Restaurant Reality TV Shows: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Foodable Network

Foodable Network

There they are on TV, ready to fight the forces of evil and save the next restaurant. Millions tune in to these kind of shows because we root for the underdog. We want to see them come back from the edge of desperation. We love to hold on to hope.

The problems start to arise when that hope becomes the vision that many restaurants look to. Hope is not a strategy to run a business.

The other real issue is that people assume that turning around a failing or struggling restaurant is easy. Hey, they do it every week within the time frame of a TV episode, why can’t this be done at my restaurant? But the problems that really cause a restaurant to go down the path of despair started a long time before those TV cameras showed up.

Let's take a look a some of the problems these shows create:

The Menu

The Good: Almost every show does it right by coming in and cutting the menu down drastically. Menus tend to collect more and more items as restaurant owners try to appeal to a larger audience when sales start to stall. You cannot be everything to everyone and to try, just dilutes the brand. It's like the nice older lady in your neighborhood who feeds all the stray cats and soon she is the "crazy cat lady" with 30 cats that hang out at her house. She's too nice to get rid of them and they just hang around eating up all her disposable income.

The Bad: You see the nice new menu, however do they ever show the research behind it? Do they show the recipe cards? Do they show how this menu will impact labor and the bottom line? Do they discuss pricing strategy? Do they teach them how to analyze the data from the product mix report to fine tune their menu more after the camera have turned off? Do they show how to train the staff on how to talk about the new menu to guests? Do they discuss marketing the new menu to bring awareness? No.

The Ugly: Here is what happens after the camera crews leave and the show has aired– The owners have second thoughts (probably because they were not explained why the changes were made) and they go right back to their old menu plus a few of the new items that the TV chef showed them. That is a recipe for disaster.

Foodable Network

Foodable Network

The Business

The Good: Some shows do sit the owners down to explain that how they are running the business off track. They tell them what they should do and they even attempt to help them. Systems and processes are critical to restaurant success. Most of the restaurants featured on these shows usually have no systems at all. So something is better than nothing. They set up a few systems and then leave and head to the next restaurant for the next episode.

The Bad: Most shows never address the real reason these people can't get their restaurant systems right. Mindset and strengths. These things cannot be solved overnight. It can take months to get people to change mindset. Of course people say on the show they see the error of their ways, however, change happens when actions match the words. Learning personal strengths is a two part equation:

1. They have to understand and be aware of their own strengths. They have to own what they are good at.

2. They need to understand the strengths of their team and build a better one by hiring to fill in the strengths gap.

That is hard to do on a limited time TV episode.

The Ugly: All business problems are really people problems in disguise. Looking at yourself and facing your fears (which is the real problem) is not easy. The hosts on these shows usually use "shame and blame" on national TV to shock owners into making a change. Hey, when a person is yelling at you on camera, you will have a reaction. Usually one that is good only for TV ratings. When you use "shame and blame" to back people into a corner– you will get compliance, not commitment. The difference? Compliance is an I will do it for your reasons. Commitment is I will do it for my own. Which one do you think has a longer lasting impact?

Foodable Network

Foodable Network

The Staff

The Good: Shows love to focus their cameras on those people (sometimes the owner) that are just creating chaos in the restaurant. Some hosts will step up and fire the real outrageous ones (like the ones drinking, stealing, or doing drugs.) In your restaurant, you are either part of the solution or part of the problem. There is an old saying that goes, “If you can't spot the crazy person on the bus, you're the crazy person.” Same for restaurants. If you can't tell who is causing the drama, it's you.

The Bad: Do these shows ever show how to hire and recruit effectively? Do they talk about the difference between a training culture and a learning culture. Do they teach them that when it comes to hiring that having a good offense is always better than playing defense and just hiring on demand? No.

The Ugly: Most of the time the people who get fired on TV end up coming back. Just like a bad relationship they do the break-up and make-up cycle over and over. If someone is not a good fit for your restaurant and you make the decision to terminate them, don't bring them back! Human beings are creatures of habits and it takes extreme willpower and inner strength to make personal change happen (come on, if change was easy then the multi-billion dollar self help industry would not exist.) People who leave and then return usually find out that the grass is not greener at the restaurant down the street. If it comes to the point of termination (especially on bad terms) keep it that way.

Foodable Network

Foodable Network

The Standards

The Good: Most shows do an honorable attempt to get the restaurant to raise their standards. They show them the way things should be done. However, you must take into account that most restaurant TV hosts have years of restaurant experience and many just assume that their standards are THE standards. If you have never driven a Porsche, it hard for someone to explain why it is so amazing. To them, it's just an expensive car. Drive one and then the light turns What is the big difference between service and hospitality? Emotions. Hospitality is a connection, a feeling, it’s the human element. That has to be experienced, so you can take it in. It’s hard to describe it because it resonants in the limbic brain, which is the center of emotions. That part of your brain has a hard time with language. Hospitality is a feeling.

The Bad: Once again when you force people to accept standards that are outside their comfort zone, there will be resistance. Sometimes a lot of resistance. The way to ease this is by personal experience as mentioned earlier.  Take your key managers out to dinner at a high-end restaurant known for excellent food and stellar service. Let them experience standards that are higher than what they know. Now, go back and explain "the why" behind the standards. People need to own the why for their reasons, not yours. Otherwise we're back to the compliance versus commitment dilemma.

The Ugly: Most people set their standards far below where they should be. This is called settling for average. Average is a failing formula that keeps restaurants stuck in survival mode and they never can escape to a point where they thrive. You owe it to your brand to push it to become the best that it can be. That means raising your standards to a higher level than they currently are and keeping them up there. Once again resistance to things that are outside people's comfort zones will arise. Be ready for it. You must be tenacious and committed to staying on course. That also means you might have to let go of people that refuse to raise their standards to your level.

Restaurant reality shows are really for entertainment.

They meet a need to escape and they are fueled by drama, chaos, and bad examples of ownership. If you choose to get lost in your favorite show, just remember to take a hard look at yourself.

  • Have you taken a look at your menu recently?
  • Have you tolerated poor performing staff that should have been let go a long time ago?
  • Are you watching the numbers as close as you should be?
  • Are you being the leader who inspires or a boss who uses blame and shame to control your team?

If you ask these questions and come up with viable solutions– you might just avoid being featured on one of these shows and that would be a good thing.