One of my guilty pleasures is the show Restaurant: Impossible with Robert Irvine. Whenever I take a trip out to my parents’ place in Woodstock, they always have a backlog of the show on their DVR.

I’ve always loved stories about fixers, from Winston Wolf to Michael Clayton to Ray Donovan, to real-life practitioners like Judy Smith and Gary Sutton. And of course, Chef Irvine. I love the romantic fiction that a special breed of grizzled, hard-knocks teachers can fly in like The Pros from Dover and set everything straight. And of course, those fixers who do not live in complete fiction are still presenting a stage-managed pseudo-reality. We accept this when we watch – that their pronouncements are “for entertainment purposes only.”

Still, there are learnings here for us to take. Let’s take Irving as our example. For those who have never seen Restaurant: Impossible, it’s exactly what you think it is. Irvine has to make-over a failing restaurant within two days and with a $10,000 budget. He’s an imposing former military man, and his brand of love is, as you would expect, a little on the tough side. He’s also a showman and a bit of a self-promoter who raised some controversy in 2008 for resume-padding, so we know better than to take his lionized self-portrayal at absolute face value.

I do not doubt that, in general, the incompetencies, lack of standards, ugliness, and muck that he identifies are not completely off-base from how they are portrayed on the show. Among the sloppiness he finds are things like business partners who no longer like one another, mountains of financial debt, no processes and procedures for running the business, no clear responsibilities, no real leadership, bad food, ugly decor, dirty kitchens, untrained staff, and naturally no customers. There may be exaggerations, and some circumstances where Irving is off base, but for the most part I’d be willing to accept that the initial problems are pretty damn bad.

Irving’s next step is to make some major adjustments to the menu, decor, responsibilities to whip things into shape. Let’s see if we can’t take some of these restaurant turnaround actions he would institute, and broaden them out a bit so that we can apply them to our businesses. Here are my first three principals. More to come in a follow-up post. Let me know your suggestions in the comments.

1) Who You Are Is Meaningless; What The Market Wants is Everything

The first obstacle to making a profit that Irvine typically finds is that the restaurant owner has a great deal of ego wrapped up in the restaurant’s identity. It’s as if to say, “Regardless of the dynamics of the world around me, this is WHO WE ARE!!!” These are the establishments that are still preparing Beef Wellington table-side as they did in the ’60s, even though no one today orders it.

There have been some restaurants that didn’t survive the make-over, with some of the doomed owners going on record saying that they undid a lot of Irving’s changes because that’s “what their customers wanted.” And then they went out of business. I have no idea the individual circumstances, but I’m picturing one of these diners in a college town who has somehow made regulars out of the five retirees in the neighborhood. And someone comes in and says, “Are you crazy? This is a college town! That’s the market!” And then the idiot owner points to the five retirees and says, “These are my long-term, valued customers, and I’m going to orient my business around them!”

2) Knock On The F*#@ing Doors

One recent episode I binged from my parent’s DVR involved a restaurant in Downer’s Grove, IL that insisted on being THE high-end grocer/bistro of the area. They had a huge rack of $60+ bottles of wine that hadn’t been turned over since they opened, and they wondered why. They were located in a residential complex, and so the first thing that Irvine did was something that the owners had never once thought to do: he knocked on the neighbor’s doors, introduced himself, and asked what they thought of the grocer/bistro. Surprise, surprise…no one went there because it was way overpriced.

If you’re in a small business that’s not executing well, the easiest thing you can do is come up with an internal hypothesis: “Oh, it must be the economy,” or some such. The thing that takes guts, and the thing that you have to do, is to find some potential customers and effing ASK them. “Hi, I’m Mr./Ms. Blank, and this is my company/product. This is the price. Would you ever buy something like this for yourself?” I personally suck at this. I’m a digital marketer, which means I hide behind an Adwords or Facebook ad platform all day and “divine from analytics” that which should be changed. This is completely stupid. Find potential customers and ask the question!

3) Simplify! Cut Down The Menu and Make Everything Delicious

Here’s another common business problem that plagues the best of us. I happen to be fighting this very phenomenon right at the moment. Irvine orders five or six things from the menu to test the service and food quality. And most times he’s served reheated frozen food. Of course, it sucks.

How many times have managers you known tried to expand their way out of a problem? “Oh yeah, we can do that too. And that too. And THAT too!” If only we added this competency, we wouldn’t have lost that last sale…right?

This is repugnant. Even a staff operating at peak efficiency can only do so many things well. Focus on the 20% of what you produce that’s creating 80% of your good results and start cutting. Take what’s left after the cut and improve it. Improve the quality, improve the presentation, improve the customer experience and customer service. You probably have the skills to execute well if you’re not asked to execute EVERYTHING.

What other general SMB principals (if any) can we take from the tough-love make-over gurus like Chef Irvine? Let me know in the comments.


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  • Learn what makes a business fragile, so you can avoid pitfalls that sink most founders.
  • Discover how to set up your business to use setback and stressors as fuel for growth.
  • Build an unstoppable business that uses resistance to grow like muscle!