Your food sucks!

cHow do you help a group of people whose lives are intertwined with a failing organization? How do you get through to owners who are in denial about the state of their organization? Robert Irvine’s TV show does just that, over and over again. Recently, in May 2014, the show “Restaurant Impossible” aired its 100th episode. I’ve watched all of the shows up to Season 7, so I still have some catching up to do. To put it mildly, I have been enthralled by this show and by the TV personality, Robert Irvine. The premise of the show is that restaurant owners contact the Food Network and apply to get help from Robert for their restaurant in danger of closing. Robert goes into the restaurant and has a total of 36 hours and $10,000 dollars to save the restaurant. I was stunned by the process and how Irvine goes about this restaurant-saving work. Could there be implications here for the church? I think so.

An Interview

Fix 3 Things

After watching many of these shows, it is clear that fixing a restaurant comes down to three practical matters: food, service and cleanliness. The owners are almost always in denial about these things. They think their food is the best. But Irvine, a professional cook, tells them almost every time “Your food sucks”. This may sound harsh, but only the direct approach seems to wake people up and lead them out of denial. If you have great food, people will come to your restaurant.

But great food is not enough. You need to have good service. Robert pays attention to online reviews of restaurants and tries to figure out a marketing plan for them. The owners tend to be in denial about this too. Their servers think they are doing a good job. Almost always Robert finds that 1 or 2 people are doing 90% of the work. Most people are just lazy and are focused on their own problems. They take a paycheck but they don’t clean and they don’t serve guests with respect and cheerful disposition.

In short, the food, the service and the cleanliness are evidences that people have checked out. They don’t care anymore and just want their money so they can go home and get away from the restaurant. Robert bluntly shows them the bad food, the bad service and the dirty areas of the restaurant. Until those are addressed, the owners will keep failing.

The One Thing that Counts Most

The theme that is unmistakable is that one thing overshadows all other problems. Relationships. The owners and staff are almost always broken in some major way. And every time, Robert zeroes in on those relationships. One phrase that he repeats often is this: “I can fix your food, I can clean your restaurant, I can train your staff to clean, but I cannot fix this, your relationship. That is up to you.” Robert shows the owners what’s wrong and what’s right, and does so with bold courage and gentle kindness. He exposes their painpoints. But he leaves the decisions up to the owners. It is their restaurant. He can set them on a course for success, but ongoing success depends on how well the owners work together and with their staff.

These relationships are so important that Robert keeps in contact with them even after leaving them. He even stays in contact if the restaurant fails. In just two days, he cannot fix all the problems, but he can set them on a course for success. And most importantly, in two days, he can build a relationship with them. Usually the owners hate him at first, and end up either loving him or at least highly respecting him in the end.

The show is highly emotional, so if you watch it, have a box of tissue nearby!

Success Rate

This all sounds good, but how successful has Irvine been? He mentions a 65% success rate in the interview above, over the course of helping 100 restaurants. You might initially think this is not so great. But compare 65% to .3%. Back in 2010, we discussed Joe’s article about success rate at ubf being .3 percent. Such a small success rate tells me the ubf system has failed and is failing. Joe’s words are still relevant in 2014: “Instead of assuming that it’s okay to sift through massive numbers of students to find the 0.3 percent that can remain among us, perhaps it’s time to stop, reflect upon ourselves, and consider how to reach at least some portion of the other 99.7 percent.”

Can you see any correlation to the church? What might a pastor learn from Irvine? Have you watched this show? What are your thoughts about Robert’s approach?


  1. Mark Mederich

    maybe a religious corollary is:
    good food=helpful word of God
    good service=helpful conduct

    may the Spirit guide us to God’s words and help us interpret God’s meaning for good purpose

  2. I’ve heard (and read) countless notable church leaders and leadership books say virtually the exact same thing: the starting point of turning around a declining church is to face the painful truth about your church…with your church.

    It starts by listening not to themselves (like the declining restaurants, they think everything’s fine!), but to others. Until that happens, things cannot but continue as they have been, which is downhill. This is just what many books and leaders say.

    • Yes, Ben, it may be easy to dismiss the obvious solution to most problems: love. But it is so hard to do. I find that we often need someone to point out the obvious.

    • Mark Mederich

      Hard listen to others because they may be wrong but can listen to God if the Spirit helps find true good meaning

  3. Mark, those are things I had in mind… What “food” does your church offer? How is your church serving people, especially people not from your church? How transparent are your church’s leaders, i.e. do they hid their dirty laundry or are they vulnerable, accountable and approachable?

    The “food” issue was a major point of contention during the Toledo ubf collapse. We were supposed to keep regurgitating the same old lectures, derived from SL’s lectures, over and over again. We were supposed to just look the other way when the Sunday lectures were used as a public shaming mechanism.

    Most of us concluded that we just could not keep eating such crap.