first place.

Makeover shows are all over TV (Extreme Makeover, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Biggest Loser, etc), and they all present the idea: if we give someone a second chance, and some tools and motivation to go with it, things can be different. However, change is rarely so simple.  Even if growth and change is moving in a generally upward direction over time, it only does so with many dips and turns backwards at times.

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