Posts Tagged ‘restaurant impossible’

I wasn’t a lemonade stand kind of kid.

Instead, when I was 8 or 9 years old I told my mom that when I grew up, I was going to own an entire fleet of ice cream trucks. Back then ice cream was the most valuable currency I dealt in. So, naturally, my dream job involved having unlimited access to it.

I would sit in an office above an ice cream distribution center—where the ice cream men went to fill up their trucks on in the summer—and do whatever one does in an office when one owns an entire fleet of ice cream trucks. (This was before the internet and even before computers were ubiquitous, so I imagined some sort of hopper for my papers and maybe even a paperweight.) And the best part, I told my mom, was that she could come visit me at work whenever she wanted and I’d give her free ice cream.

More than two decades later, shockingly, I do not own a fleet of ice cream trucks. I do not have an office above an ice cream distribution center. Hell, I barely even eat ice cream anymore. As best laid plans of third graders often go, this one sort of fell apart after I got really into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

For Alex Blumberg, the host, producer and subject of the new podcast StartUp, there’s a little more at stake than free ice cream.

Blumberg is best known for his work with public radio, including the program This American Life (producer) and podcast Planet Money (founder, co-host). But he recently quit both those gigs to start his own project: he’s starting his own media company which will focus on producing and distributing high-quality audio content via podcasts. Oh, and the best part–for us, anyway–is that he’s letting listeners in on the process. Here’s how Blumberg describes it on his website:

This show follows what happens next – my difficult journey from man to businessman. It’s a classic start-up story, but one that’s recorded in real time. I’ve documented disastrous pitches to investors, difficult conversations with my wife, and tense negotiations with my co-founder. The result is an honest, transparent account of something that happens all the time, but that we can rarely listen in on: starting a business.

StartUp is not a prescriptive how-to guide to starting a business from the ground up (this, despite several episode titles beginning with “How To”). It’s quite the opposite. It’s a show about a guy who knows very little about starting a business, and what happens along the way as he starts to figure it out.

The weekly series, which premiered on September 5, is just seven episodes in. So far Blumberg has taken us through a failed investor pitch, the process of taking on a business partner (after realizing he couldn’t do it alone), figuring out how to share equity with that business partner (a very cool insider’s look at emotional side of the process), assigning a value to a company that doesn’t make any money yet, and even picking a name for the company.

As I’ve written about previously on this blog, I’m big fan of ABC’s Shark Tank. On that hit reality show, entrepreneurs come to the sharks (i.e. potential investors) with a fully (or partially) formed companies asking for investments in exchange for shares of their businesses. Some entrepreneurs get deals, others are sent packing. On the show it all seems so simple.

StartUp is, in many ways, a prequel to Shark Tank.* As of episode #7 Blumberg’s company, Gimlet Media (for the origin of that name, check out episode #5), is still “pre-revenue.” On Shark Tank most pre-revenue business don’t get a deal unless the idea is very, very novel.

 *If StartUp is the prequel to Shark Tank, then shows like Hotel Impossible, Restaurant Impossible, and The Profit–all of which deal with businesses gone bad–are the sequels.

For those of us who have dreamed about owning their own business—for the record the ice cream thing is still on the table, though I haven’t figured out what I’d do all winter yet—and those who haven’t, StartUp gives listeners a fresh look into those steps between concept and actually taking those steps towards turning that concept into a living, breathing, (and hopefully) profitable thing.

The most interesting stuff for the listener tends to be that which is most gut-wrenching to Blumberg–from figuring out how much equity to give his partner (episode #3), to the constant self-doubt that comes with starting a business in your forties when you have a wife and two young children to consider every time you make a decision about anything.

In episode #2 Blumberg debriefs with his wife on the phone after an investor, Matt Mazzeo, in Los Angeles. Blumberg has been out to L.A. before, in episode #1, to meet with Mazzeo’s business partner, Chris Sacca. Mazzeo and Sacca are venture investors and business partners at Lowercase Capital. They have successfully invested in the technology space. After talking with Mazzeo, Blumberg is left with a pit in his stomach:

I’m feeling the same shitty way I’m feeling the last way I was out here. … It just makes me feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. … This is the thing: I’m sitting there talking to this guy and I’m describing something that feels like the biggest thing I’ve ever done, a scale beyond my wildest imaginings, something that I can’t even tell if I can pull off, and it’s totally not big enough. Like it seems small to him.

This is a really important insight, and one that I suspect a lot of startup business owners face when pitching investors. Especially in the tech space.

Can you or I invest in companies like Gimlet Media?
Episode #7 was about crowdfunding Gimlet Media. According to the episode, the 2012 Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act allowed for Americans to invest in private companies like Gimlet Media, which they were formerly not allowed to do. This means that through companies like Alphaworks, would-be investors could go online, find a company they wanted to give money to, and in exchange they’d receive equity in that company. (This is different than sites like Kickstarter, where you “donate” money but don’t receive any equity.) A Shark Tank for the Average Joe, right? Wrong.

Due to current Securities and Exchange Commission regulations, only “accredited investors,” i.e. those who make $200,000 a year and/or have a network worth of $1 million, may do so. (Alphaworks covers this in their FAQ.) If you’re an Above Average Joe, invest to your heart’s content. Otherwise you’re out of luck until the SEC loosens those regulations. Fortunately for Gimlet Media, they had enough friends in high places–in part thanks to attention the StartUp podcast has been getting–to get to their investment goal.

New episodes of StartUp are available about every two weeks. Whether you’re a future ice cream magnate or not, I recommend you give it a listen.

You find the StartUp podcast here: http://hearstartup.com/ – or you can use a podcasting app on your phone or tablet and search for StartUp. Happy listening.

Read Full Post »

“You know, I do business on handshakes and I try to help people, and I do it to make money.”

That’s a quote from Marcus Lemonis, the star of CNBC’s hit show The Profit. Each week on the show Lemonis tries to help a failing business get back on its feet. Sound familiar? Well, it should (especially if you have read this blog).

Reality shows like Hotel lmpossible, Restaurant Impossible, and Bar Rescue feature industry experts visiting foundering businesses, addressing problems big and small, and within a week, transforming former money pits into profit machines.

But The Profit is a little different. Lemonis isn’t necessarily an expert the type of business, like hotels or restaurants, that he’s trying to rescue. He’s an expert in business. (For more on his background, check out his Wikipedia page.) His oft-repeated mantra is People, Process, Product. In each episode he examines all three and determines if the business has any hope for a turnaround.

And here’s the kicker: Lemonis isn’t just a hired gun, like Hotel’s Anthony Melchiorri or Restaurant’s Robert Irvine. Lemonis is putting up his own money, a la Shark Tank, to revive these businesses but also make a profit for himself. (The name of the show is just one big spoiler, isn’t it?)

Lemonis’ financial contribution is typically enough to pay off the business’s debt, plus some money for some upgrades to equipment that will have an impact on the bottom line. In exchange for his cash—it’s always such a baller move on when he whips out his checkbook and writes a million dollar check to a business owner—he asks for a large chunk of equity, often as high as 50%. He also requires full operational control of the business.

Like the “Impossible” shows, most of the time Lemonis business proposal and management style are met with some initial resistance from the owners, but eventually they realize that what’s good for him is what’s good for them. Happy ending, right?

Not quite. Sometimes, and this is much rarer on the various Impossibles, Lemonis can’t come to an agreement with the business, and he backs out. (While the check presentation is a big moment on the show, in reality I’m sure there are lawyers and accountants digging into the company’s financials and the owners’ credit histories to make sure the business isn’t a lemon.)

On the episode I caught last night, featuring Swanson’s Fish Market in Fairfield, Connecticut, Lemonis wrote the business a million dollar check to temporarily buy the building in which the market resides and clear up its debt, which he believed would be the pecuniary boost they needed to get back on track.

But as Lemonis (or his lawyers, off camera) dug deeper he discovered that the mortgage on the building was not, in fact, “in good shape” as the business co-owner Gary had said it was. It was in foreclosure.

Besides that, Lemonis couldn’t get past the fact that Gary owned a boat while some of his employees were covering the costs of the fish out of their own pockets. He also couldn’t get through to the other co-owner, Sue, about why her owning a BMW with $500 a month payments was sending the wrong message to her employees. Neither were willing to sell off their toys in order to take a little pressure off the business and, ya know, pay their frickin’ employees. (Unlike many struggling businesses I’ve seen on shows like this, these two had no guilt over paying themselves.) The icing on the cake was that when Lemonis came back a few weeks later to check in, he found out the owners were doing renovations on their home.

In the end Lemonis walked. There was no text at the end, like you’d see at the end of Hotel Impossible (“Occupancy is up 75% since Anthony’s visit. The hotel has plans to upgrade all rooms within the next six months.”) It was Lemonis’ quote (from the beginning of this post), and then the episode just kind of ends.

In a previous post I wondered why this didn’t happen more often, as it did in an episode of Hotel Impossible last season. If these people aren’t willing to do what it takes to run a successful business, why does the show still insist on helping them? I imagine there are so many American businesses doing things the right way (or at least what they believe is the right way) and still struggling. Why not help them instead?

(Here’s an idea for a show: when one small business is too stubborn or foolish to accept the free help of an expert—who, by the way, they called!—that expert goes across the street and helps their biggest rival. Or better yet, the expert starts his own business just to crush them. Too much? Watch the Hotel Impossible episode about the Thunderbird Motel–or read my post about it–and tell me those people deserve to stay in business.)

The only regrettable aspect of Lemonis walking away from Swanson’s was that the owners’ 24-year-old daughter, Larissa, was apparently working the hardest of any of them to keep the company afloat. She also seemed to be the only one who saw the value of Lemonis’ involvement and potential investment. Maybe somewhere in the near future she’ll open her own fish market and put her parents out of business? Or at least buy them out? After all, what better way to learn how to run a successful business than seeing first-hand all the ways not to run one?

***UPDATE*** I’m not sure about the sequence of events here but Larissa Swanson, the daughter of the owners of Swanson’s Fish Market, wrote a treatise on the company’s website in response to the way their episode of The Profit was edited and the deal that Lemonis ultimately walked away from. You can read the whole thing here, but the her key points are quoted or paraphrased below (with my own thoughts in italics).

  • “When we sat down for the deal they told us before hand that if he writes us a check, it is only for show purposes and we have to hand it right back.” That sounds about right.
  • “We also did not film for 4 weeks, the filming process started at the beginning of June and ended in September! We were strung along for 4 months. They don’t add that my mom had a contractor at the house painting bc we are fixing it up right now to SELL and put it on the market. We never even did a building deal with him, where he said he would buy It for one million. We did not see a penny for the entire 4 months.” This was not clear at all on the episode. In terms of timing Lemonis mentioned that he went back four weeks later, and that’s when he discovered the property was in foreclosure. More on that…
  • “On August 26th I was served papers by a sheriff on the building for kasowitz (the guy who did a mortgage for it)  I notified Marcus immediately via text..we were not aware that a foreclosure process even started. Our building is fine now and we are taking care of it. Our building also had a contractor Lien put on it 3 years ago and we had the lien removal paper but our mortgager never brought it to city hall to be taken care of and of course they never aired that either!” It’s starting to sound like a he said-she said thing, but ultimately if Swanson’s was even close to foreclosure Gary shouldn’t have said it was “in good shape.” Or was that creative editing, too?
  • “When the boat happened he moved it from the marina and put it in someone’s backyard before hurricane Sandy hit and the motors became ruined and it turned into a salvaged project. He bought that boat 15 years ago.” The fact remains that he’s apparently paying marina fees on a boat, but Marcus made it out to be a luxury yacht.
  • “Marcus even asked me to negotiate with people and had me promise to pay them the next day certified check and never even came through. Those people are so angry now that they are sueing us.” Um…
  • “They also didn’t add how my little brother has a serious mental illness that he was diagnosed with 3 years ago of schizophrenia and it’s so severe that we are constantly in and out of hospitals and have paid over 100k in medical,hospital,ambulance bills and medications.” The show easily could have gone the other way with this and played up this angle, a la Restaurant Impossible, but they chose to go in the direction of villainizing the Swansons instead.
  • Sue had three deaths in her family around the time of the taping, explaining her disconnected, erratic behavior.
  • “Halfway through filming [Sue] agreed to sell the BMW and we filmed a cute scene where we taped for sale signs on her car windows to show we would sacrifice for the deal but they didnt show that either of course.” It’s starting to sound like the producers made the call to cut this into one episode’s worth of content, even though they clearly needed more time to tell the story completely.
  • “I also wanted to touch base on our employees chipping in for product- that i agree was not right but it was a total of only two times and they got their money back right at the end of the day only because we had vendors who wanted cashiers checks in the morning for product and my mother or father were not there to get to the bank and there was not enough to cover it with cash in the register.” Again, they really played up this angle as if it was all the time. That said, it’s no way to run a business.
  • Larissa addresses the circumstances around the fires that destroyed their property and imputes them to a former employee with a drug problem. I’m not sure this is relevant except that it casts doubt for those who may have thought the Swansons may have set the fires themselves for the insurance money.
  • There are also some images on the site including Larissa’s text to Lemonis about the foreclosure and some other critical documents that the show glossed over.

So, what are we as fans of The Profit to make of all this? Well, we all know reality shows edit their footage in order to tell a succinct, compelling story in their allotted amount of time, usually about 44 minutes for an hour-long program. Some edits don’t matter as much, like the exact phrasing of a quote, but others can be specious, like some of what Larissa alleges above.

While I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen of Lemonis and The Profit so far, at this point I’ll really need to take what he and the show are saying with a grain of salt. And I won’t be so quick to write a blog post that paints these small businesses featured on these shows in such a negative light, at least not until hearing both sides of the story.

As for you, I suggest you watch at your own risk.

Read Full Post »

Please note: This post has been updated from its original version, “Review: Hotel Impossible, Sandy Part 1.” In this revised version, I have included an update at the end of the post based on the “Sandy, Part 2” episode, focusing on the controversial Thunderbird Motel project.

I’m a big fan of the business makeover shows, including Restaurant Impossible and Hotel Impossible. As someone who doesn’t own my own business, but might like to some day, it’s interesting to see how someone at the top of their profession can quickly get to the bottom of why a business is failing.

But my biggest frustration with these shows, as I’ve written about before on this blog, is the projects they select. More often than not the biggest reason why a hotel or restaurant fails–at least on these shows–is the ownership. They’re typically lazy (kitchens or hotel rooms are filthy, obvious repairs aren’t made, the customer service is half-assed, etc.) or clueless (“We thought it would be fun to buy a restaurant!”). I have yet to see an episode where a hotel or restaurant owner is doing mostly everything right but is still struggling to turn a profit. While that would be decidedly less “impossible” to turn around, I might prefer that every once in a while to helping people who have been unable or unwilling to help themselves.

In the most recent episode of Hotel Impossible, hotel guru Anthony Melchiorri takes his talents down to the Jersey Shore to help reverse some of the damage done by Hurricane Sandy last October. A worthy cause, or so it seemed.

The episode takes place about a week before July 4, the following summer after Sandy. As he arrives, Anthony seems genuinely shocked at the condition of the hotel he’s there to fix, the Thunderbird Motel in Seaside Heights, NJ (a.k.a. the town where Jersey Shore was filmed), nine months later. The rooms on the ground floor are still being gutted and he’s been told that 20% of the hotel’s inventory is not ready to be sold.

When Anthony questions the family–a couple in their fifties and a grown son and daughter–as to why so little has been done, they talk about how the insurance money was slow to come in. The patriarch tells Anthony about the Thunderbird: “You’re lookin’ at my 401K here” and that the hotel was meant to be the parents’ retirement.

Anthony goes in for a room inspection–a room the son has assured him is ready to be rented immediately–and finds the usual stuff he always finds: dirt, dead bugs, filthy shower heads, and, of course, a week-old pizza box in the fridge (with one slice left!). The son, Ray Jr., goes into the contrite routine we see often of hotel owners on the show, falsely accepting the blame but clearly believing it’s someone else’s fault, in this case housekeeping

Anthony, in classic straight-shooter Melchiorri style, tells Ray Jr. (who believes he runs the hotel), that he is not general manager material. Anthony leaves, and Ray Jr. follows a few minutes behind him, cursing Anthony under his breath. Later, Ray Sr. is recorded behind closed doors saying that he wants to chop Anthony’s head off–so there that is.

Meanwhile, the rest of the family gangs up on Anthony, telling him that they were too hard on Ray Jr. (Direct quote from Ray Jr.’s mom: “He didn’t have to chew my son sixteen new a**holes.”) As he usually does, Anthony gives the family a chance to cool down and explains that he’s there to help, and he can only do that if he’s completely honest. The family seems to get it, sort of, but Ray Jr. still won’t speak to Anthony. Given a chance to walk away from the project and cut his losses, Anthony chooses to stick it out.

Next, Ray Sr. and Anthony take a drive, having apparently patched things up after the whole “chop off his head” thing. Ray Sr. casually points out other real estate in the area he owns, explaining that his assets total about $40 million. Yup.

Anthony doesn’t start screaming at him (as some of us might have) but calmly asks him why, if the hotel was so important to him, he didn’t consider selling off some of his other assets to pay for the repairs. Ray Jr. replies, “I prioritized. I don’t like digging into capital.” Totally see his point. I mean, who does?

Later, Anthony has another closed door conversation with the family, where Ray Jr. asks him to delete the footage of the hotel inspection from the beginning of the episode that shows Ray Jr. in a negative light. Anthony refuses, saying the only way the footage would be deleted is if they cancel the show. Ray Jr. walks out.

Then, still behind closed doors, it is revealed that Ray Jr. was not actually being tapped to be the general manager, and that a new GM the family had already hired would be starting in a few months. This is the last straw for Anthony, who pulls his crew off the set. He declares that he never leaves a job unfinished, but that he can’t deal with the family’s dishonesty. He believes he’s being “played.” If that’s true, it’s hard to see what the family’s game plan was, since Ray Jr. blatantly told Anthony about his substantial assets without any probing. Nevertheless, Anthony is outta there.

The show ends with previews of Part 2 of the Sandy episode, which has Anthony helping other Jersey Shore hoteliers get back on their feet (plus a cameo by NJ Governor Chris Christie!). Disappointingly, the last scene of the preview has Anthony trying to reconcile with the family from the Thunderbird.

Meanwhile the family that owns the Thunderbird Motel is none too happy about how they were portrayed on the show, as scammers. If I came off the way they did, I wouldn’t be, either. Not to mention, $40 million doesn’t go as far as it used to.

The end of Sandy, Part 1, teased that Anthony would attempt to reconcile with the Braun family, who own the Thunderbird Motel. Reconciliation proved, well, impossible.

Ray Jr. was barely willing to look at Anthony when he tried to open a dialogue about restarting the project. Meanwhile Ray Sr. expressed, again, that he felt the family was blindsided and that Anthony’s crew had come in and wrecked his hotel. (This statement was confusing, as I don’t believe they actually did any work on the hotel apart from Anthony taking a week-old pizza out of the fridge in one of the rooms.)

Anthony and Ray Sr. shook hands and went their separate ways. However the dialogue continued between Ray Sr. and Anthony’s camera crew, who apparently brought bodyguards. Ray Sr. took offense to HI‘s “muscle,” and said he would bring his own muscle next time.

After they shook hands–which was about as forced as Ray Sr.’s previous handshake with Anthony–Ray Jr. asked whether HI still planned to use the footage from the beginning of the first episode, which he felt made him look foolish. The producer said that they would be using the footage, which was a different story than the one Anthony told him at the end of the first episode. Anthony had told him the footage would be deleted if the show was canceled–but clearly it was not…

I don’t feel great about the way things played out, especially considering that it seemed like Anthony lied (or at least misspoke) about the footage. While the Braun family clearly did not deserve Anthony’s help, they were basically used by the producers to create enough footage for an entire episode and didn’t end up getting a hotel renovation out of it. I don’t know about the waivers they might have signed or the legalities involved, but it seems kinda messed up.

Finally, Anthony goes back to the Thunderbird one last time. As a peace offering, he tells Ray Sr. that his designer had had three rooms and a front desk’s worth custom cabinets made for the Thunderbird already, and that if he wanted them, they were his (on the house). In a cliffhanger that only a reality hotel renovation show can have, HI cuts to commercial before we find out whether Ray Sr. will accept the free cabinets. I can tell you it was a VERY long ninety seconds waiting to find out if Ray Sr. would, in fact, accept the free cabinets. (He did.)

Oh yeah and a bunch of other stuff happened in Part 2, including some hotel renovations. Here are the TripAdvisor pages for all the hotels in the two episodes:

Thunderbird Motel: 4/5 rating on 17 reviews (but none since Hurricane Sandy)
Palm Villa Suites Motel: 3.5/5 rating on 51 reviews
Tradewinds Motor Lodge: 4/5 rating on 14 reviews
Charlroy Motel: 3/5 rating on 49 reviews

Did you watch both episodes? What do you think?

RELATED: Hotel Impossible’s First Mission: Gurney’s Inn on Long Island

RELATED: Hotel Impossible: After Anthony Special – A Review

Read Full Post »

From the time I moved to the post-college paradise that is Hoboken, New Jersey, in 2006, until the day I moved out of the oft-flooded mile-square city in 2008, I’d never heard of Buddy Valastro.

I also didn’t know much about his bakery, Carlo’s Bake Shop, though I’d walked past it hundreds of times on Hoboken’s main drag, Washington Street. With its picturesque storefront window and classic gold on maroon signage, Carlo’s always felt very upscale from the outside; it was the kind of place that someone like me, who routinely ate mac and cheese with cut-up hot dogs for dinner, should walk right past without a second glance.

But what I also didn’t know was this: that behind that fancy storefront window I’d been so intimated by, Buddy Valastro was busy building an empire.

Having his cake…
It was my fiancée who introduced me to Valastro’s cable reality show, Cake Boss, in 2009. The show is about a family-owned bakery in Hoboken starring the son of the bakery’s late owner, Bartolo “Buddy” Valastro Sr.

Buddy Jr.’s supporting cast is made up of the other people who work in the bakery, many of them related to him by blood or marriage. They play innocuous pranks on each other, bicker like family often does, and produce elaborate works of edible art in each episode.

Even since the TLC show debuted, I would guess the bakery still sells more pastries like cannoli, cupcakes, and lobster tails than it does its $25,000 masterpieces. Yet it’s the higher profile clients and cakes that the show centers around; they represent a new challenge to Buddy and his bakers in each episode.


Always bet on red…velvet! Am I right??? (Photo credit: http://www.mediaglare.wordpress.com)

Cake Boss, which begun its sixth season this past Memorial Day, is a lot like the storefront window at Carlo’s in that it’s been a showcase for the talents of Buddy and his staff. They’ve made everything from a wedding cake that was fitted to house two live doves, to a roulette table and wheel cake for a local men’s social club. (For Cake Boss‘s “Top 5 Most Impressive Cakes,” click here.)

Upon each cake’s delivery on the show, often by Buddy himself, the client thanks the Cake Boss effusively for using his artistic medium, cake, to transform their vision into a gorgeous and delicious homage to the person, place or thing they’re celebrating. And Buddy, always modest and deferential, seems to understand that the client isn’t really a customer, but a patron of the arts who allows him to make a lucrative living doing what he loves to do.

…and Eating It, Too
For many of us, it would have been enough to propel our family’s mom-and-pop bake shop into a multi-million dollar business with its own accompanying reality show. But Buddy, so it appears, is far more ambitious than his goofy, avuncular, PG-rated disposition might suggest.

The Next Great Baker, his competition reality show, just wrapped up its third season in February 2013. From 2011 to 2012 he hosted two seasons of yet another TLC show called Kitchen Boss, a cooking show where Buddy traded in eggs, sugar and flower for tomato sauce, pasta and meatballs, and shared his family’s Italian food recipes.

Meanwhile, after opening up another facility at the Lackawanna Center in Jersey City to keep up with the high volume of national orders–more voluminous thanks to Cake Boss‘s popularity–he has since expanded, opening a second Carlo’s Bake Shop in Ridgewood, New Jersey. He’s also got a small shop in Times Square. I get the sense he won’t stop there.

Sure, A&E’s Duck Dynasty may have stolen some of the cable reality headlines recently. The hit show has emerged as a ratings machine, beating everything in the Wednesday 10 pm time slot including broadcast network programming.

Like Willie Robertson, the CEO of Duck Commander born into a family whose patriarch started a modest duck call business, Valastro has benefited by being at the right place–and in the right family–at the right time, as the oldest son of a baker with his own bake shop. And yes, if you asked Valastro he might tell you how blessed he feels to be where he is today. But it hasn’t been all roses for Valastro, who lost his father in 1994 and whose mother, as documented on Cake Boss, was recently diagnosed with ALS.

Yet the Cake Boss machine rolls on, all Buddy’s hard work seemingly less about avarice than about honoring the family tradition he was destined to carry on.

Taking His Talents to Upstate New York
Despite everything on his cake plate, Buddy is apparently still up for a new challenge.

Joining Restaurant Impossible‘s Robert Irvine and Hotel Impossibles Anthony Melchiorri, Buddy Valastro is looking to become the next star in reality TV’s small business renovation sub-genre. After all, if you needed advice on running your family-owned bakery, wouldn’t Valastro be the first guy you’d want to talk to?

In the premiere episode of his latest TLC show, Bakery Boss, last Monday night, Valastro visited Friendly Bake Shop upstate in Frankfort, New York. (About 200 miles away from Carlo’s, Friendly is safely outside Valastro’s customer base. For now.)

Friendly Bake Shop after the Buddy treatment.

Friendly Bake Shop after the Buddy treatment. (Photo credit: herkimertelegram.com)

With three old, tired men at the helm of Friendly and their three grown children working devotedly (but fecklessly) for them, it seemed that the former were lacking energy to keep the bakery going, while the latter were lacking the know-how. Buddy’s visit was their last chance to turn things around.

As you might expect with any episode in this genre–as we’ve seen so many made-for-reality-TV miracles performed by Irvine and Melchiorri before–Buddy shapes up Friendly Bake Shop in just a few days. He demands a full cleaning of the shop and its equipment, revises the menu with some of his own best-sellers and shows the staff how to make them, and renovates the storefront to look more like Carlo’s than a crappy dive bar in the middle of nowhere.

Early reports say the shop is now flourishing since the episode aired, though Yelp has just one review from someone in California.

Success Story or Sell-Out?
Former New York Yankee great Yogi Berra once reportedly said about a popular restaurant, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

Many of us can relate to the idea of liking things before it was cool. Our favorite indie band gets mainstream radio airplay, and suddenly we can’t get tickets to their concerts. Our favorite TV show, which so aptly captured the zeitgeist of people our age, suddenly got popular among the masses and became prosaic beyond recognition.

So should we stop rooting for guys like Buddy, who was once a great upstart story but has since saturated the market with pre-made cakes sold in grocery stores, a line of baking equipment, and enough TV shows to start his own cable network? There’s no right answer to that, of course, but for me it’s always felt strange rooting for the underdog only until they’re not the underdog anymore.

En route to our Memorial Day weekend away at the beach, my fiancée and I stopped off at Carlo’s to get some treats before getting onto the New Jersey Turnpike.

Arriving on Friday morning, we hoped they would still have plenty of their signature coffee cake–my fiancee’s mom’s favorite–with the crumbs the size of small boulders. Our only concern, with a tight schedule and a long drive ahead, was the length of the line.

As it turns out we were right to be concerned. We had apparently showed up just a few minutes behind a bus full of tourists who had made a special trip to wait on line at the famous bakery from TV. They were queued up along the sidewalk, blocking the path of Hoboken residents whose formerly cute little local Italian bakery was now a nuisance to walk past.

We chose not to wait. In that moment we would have loved to have pulled up and seen no line so we could get in and out. I’m sure Buddy would disagree.

I’ll still be rooting from Buddy from afar, like a high school friend I don’t speak to but keep up with all the goings on in their life via Facebook. In the meantime there’s no shortage of up-and-coming reality stars to latch onto, perhaps even the next Buddy Valastro.

Read Full Post »

Back in April last year, I wrote a blog post detailing the first ever episode of Hotel Impossible. It’s become one of my most popular posts, so I thought it would be appropriate to write a follow up as Anthony Melchiorri, hotel fixer extraordinaire and star of the show, visits six of the hotels from the first season to see how they’re doing since he left them on last night’s episode.

Like I wrote in my last post, my favorite part of watching shows like Hotel Impossible and Restaurant Impossible is looking up the properties after the fact to see what the reviews say. (Full disclosure: If the owners hesitate, even slightly, to listen to Anthony, I start rooting against them hardcore like a Deal or No Deal contestant who went against the mathematical odds for a chance at the million-dollar suitcase instead of cashing in for $250K.)

Here’s what I hoped to find out from this follow-up edition of Hotel Impossible: Was it, in fact, possible to revamp these properties? Did Anthony’s tough love and business strategies pay off? Did the owners ultimately heed his advice, or did they just yes him to death until he was gone, then go back to their old ways?

Here’s a brief recap of each follow-up, as well as a few tweets Anthony (@AnthonyHotels) sent out in real time last night:

Ocean Manor Resort Hotel (Fort Lauderdale, FL), 10 months later
The hotel seems to be doing better now that the owner is less involved and the GM is running the show, but it’s still receiving negative reviews on TripAdvisor. A January 28 review called it “The worst hotel ever!” Not a ringing endorsement for the job Anthony did, but I appreciate the show tellin’ it like it is by actually mentioning the negative reviews in its recap. My favorite line from the follow-up came from the owner, who said that since Anthony left, they’ve renovated “over 37 rooms.” So…38?

Dude Rancher Lodge (Billings, MT), 5 months later
There was nothing too remarkable about this hotel’s recovery. During the initial visit, Anthony won over the curmudgeonly sales manager, but she retired and they hired a younger manager from the area to replace her. This seemed to be working out just swimmingly until THERE WAS A SHOOT-OUT BETWEEN POLICE AND A CRAZED GUNMAN AT THE HOTEL. (The police eventually shot him dead, in case you were wondering.) Still, the recent reviews are mostly positive…

Purple Orchid Inn, Resort & Spa (Livermore, CA), 8 months later
A couple-owned hotel and spa, this appeared to be one of Anthony’s easier missions. The property is gorgeous; the spa just needed a little updating. Also, Anthony persuaded the couple to put on some events to promote their own wine and that of other local vineyards. According to the owners, who have since had a son, they’ve now gotten 150,000 visits to their website and they’re doing 300 spa appointments per month (previously they were doing about two appointments per week), which is what Anthony said a spa in the area should be handling in order to maximize its profits. See their reviews here.

Purple Orchid Resort & Spa in Livermore, CA

Purple Orchid Resort & Spa in Livermore, CA

Dream Inn (Daytona Beach, FL), 5 months later
This place was being run by an older couple (the mother was recently diagnosed with cancer) before her son took over the day-to-day operations. It was a pretty classic case of a hotel that was being run by people who, despite the hotel being their only source of income, didn’t know (or care) how to help themselves. The rooms need to be CLEANED? The hotel staff should wear UNIFORMS? We NEVER woulda thought of that! (Also, the property was overrun with dolphin statutes, like a lot of dolphin statues, which was just weird.) Since Anthony’s visit, the owners replaced their housekeeping staff with a professional cleaning service, and guests no longer have to clean their own dishes (in the original episode, leaving a dirty dish would have cost a guest a $25 charge at check-out). Per the owners, revenue is up 25%, occupancy up 10%. With the hotel’s phenomenal view of the ocean, Anthony thinks it can do even better than that. Still, the recent reviews are very strong.

La Jolla Cove Suites (La Jolla, San Diego, CA), 7 months later
Like Purple Orchid, Anthony’s primary role in fixing this place was to consult on the marketing front. And like Dream Inn, the view was not the problem. The owner wasn’t utilizing the roof space, they launched a marketing event to get locals up there to expose them to the view. The owners were also in the process of renovating the rooms but ran out of money. Since Anthony’s visit, the owners didn’t disappoint. They replicated the sample room Anthony’s designer created 22 times, all rooms have new mattresses, and Anthony’s famous “face plant” method–falling face-first onto the mattress–is now used the staff to test the mattress softness. Meanwhile Anthony struck gold with his suggestion to use the roof top as the hotel’s main selling point: since he left, La Jolla Cove Suites has hosted 29 weddings and 35 corporate events on roof deck. Per the owner, the hotel was named the second-best wedding venue in the county, and she says people mention Hotel Impossible when they call to inquire about rooms and events. Occupancy is up 22% occupancy, and there’s been a $400,000 increase in revenue (I believe that number was year over year) in the last five months. Anthony earned his paycheck on that one. Here are the reviews.

New Yorker Boutique Hotel (Miami, FL), 10 months later
As with the Dream Inn, this too was couple-owned and the co-owner wife had been recently diagnosed with MS. Meanwhile the financial struggles piled up, with the owners’ whole family living in a small apartment in the back of the hotel, now $1 million in debt. They seemed generally clueless about how to run a hotel, in one instance admitting that they let emails sit in their inbox for several days, even for a corporate client inquiring about rates for 150 nights a year (Anthony, incredulous, closed the guy over the phone in about two minutes for $85 a night). But after Anthony’s visit, which included a few lessons in marketing in sales, the couple says they’ve paid off 50% of their debt, and the co-owner is better able to manage her health and see doctors more often. Meanwhile, they report the hotel’s occupancy is at 80-95%. The reviews, on the other hand, are a mixed bag (don’t stay in room 223, apparently).

Much like Robert Irvine’s drill sergeant style on RI, Melchiorri’s New York Italian brashness was not always well-received by his would-be clients. (As the viewer, I didn’t mind the brashness, perhaps because it wasn’t my failures as a businessman he was exposing on a TV show whose title posits these hotels may be “impossible” to fix, or simply because I’m a New York Italian.) There was often resistance in the form of crying, yelling, or just, well, interesting comments from hotel owners like, “paper never crashes” in response to Anthony’s insistence that they invest in a computer system to track reservations rather than just writing them down and filing them away.

Of course I’m sure many moments were played up or down for the cameras, but Anthony seems to be having a positive effect on these hotels, if nothing else than for some increased visibility as “that hotel from the TV.” Perhaps Melchiorri’s reputation will start to proceed him as the show becomes more and more popular and he’ll have fewer clashes with these failing hotel owners, who might actually just shut up and listen. But then, where would the fun be in that?

Hotel Impossible can be seen on Mondays at 10 pm on Travel Channel.

RELATED: Hotel Impossible’s First Mission: Gurney’s Inn on Long Island

RELATED: Hotel Renovation Proves ‘Impossible’ for Anthony Melchiorri

Read Full Post »

A shared pastime of my fiancée and me is to watch an episode of the Food Network’s Restaurant: Impossible and then, once it’s over, to Yelp the featured restaurant to see if they were able to turn things around once the camera crew packed up and left. It’s not that we don’t trust Sir Robert Irvine, the ex-military Brit with a heart of gold shrouded in an exterior of tough love and culinary expertise. It’s that we don’t always trust the restaurateurs to stick to the blueprint Irvine has laid out for them.

Inevitably, we’ll find reviews like this one, which reference the restaurant’s appearance on the show, often telling other would-be diners that it’s still the same old dump. In some cases, we find out the restaurant closed shortly after Irvine’s intervention. And while it’s sad to see, there are thousands of other restaurants that don’t have the benefit of a deus ex machina like Irvine. Instead, if they want to survive in the business they have to, you know,  run their restaurant correctly.

Still, we love the show and so we were quite pleased to stumble upon the series premiere of Travel Channel’s Hotel Impossible last night. Hotel Impossible is centered around an expert in the hospitality field and hotel “fixer,” Anthony Melchiorri, with a brash style similar to Irvine’s. In Hotel Impossible’s first episode, Melchiorri goes out to Montauk, Long Island, to rescue Gurney’s Inn, a family-run hotel that has seen a steady decline since the family patriarch and general manager passed away two years ago.

Melchiorri immediately diagnoses Gurney’s biggest issues: crappy service, outdated decor, and the general ineptitude of the management, who are all members of the family. In one scene, he asks the current GM to round up the staff for a 10 am meeting on the beach, and by 10:30 no one’s there. When Melchiorri confronts the GM, his excuse is that everyone’s “on Montauk time.” About fifteen minutes in, we already hate the GM if not the entire family. The head chef, one of the few relatives who actually seems competent, admits on camera that some of the other family members would not have a job at Gurney’s if they weren’t flesh and blood. It’s as if their father left them a coveted masterpiece, and they can’t be bothered to dust the frame from time to time.

OK, we get it: it’s a TV show; there’s got to be some conflict. If they only tackled projects where ownership was totally willing to adopt every change Melchiorri suggested, it wouldn’t seem quite so “impossible.” (Or, for that matter they wouldn’t be in so much trouble in the first place.) But throughout the episode, Melchiorri makes references to the other newer, hungrier hotels in Montauk who can’t wait to “eat their lunch” if Gurney’s keeps going the way it is, and that the only thing saving them is the gorgeous view of the ocean from their property, which this generation can hardly take credit for.

Wouldn’t it make for a decent, and similarly impossible show, if Melchiorri, or Irvine for that matter, helped out one of those competing hotels or restaurants to put a bigger one out of business? While the Impossible shows are entertaining, I can’t help but think that if these were baseball teams instead of service businesses, they’d be swooping in to help the New York Yankees spend their $200 million payroll more efficiently, while the financially challenged Oakland A’s looked around and said, “What about us?”

All that said, there are probably hundreds of newer, hungrier hotels, restaurants, pet shops, bakeries, food trucks, writers, and yes, even baseball teams, who are slowly making headway in their respective industries, chipping away at the market share–all without the help of a TV show. But for their sake, let’s hope that Melchiorri or Irvine don’t show up one day to help their competitors across the street.

RELATED: Hotel Renovation Proves ‘Impossible’ for Anthony Melchiorri

RELATED: Hotel Impossible: After Anthony Special – A Review

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: