Chapter 1 – Before
When I heard that Restaurant: Impossible was coming to South Portland, just a hop, skip, and a jump from Peterpeterportlandeater Enterprises, I was happier than a pig in shit. I knew it would be a great opportunity to experience what one of my favoite TV shows had to offer a local business, and of course, I hoped I could be involved in some way. After hearing on the local news that they were going to be here in June, I starting monitoring their Facebook page like a hawk in the hopes of getting an opportunity to volunteer and help.
With the show coming, I was determined to get to Uncle Andy’s and try a “before” meal. Interestingly, I hadn’t been to Uncle Andy’s in so long that I legitimately forgot I had ever been there. When I walked in though, I immediately remembered it, particularly the refrigerators hanging out in the dining area. Four of us were told to sit anywhere we liked and ended up picking a booth. Upon sitting, I began to look with a critical eye at the restaurant as I figured Robert Irvine would do when he came to revamp the place.
The restaurant was in some disrepair. The floor tiles were old, the front grates were falling off the fridge, everything looked worn. And while it didn’t seem dirty, the clutter everywhere sort of gave the impression that it was. The decor didn’t seem appropriate for a restaurant – lifesize cardboard cutouts of superheroes, poorly arranged autographed pictures of sports figures, etc. Overall, the place seemed old, drab, and lifeless. There was no doubt a lot of work to do on the place and I thought it was perfect for Restaurant: Impossible.
Menus were already on the table in the form of greasy booklets. I quickly looked through both the breakfast and lunch sections and flipped back to breakfast since that’s what we were there for. I had my eyes on the pancakes and omelettes. I finally settled on an omelet which was made with two eggs and cheese and came with home fries and toast. Once that decision was made, I had to then figure out what I wanted in it besides cheese. My favorites are ham with cheddar and sausage with mushrooms and feta. I decided on the latter. For the “toast”, I ordered a strawberry muffin. I also ordered a side of hash. Egg plates and a breakfast sandwich rounded out the orders when the waitress came for them.
While we waited for our food, we continued to look around, discussing all the changes Restaurant: Impossible could make. The list was long, but we were curious how the food would taste too since most of the reviews online were actually quite positive. It didn’t take too long and our food did come out, which was good, because I was ready to eat. Everyone seemed relatively pleased with the look of their food, so that was a good start.
I took my first bite of the strawberry muffin. It was really good – grilled, moist, and lots of flavor. I love strawberry muffins and not a lot of places have them, so it was nice that they had them and they tasted great. I tried my omelette next. It was pretty good, but a little on the cool side. I didn’t understand that at all. It seemed like the food came out pretty quickly, so it didn’t have time to just sit around. Maybe the insides were not heated well enough and cooled down the egg. I took a bite of the potatoes and they were also good. The one issue with them was that some of the pieces were large and didn’t cook through fully. The seasoning was good though. Lastly, I tried the hash. I liked it, but again, it had a small issue. Most of it was perfectly chopped but there were a couple bites that ended up having big chunks of pork in them. I have had hash that was made with large chunks, but that was clearly not the intention with this order.
Everyone seemed to like their meals overall. I felt mine was pretty good with a few minor problems as mentioned. The food was solid diner food, with diner prices, diner decor, and a diner menu. But maybe that’s the problem they were having. An old school-style diner that looks like it hasn’t been updated since the sixties wasn’t the most appealing option for everyone. We certainly didn’t spend much on the meal. Mine was $10.25 before tax and tip and I probably had the most expensive order. But it definitely left us wondering what a dramatic change would do to improve the restaurant. I was certain it would be good for business.
Chapter 2 – During
A few days before Restaurant: Impossible came to town, I got a return email from a show producer that invited me to volunteer during the last of three shifts before the restaurant would reopen after a through revamping. I gladly returned the email suggesting that I, along with two others – my dad and a buddy – would be there to work on the 112th episode. The countdown was on and I was ready to see first-hand what working for one of my favorite TV shows was really like.
On Wednesday morning, we arrived a half hour early, signed releases by one of the rented tents they had set up, and were told by Tom – the show “construction guy” – to come see him inside as soon as we were done. We did just that. I must admit that I was a bit starstruck as I had seen him in every episode I’d ever watched. But it wasn’t time for nonsense. He immediately put us to work covering the floor that had been installed in the overnight hours. It needed to be protected from everything it would be subjected to during the last day of the reno.
In the middle of covering the floors, we heard a voice in a British accent come in from one of the doors. “What the fuck is that?” Robert Irvine appeared. Without wasting time, he voiced his opinion on how things were going as he would continue to do throughout the day. Also appearing shortly after that was Lynn the designer. Soon, all the volunteers would have to leave for a few minutes so they could film a scene – presumably where Robert gets an update on the work being done.
Once some filming was done, we all returned and there was no more required leaving of the building until the entire project was completed. With protection of the floor done, we helped Tom put up two of the new dividers and then we jumped in to help replace ceiling tiles. That was a long project due to the cutting required and the fact that a limited show budget meant that we use some of the old ones in areas where they’d be less visible. During that part of the job, we were treated to Otto pizza by the show. After a quick bite, it was back to work as there was still a lot left to do.
The total volunteer count on my shift was close to 35 and while my crew was working on our projects, there were a ton of other volunteers who were tiling, painting, building, cleaning, etc. The pace was furious with everyone trying to stay busy which meant that sometimes you had to find your own project or jump in on someone else’s. There was no time to spare as the restaurant had to open that night and after we were done, they would presumably be revealing the restaurant to the owners. Robert did spare some time, however, to give some Coast Guard members a tour of the work being done.
Upon finishing the ceiling tile installation, we moved on to some painting and then cleaning. While painting is easily my least favorite project on earth, it wasn’t anything difficult. Once the painting neared completion, the final cleaning started and it was extensive work. The place was a mess from the renovations and virtually everything required a wipe-down, mop-up, or vacuum-about. At one point Lynn handed me a vacuum and I just went vacuum-crazy, sucking up everything from carrier pigeons in the sky to dinner plates with small children on them.
Robert, Tom, and Lynn all led the charge and with cameras swirling about, the final push was on to get the place finished. It was like a massive crowd of people each playing one note to create a brilliant concerto. It was amazing how much work was still going on at the last minute even as most people were cleaning, but everyone was on deck trying to get the place done. Tables and chairs had to be brought in and many projects were being completed as brooms and mops were going by. At about 5 o’clock, it looked as though everything was done.
Everything was virtually complete and Robert looked over the restaurant and told Lynn that he wasn’t happy with the way the walls looked. He needed him to add something. Lynn made it clear that he thought it was okay. “This is what I do for a living and I think it looks fine.” Robert retorted that that was what he did for a living too and he didn’t think it looked fine. Lynn quickly procured a volunteer to take him to Target to find something for the walls. It was getting late, but Robert insisted it be perfect.
After the completion of the restaurant work, Robert met us in the construction tent to talk about the work he does, mentioning that 78 of the first 100 restaurants he worked on were still in business. There are only six full time staffers on the show, he told us. He thanked all the military, including my dad, let a couple people describe their experiences volunteering on multiple episodes, and encouraged everyone to give back to their communities every day whether it be with a smile, a helping hand, or financially. His words were quite inspiring. We then were able to take pictures with Robert and Tom though I would have to wait a bit for Lynn to finish up before I got a picture with him.
We talked some with Tom and then waited a bit more until the “reveal” eventually happened and were able to watch it live. With executive producer Mark Summers directing the cameras from the production tent, we were able to see the entire reveal as it occured. Tom and Lynn watched too until they were required to go in and take part per the usual workings of the show. Once that was all over with, we had time to observe the large crowd across the street waiting to get in. Tom and Lynn were watching from the restaurant side of the street and were very gracious with fans wanting to take pictures and get autographs. Some people came from a long distance trying to get in, but it was all for naught as the dinner was booked and if you didn’t have reservations, you were out of luck.
With my work done and satisfied that a real impact was made on the restaurant, I was ready to leave. I heard someone asking Tom where he was going next and he replied “home”. He deserved it for sure. Uncle Andy’s was reborn as a new restaurant – at least in look. Everyone was excited to see it and I felt particularly anxious to see where they were headed in the future.
Chapter 3 – After
I made a return trip to Uncle Andy’s shortly after the renovation. I really wanted to see how the place was holding up. I wondered if it was possible that they would just magically turn everything around as there were so many changes made which I’m sure included lots of happenings that I never saw including training of the staff and the like. When I walked in, it was pretty much what I expected. It appeared that not all the new resources were being utilized, but some of them were.
It took a little while for us to be seated since the place was pretty busy. Once we were sitting with the menu, I observed that the physical menu was new but the menu items were the same. That made my life easy. I decided to order what I had ordered previously to compare the two. The only difference was that I got a blueberry oat muffin instead of the strawberry. The waitress came and our order was placed.
As I looked around, the place looked great. I felt happy for the restaurant and very proud to be able to help. The overall demeanor of patrons seemed to be pleasant if not a little surprised by the change. The staff was working hard to keep up, but truly did a good job, had a good attitude, and no one was waiting excessively for their food. Considering the increase in business and all the changes, this was a bit shocking really.
Our food came out (pictured above) and I was ready to give a critique. I tried my omelet. It was perfectly to temperature. I ate the potatoes and noticed that they were all cooked through. The blueberry oat muffin was delicious. Finally, I tried the hash. Though it was a smaller portion than I had previously received, it didn’t have any large chunks. I was really pleased. I do wonder if it was coincidence that my food was better or that certain issues were pointed out and immediately corrected through training. Nonetheless, it was an improvement, even if the food was essentially the same.
Chapter 4 – After the After
My entire experience at Uncle Andy’s was really spectacular. From the pre-renovation meal to working on the renovation, to checking out the final product, it was quite an amazing series of events. Obviously, just the work with and for one of my favorite shows was pretty great, but also seeing the massive crowd of people waiting to eat that night and the media and community interest was spectacular. It really showed a community spirit that was much greater than just the restaurant itself.
Based on the information from their Facebook page, it appears that Uncle Andy’s is adapting to the changes quickly. There’s no doubt that any major change is difficult to adapt to in any situation, but such a quick change after having done everything the same way for so long is challenging and Uncle Andy’s seems to be handling that quite well. I look forward to their continued progress and encourage everyone to support them.
I was impressed by a number of items regarding the show. Most notably was the fact that the show – at least from my point of view – is quite real. Having recently been in the audience of another tv reality-type show which is airing now, Restaurant: Impossible seems to be much more real and much less produced. It’s still a TV show and there is a little playing to the camera or little things done to make it more dramatic, but the urgency is real. There really is an incredibly short time frame in which to get all the work done and there really is a limited budget. That’s not a stunt or a joke in any way.
From what I’ve heard and seen, the show is expected to air sometime between August and October. I’m considering live tweeting during it to talk about the show from my point of view as a volunteer, so follow me on Twitter to show me if you’re interested in that. I must say that it was a really great experience for me. Everyone from the show was very professional, but also super-friendly and completely dedicated to helping our local restaurant, community, and economy. That was overtly stated and also very obvious. I can’t wait until it airs. I believe Uncle Andy’s will continue to benefit from this for a long time.
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