It has no upfront surprises to hide, yet “Restaurant: Impossible” has lived up to its name and been quite impossible with details concerning its upcoming makeover of a local restaurant.
The Food Network show will be in town Wednesday and Thursday to revamp Old World Italian Restaurant in Murrells Inlet, but it isn’t sharing information about the endeavor, even in an area with high interest and more restaurants than its population alone can support.
In each episode, the show’s star, Chef Robert Irvine, brings in a team to transform a failing restaurant in two days with a budget of $10,000. Irvine reinvents recipes and updates decor – fighting resistance along the way – to pull management and staff out of their hole and to put them on a path to success. A grand re-opening is held at the end of the second day, which is open to the public, and the service is filmed as part of the show.
Irvine will be overhauling a business that has occupied a small space on U.S. 17 Bypass for the past 17 years. Old World is run by its owners, George and Teresa Hayek, and their son, George Hayek Jr., but they are not allowed to talk with media outlets about the show or to take part in stories about any aspect of the visit until five days after the show airs, per network policy, said Associate Producer John Williams in an email.
Only an owner or worker from the restaurant is allowed to submit an application for the show. It can be found at www.restaurantimpossible.com and asks for the business’ background, as well as a list of questions, such as why would the story be compelling for viewers, who is the restaurant’s top character (positive or negative), and what would they refuse to change. Williams said that while he has not seen a schedule for upcoming episodes, typically a show will air in three to six months after filming.
Old World has some regular customers and is popular with seniors for its specials between 4 and 6 p.m., said Heather Consalvi-Suggs, a former bartender and server at the restaurant. She said veal dishes are Old World specialties, along with its homemade lasagna, and its most original dish is probably a special appetizer, a brick of fried mozzarella.
Restaurant preferences are, literally, a matter of taste, and opinions about Old World varied with Facebook commenters. Many of them praised the food – Elizabeth Krauss cited the eggplant rollatini – as well as the friendly service, and said they were glad the owners have the opportunity for a fresh start. Some did say updates would be welcome, from an outside coat of paint and new signage, to more modernization inside.
Others, like Elisabeth Johns, urged the restaurant to return to using fresh, local ingredients and fresh bread. She wrote, “Food used to be incredible!!!” while Eric Wondoloski wrote that about three years ago, “Portions got smaller, prices went up, quality went down.”
Past service also got thumbs down from Richie Belyski, who said his party took a backseat to the restaurant’s regulars, who were given free wine while they were ignored. Emily Hoskins said that in her only visit, the food was good, but her party was made to feel unwelcome because they didn’t have a reservation.
Service was an issue last week for another customer, who was disappointed in how reservations were handled for Thursday’s grand re-opening dinner for which community members were encouraged to call and book a reservation.
Susan Stipanovic said she knows the show and has been eating at Old World on and off for the past 15 years, so when she saw the news via a Facebook post, she wanted to be sure to get a table.
“I immediately jumped on the phone,” Stipanovic said. “I’m a Food Network junkie, and I cook a lot, and I wanted to have that experience.”
Stipanovic said an older gentleman told her the restaurant would only be open that night from 7-9 p.m. and that the 7 p.m. seating was full, but she could have an 8 p.m. reservation. He told her they would be calling her back to make sure she still intended to be there.
The next day, however, Stipanovic said she received a call, but it was from a girl who somewhat nervously retracted the reservation.
“She said the show had given them a list of the guests who could be there, and I felt like I was getting the runaround,” she said. “She offered me Friday or Saturday, but that’s not the same thing, and I feel like if you’re picking and choosing who’s coming, you should’ve been prepared to say that initially. That’s really not good business.”
Stipanovic said she takes service seriously, especially in an area where there are so many restaurants to choose from, and there didn’t need to be a community callout to fill a handpicked list for such a small restaurant. She said Irvine has a great opportunity to open up the restaurant, increase the seating and increase the hours of operation, but she’s not sure she’ll return until she sees the final product.
Irvine has five seasons of the show behind him and has worked in the Carolinas before, revamping Wilmington’s Salt Works II in his first season. In season two, he took on Sweet Tea in Chapin, but despite his best efforts, the business eventually failed.
Mark Mitchell, professor of marketing and resort tourism at Coastal Carolina University, said a show like “Restaurant: Impossible” is good for the area, as viewers make a point to visit these businesses when they travel. He said it is also re-energizing for the restaurant, although in the end, they have to be able to sustain their new success.
“I love that show because they have to have that defining moment – unless we act, our fate is sealed. Not only could I lose my business, but I might lose my home, too,” Mitchell said. “I hope it goes well and am excited about what it can be for this mom and pop.”