Chef Robert Irvine has made saving struggling restaurants his mission. His no-nonsense approach to restaurant operations and management is giving restaurateurs the knowledge they need to succeed.
Marketing Iceologist, Heidi, caught up with Chef Robert Irvine as he was wrapping up a day of taping his hit show, Restaurant:Impossible. Chef Robert gives us restaurant operations tips, chats about his charitable work and makes the case against owning commercial ice machines.
Iceologist: Restaurant owners are always seeking your advice. What areas should a restaurant owner focus on to achieve success?
Robert: It comes down to really understanding business. People get into the restaurant business thinking it’s going to be easy. It’s not! Restaurateurs need to understand business principles — how to budget and how to use money.
For success, they need to focus on finance, food and menu development.
Iceologist: Everybody knows ice is critical to a restaurant for beverages, how else is ice used to contribute to the success of a restaurant?
Robert: Ice is used in many applications in restaurants; cooling food, behind the bar, in the kitchen. Safety is paramount.
Ice goes into food and drinks and if the ice machine is contaminated, you can potentially harm young people and the elderly. You can make everyone sick. Quality, clean ice is Very important to a restaurant!
Iceologist: If ice is critical for the business, is it critical that the restaurant own the ice machine?
Robert: Absolutely not! It’s critical that the owner/manager has an ice machine they can depend on, one that’s easily cleaned and maintained. I think it’s better to have the ice machines maintained by others — by experts. I advise owners not to take on the stress or costs of owning an ice machine.
Iceologist: On Restaurant: Impossible, how often does an owner tell you they have problems with their ice machine or how often do you help them uncover a problem they didn’t know they had?
Robert: At least 50% of the restaurants on R:I have problems with their ice machine. Nine out of ten times, they have the wrong size machine.
So many restaurant owners don’t realize that ice is a big part of restaurants. The kitchen and bar demand a lot of ice. Owners I’ve worked with only factor in the ice they need for drinks. They forget about all the ice they’ll need in the kitchen. So, they’re spending money buying bagged ice.
Iceologist: If you were to generalize about the condition of the ice machine in most restaurants, how would you describe them? Why do you think that is?
Robert: Most ice machines are poorly maintained. People don’t have the time or knowledge that they think they have to keep the ice safe. Folks believe that emptying out an ice bin and wiping it down equals cleaning. It doesn’t!
Ice machines need to be cleaned and sanitized regularly. A good service (like Easy Ice) can do it all.
Iceologist: I assume Restaurant:Impossible has taken you to restaurants with poorly maintained equipment – what are the most egregious oversights you’ve seen in a restaurant?
Robert: The biggest oversights I see are poor training, poor sanitation and not holding people accountable for cleaning. In my restaurants, my executive chefs are personally responsible for cleaning all of the kitchen equipment. If I walk in and anything is dirty, all hell breaks loose!
Iceologist: Tell us about your most disgusting encounter with an ice machine while filming Restaurant:Impossible.
Robert: I’ve seen mold and slime. Pollard’s Bar-B-Que may have been the worst. The inside of their ice machine was moldy and hadn’t been cleaned in years. And they were serving ice from this machine to guests!
Iceologist: You spent Labor Day weekend participating in the Hilton Head Celebrity Charity Golf Tournament. How many years have you participated and what is your involvement with the benefitting charities?
Robert: I’m the official “host” of the annual event that benefits 20 kids’ charities in South Carolina. I’ve been on the board of directors for 4 years and I’m involved with all the charities. I visit all the benefiting charities and am an advocate for them.
A couple of weeks ago, I talked to over a 1000 kids in South Carolina about healthy eating, exercise and bullying. These are topics that are important to me.
Iceologist: Robert, you are known to be a guy who “gives back” to the community in a big way. What charities are near and dear to your heart?
Robert: I’m involved with 70 charities right now. I work with a lot of kids’ charities, including supporting kids with cancer and the 20 charities in South Carolina that the golf tournament supports.
Military members and veterans are very important to me. I’ve been working with Gary Sinise’s foundation helping military families, as well as Fisher House (builds housing for vets).
Iceologist: When you’re not saving restaurants or raising money for charities, how do you like to spend your time?
Robert: My life is devoted to others. My little bit of spare time I have is spent with my wife, Gail. And I don’t have much time for anything else after that.
Iceologist: “Your life is devoted to others”. Do you ever get any “Robert time”?
Robert: (laughing) Well, I slept on the plane flying back from Hawaii the other day.