The big question hovering whenever you watch an unscripted, so-called "reality TV" show is simple:
How much can you believe?
On Sunday, the Food Network aired "Creepy in Clearwater," a Tampa Bay area-based episode of celebrity chef Robert Irvine's show Restaurant: Impossible. Each week, Irvine travels the country helping beleaguered eatery owners revive failed enterprises, spending just $10,000 and two days working.
But can you believe it?
Irvine and his crew landed in February at Smitty's, a humble, Greek-flavored meat-and-potatoes restaurant in Clearwater. By the looks of the show's early footage, Smitty's worked a menu inspired by roadside diners of old, packed with over 200 items and bedeviled by sagging patron numbers.
At the show's start, owner Gus Gialelis admits the restaurant is now losing $1,500 to $2,000 a week and there are some weeks when he takes home $300 in pay. The family has mortgaged their home to keep everything going and are on the verge of giving it all up.
For fans of the show, this is standard operating procedure. We are introduced to a desperate, often family-owned operation run by folks clearly in over their heads. The early portion of the episode also features a rush of patrons who clamber into the restaurant and immediately zero in on flaws we know will be addressed later: dust and dirt on the ceilings, floors and pepper shakers; bland food; confusing, overloaded menu; drab, uninspiring décor.
And before long, Irvine stumbles on an icky scene -- a clutch of cockroaches living in an unused refrigerator. Instantly, he orders service to stop, kicks out the diners and informs the couple their restaurant may never re-open if they can't get rid of the cockroaches (fans know this is an empty threat, because Chef Robert rarely fails on camera.)
Somehow, they find an exterminator who can get rid of the cockroaches in hours overnight (Irvine does admit to viewers that several more treatments will be needed over weeks to fully end the infestation). They also find a cleaning crew which performs the miracle of scraping all the crud and gunk out of Smitty's kitchen and dining area – which seems an impressive feat, given the time frame.
We also see Chef Robert and Gus travel to a restaurant supply to store to look for a new, six-burner stove required because the restaurant's current stove is a fire hazard. A quick look at the Internet shows used commercial stoves with that many burners can cost from over $1,000 to $4,000; Irvine simply says Gus "got a deal" on the stove, with no details on who paid for it or how much.
Another scene features Irvine schooling Gus on how much money he's wasting by keeping so many items on his menu, showing him a wall covered with paper plates, each featuring a menu item.
It's a powerfully visual way of demonstrating how much Smitty's wastes keeping food on hand to cook items never ordered (Irvine cuts their menu to 30 items). But I kept thinking: The drama of the episode centers on how little time they have, thanks to the fumigation, which kept everyone out of the restaurant for hours. So why did they spend so much time attaching these paper plates to the wall?
Yeah, I'm nitpicking. And it gets worse. I kept wondering how Smitty's got so dirty to begin with, and whether Chef Robert helped them figure out how to keep it clean.
According to a health inspector's report placed online by St. Petersburg CBS affiliate WTSP-Ch. 10, Smitty's logged 13 health code violations in March after Irvine visited the eatery, including evidence of live roaches, two dead roaches and bug spray placed too close to food in the kitchen (an inspection two days later found a single violation, involving food management certification/employee training.)
In 2008, Tampa Bay Times writer Ben Montgomery detailed how Irvine told several tall tales around the area while trying unsuccessfully to develop and open two restaurants here, claiming to be a knight of the highest order. In a recent interview with Tampa Bay Times food critic Laura Reiley, Irvine said he learned lessons from that period; he more recently bought home in Westchase with his wife of less than a year, professional wrestler Gail Kim.
In the end, it may be tough to get the public to patronize a diner with such visible roach problems, especially when Irvine says on camera it may take weeks to fully eradicate them. (Reiley also showed me a menu from the restaurant after Irvine's visit with its old roster of many different items. Will it change after Sunday's broadcast?)
But the story of a small restaurant given new life is a good one. It's up to viewers whether they choose to take it with a grain of salt.