The belligerent, swearing, screaming restaurant magnate Gordon Ramsay has achieved worldwide notoriety, as well as a reputation for taking a harsh line with shabby businesses in order to turn them around, financially. His ‘Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares’ and ‘Ramsay’s Hotel Hell’ are among a long list of television enterprises which have boosted Ramsay’s international fame. This raises the question: are these really an indication of his restaurant-running genius, or is he simply all yell talk?
We all know TV-land is built upon smoke and mirrors, and a large helping of bullshit. Are Ramsay’s endeavours to ‘help’ failing restaurants (and now, hotels) simply a recipe for television magic, or are they actually designed to turn the fortunes of floundering small businesses? According the Daily Mail, up to 60% of the restaurants featured on Ramsay’s seven seasons of Kitchen Nightmares have since closed. Some, it seems, did not even survive long enough to gather around the dining room and watch their episode air.
While these kinds of numbers may seem alarming, the sad fact of the matter is that around half of all restaurants don’t survive past their first few years. Running a restaurant is challenging stuff, with high costs, low margins and a great deal of competition to deal with. Brandishing an incredible 16 Michelin stars, it seems even Gordon Ramsay couldn’t bring some of these ‘nightmare kitchens’ back from the brink.
After seven successful seasons, Ramsay has now called it quits on this particular show (although, he’s got no shortage of others in the works, including Hotel Hell). While the producers of the show swear black and blue that their intentions were always pure, and all efforts were made to improve the fate of the businesses in question, sometimes there is simply no helping people.
“You don’t ask to take part in a show called Kitchen Nightmares if your restaurant business is booming and therefore it is not surprising that many of the restaurants which Gordon has visited over the ten years are now closed,” says a spokesperson for Ramsay, to the Daily Mail. “With the huge exposure that comes with being on the TV show, all the tools are there for success but it’s up to the owners to translate this into long term business which sadly isn’t always possible.”
Meanwhile, there are a number of commentators publicly airing their grievances with the show, and its depiction of the restaurants and their owners.
“My brothers are part of a small restaurant chain that lobbied heavily to be on Kitchen Nightmares. In the end, the show passed on them. The funny thing was that none of these restaurants were failing. The one they were most interested in has been in business for 150 years and has zero chance of going under. Also, they were well aware that the show would make them look like clueless idiots. They just wanted the free renovations that being on the show would bring.” ex-restauranteur John Reese, on Quora
Whether or not John’s story bears merit, there is no doubt television producers need to add a certain amount of drama to any story. Ratings are, after all, of paramount importance to television networks. Nevertheless, there seems to be a certain amount of common sense and good business acumen in Ramsay’s advice to the ‘struggling’ restaurants, including:
- Have a clean kitchen;
- Serve fresh, quality food;
- Have friendly staff, who know what they’re doing;
- Keep the menu short and simple;
- Charge a reasonable price for meals.
This no-nonsense approach prompts the question, then: if it’s so simple, why aren’t they already doing it? And therein lies the problem. The entrepreneurial nous required to run a restaurant is no cake walk. The ability to motivate and manage staff, market your business, please your customers and produce great food is not something which all restaurant owners are capable of achieving. Often, great chefs simply do not possess the managerial temperament to successfully supervise staff, nor the business skills to do the numbers and keep the ship afloat. That’s not to mention the one issue Ramsay can’t solve: local competition. In an ever-growing marketplace, the restaurant business is a competitive one.
After the announced closure of Neil Perry’s Rockpool last year, followed by several other high-profile closures, its is clear even the mighty can fall. For some, it is a matter of quitting while they’re ahead, and reinventing themselves elsewhere. As chef Alex Herbert of Sydney restaurant Bird Cow Fish explains:
“There is only room for so many and even the best are at least smart enough to move on when they know the time is right.”
Bird Cow Fish also went on to close. Neil Perry, and other chefs and restaurant owners of his calibre are no strangers to reinvention. Many of the most successful Australian restaurants have seen multiple incarnations which hope to capture a fickle and demanding market, even for a relatively brief time.
Creating a loyal and dedicated following of hungry patrons, who are willing to regularly fork out to eat at your restaurant is a near-impossible task; and as trends change quickly from one year to the next, it’s no wonder that even culinary powerhouses such as Perry’s go on to eventually fold. The best hope any restaurant owner has is to provide great service, quality and value-for-money cuisine and to be willing to roll with the punches of changing consumer sentiments. Beyond that, it really is anyone’s game, it seems.
Ramsay is not the only ‘consultant’ in the field, trying to help struggling hospitality enterprises succeed. In fact, there are myriad options for those business owners who think they’re in need of professional help: yet the rest of the bunch don’t come towing cameras and studio lighting.