Sunday night is the big reveal of Restaurant: Impossible's "Creepy in Clearwater," which host Robert Irvine promises will feature "a lot of drama and a lot of grossness. You will see things that will make your stomach turn."
Irvine spent time at Smitty's Restaurant in Clearwater in February to rehab the ailing business and the results air 10 p.m. Sunday on the Food Network.
He's been to the bay area before: Irvine once disastrously scouted St. Petersburg as a site for restaurants of his own and more recently bought a home in Westchase with his wife of nearly one year, Gail Kim, a former professional wrestler with the WWE and now with TNA Impact Wrestling.
We know the problems at Smitty's involved an exterminator. We know in the process Irvine learned a Greek dance (badly, by his own admission). But beyond this, the celebrity chef is coy about just what transpired at the 13-year-old Greek-ish diner.
"It really shows how a restaurant can get away from you if you don't take charge of it," he said by phone.
Smitty's owners Gus and Evi Gialelis are contractually forbidden to speak about the show before airing, so it's impossible to get their side of the story. Was it really that bad, or is part of the Restaurant: Impossible formula to make mountains out of culinary mole hills?
Earlier this week, we ducked into Smitty's for lunch to see what Irvine and crew wrought: a straightforward box of a diner is painted a cheery Aegean blue with blue-and-white checkered grease cloth stapled to the tables, new-looking cane-seat cafe chairs and handsome blue-and-white valances. Each tabletop sports a small pot of impatiens (tabletop flower pots seem like a signature Irvine move). And the food? A pastrami Reuben wasn't going to launch any ships, but a horiatiki salad was zesty. In short, straight-up diner food with a Greek accent.
By Irvine's account, of the 74 restaurants the show has remade, four have subsequently been sold and eight have gone out of business. Not a bad record in an industry that is notoriously failure-prone. And why is it so hard? According to Irvine, a lot of people go into it without having done their homework.
"People think anyone can do it. We borrow money, we use our credit cards, invite all our friends. It's a party. But we didn't set it up for success. Suddenly, it turns into a nightmare."
And if a restaurant does manage to make it past the first few years, it's still not out of the woods. According to the muscle-bound British chef, older restaurants fail to change with the times, they don't change the carpet or the menu, owners don't plow profits back into new equipment and decor.
Irvine himself is no stranger to failure. In 2008, the Tampa Bay Times revealed that the Dinner: Impossible star had padded his resume. He wasn't in fact a knight. He hadn't in fact baked Princess Di's wedding cake. Etc. These embroideries briefly cost him his contract with the Food Network and killed plans for two signature downtown St. Petersburg restaurants, Ooze and Schmooze.
Of that troubled period, Irvine said, "Certainly it was hard. It was a portion of my life that was a rough time. You move on and live and learn. I think life is full of lessons, and there were definitely lessons there."
Irvine rebounded swiftly, landing back on the Food Network and opening Eat! and Nosh in Hilton Head, S.C. In fact, Irvine's family crest sports a prescient motto about persevering through light and dark period: "Sub sole, sub umbra, virens" (flourishing in both sunshine and shade).
"It's a motto that goes well with the Impossible series. I live my life the way you see on the shows — if there's an issue I have to figure it out. That's what I preach about life. I've had ups and downs."
With a new book, a new protein bar ready to launch and the first Robert Irvine Fit gym poised to open in Pinehurst, N.C., Irvine's life seems all "up." And he doesn't seem to hold a grudge against St. Pete. By his own account, he "loves the Tampa Bay area" — he owns a home here and he will cook at a Religious Community Services charity function in Pinellas on May 14.
It may smart a little for Smitty's owners to hear theirs was among the most dire situations Irvine can remember. And its future, post-Irvine, remains unknowable. But Irvine seems confident in his Impossible tough-love style.
"I'm not there to beat them up or to ridicule. I don't go in to demean people, I go in to fix them."
Times News Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.