From coast to coast, there are plenty of amazing restaurants for America’s foodies to salivate over; a more amusing pastime, however, may be marveling at the truly bad ones on The Food Network’s Restaurant: Impossible (is that a smelly petting zoo in the back of your Italian restaurant? Why yes, it is.)
Each episode features a restaurant on the skids and the tough task of setting things right before total catastrophe strikes–all in just two days. But more than food or restaurants, the show is about diagnosing an ailing business, building functional relationships, and leading people in a crisis scenario. That’s a tall order. And it’s good fun to watch it unfold.
At the center of this whirlwind is the stoic, tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold chef Robert Irvine. In each episode, Irvine quickly sizes up the magnitude of the disaster and outlines a plan of attack. In no time he’s barking orders like a drill sergeant–which isn’t surprising since Irvine was once a chef in the British Royal Navy.
Yet it’s also clear he has the soft skills to know when to back off. “I’ve very cognizant of how far I can push a person to learn and then teach them when they fall down, and make them accountable, which they’ve never done for their staff or themselves.”
Despite his muscle-bound physique and gruff, soldierlike demeanor, Irvine says compassion is crucial to his process. Some of these businesses are weeks if not days away from shutting down, and it’s not just a business that’s on the line. In many cases, the owners’ personal lives are in jeopardy: houses, college educations, marriages.
Fast Company recently spoke with Irvine about what it takes to rescue a business on the brink.
FAST COMPANY: You’re now in your fourth season of Restaurant: Impossible. What’s your success rate look like?
ROBERT IRVINE: We’ve done 50 episodes and 46 of the restaurants are doing gangbusters. Two closed, one was taken back by the taxman, and one was sold. So the record, if you like, is very good, which I am very proud of.
When you go into a new restaurant and the food is horrible and the decor is outdated, you say it in very blunt terms. Why is it important to be so brutally honest?
The military has given me those take-no-prisoners sort of leadership skills. And I literally have 25 minutes in the first part of the show to get the ins and outs of what’s going on in their life. I cut straight to it and say, “All right, tell me the deep down dirty, and I can format a plan based on that.” Once you know the bottom line, you can fix anything because you draw up a plan based on that. If it takes me $5000 to open every day, I’ve got to make X amount to make sure I can make payments, and pay the staff, and pay off any back debt. Then I can work out a plan with the IRS, I can work out a plan with the bank, whoever they owe money, to pay them. If I’m finding out things throughout the day–which I do–I’ve got to constantly change the plan.
How else has your military background affected your management style?
With the military in general, we think about discipline, honor, respect, loyalty, hard work, teamwork. There’s never one man left behind or one woman. Even if they’re down, you pick them up and you carry them. I think that has helped me tremendously. And my own attitude, “There’s no such thing as failure.” You push it and you push it and you push it until you finish it and you see it through. And two days for me is not a lot of time. So you go in, you tell them the mission, you know what you’re gonna do and then you get it done. And I’m hard on my design team, I’m hard on the owners, I’m hard on myself, because I always want to make sure that they’re successful.
When you start to tell people what they need to fix, they’re often reluctant or outright defiant. Why do you think some owners are so blind to their own flaws?
It’s like denial. For example, just because people come in the door, you believe your food is good. Or you think you’re making money if you’re covering your costs during the week and not making much more. Or if people like you as a person they’ll tell you whatever you want to hear because they don’t want to hurt your feelings.
Are you ever afraid of hurting people’s feelings or is the mission above that?
The mission is always first and foremost for me. I’m not afraid of hurting people’s feelings. I’ve got two days to fix what sometimes is their problems for twenty years. I’m respectful, I’m tough, but I’m also nurturing and teaching. So there’s a very fine line. You know, if you beat somebody up so much, they don’t feel it anymore.
How important is empathy to what you do?
The first eight hours of doing a show everybody hates Robert Irvine: ‘He’s the biggest–excuse me–a-hole in the world. He doesn’t know what we do.’ That goes on every time. And then eight hours after that you see them change. They realize it’s not about TV–and I don’t care about TV–I care about them. It’s my responsibility as a human being to make sure they get help, to make sure their kids have got food on the table, make sure that they’ve got insurance. That’s my job–as human being, not a TV host, not a chef.
I’m really proud of what we do because we really help people find a solution. It’s either that or go bankrupt, and then they lose the house, the family, and sometimes marriage, kids. Nobody realizes that when poverty knocks at the door, love flies out the window. And I deal with that in a psychological way in numerous shows where I have to sit down and say, “You know what? It’s okay.” So there are things that I have to deal with that you’ll never see because it’s not fair to make people who are emotional look bad on TV.