STRATFORD -- Michael Savoie's restaurant was in trouble. His overhead costs were rising, he'd taken on debt he was struggling to pay off, and the economy was in a recession showing no signs of ending.
So just about a year ago, Savoie, the owner of Stella's Restaurant in Stratford, decided that drastic action was necessary and submitted an application to the producers of "Restaurant Impossible," a popular Food Network reality show.
In each episode, the show's host, Robert Irvine, visits a different struggling restaurant. He and his crew attempt to revitalize the business, working on a $10,000 budget to renovate the dining area and rework the menu.
The catch is that the restaurant owner has no control over the changes being made. Signing up to be on the program meant that Savoie had to trust that the renovations and exposure would improve his business, not drive away the customers he already had.
"It was something like a last resort," Savoie said. "We needed something to separate us from other restaurants."
Savoie's application was approved, and in late April, the "Restaurant Impossible" crew arrived.
The host, Irvine, is well known for the brash, sometimes brutal approach he takes with restaurant owners and staff, an approach that Savoie said he had to face.
"He called me every name in the book, he took dishes and threw them at me ... I've seen several episodes and I've never seen him yell at anybody more than me," he said.
Savoie tried to keep his cool in the face of the abuse, understanding that it was all a part of being featured on the show.
"I knew, deep down, that it was just a show, that they have to play up the drama," Savoie said. "I figured, just do what you gotta do and get it over with."
But even after dealing with Irvine for three days, Savoie said the hardest part came later, once filming had wrapped and the crews were gone.
"It was extremely difficult ... They do a great job for three days, but then they leave," he said. "And everything's different after they leave."
Savoie and his staff were faced with learning to work in an environment that was suddenly completely new. Pots and pans were nowhere to be found, the layout of their dining room was now foreign, and their menu had been completely overhauled.
The restaurant received a burst of publicity when the show's renovations were unveiled in April, and Savoie said the first three weeks after filming were incredibly busy. Eventually, traffic slowed down, and Savoie and his mother, Cammie Savoie, who co-owns the restaurant, were faced with deciding whether to keep the changes Irvine had brought.
Not all of the changes have gone over well with Stella's regular customers. Most loved the new decor, but many didn't like the newer, smaller menu or changes to the food they had been ordering for years.
Savoie admitted that the newer menu might have attracted a newer, younger crowd, but pointed out that his restaurant couldn't survive if it alienated its most loyal customers.
"It's nice to try to get new customers," he said, "but in the end, your customer base is your customer base, and you need your regulars."
He decided to redo his menu again, adding back old favorites while also keeping a few of the dishes Irvine had introduced.
His restaurant continues to struggle to turn a profit, but Savoie hopes the exposure it gets when the episode airs Wednesday night will help.
"It's constantly a work in progress," he said. "Hopefully, this moves us closer to where we want to be."
Stella's Restaurant is located in the Oronoque Shopping Plaza, at 7365 Main St., Stratford. "Restaurant Impossible" airs Wednesday nights at 10.
STRATFORD — Michael Savoie says he was a “punching bag” for jacked TV chef Robert Irvine as Savoie’s restaurant was getting the makeover treatment for top Food Network show “Restaurant Impossible.”
But Savoie likes the results, which can be seen in the episode’s debut Wednesday at 10 p.m.
Savoie’s well-known north Stratford eatery “Stella’s” was clean but “tired” and needed a lift, he says. Enter Irvine, whom Savoie calls a “brute,” and a crew of 35 people in late April to work their magic on the eatery across from Sikorsky Aircraft known for hearty Italian fare.
“He can be Mr. Mean,” Savoie says of Irvine, in a recent chat. “He will yell and scream at you. But I wouldn’t trade it for the world because (the result) really was electrifying. It was a lot of fun.”
Irvine and Co. tore out old booths and redid the restaurant in quick order, adding a bar in the middle.
“I couldn’t see what they were doing,” Savoie says. “My mom and I walk in at the end for the surprise.”
Stella’s, on Main Street in the Oronoque Shopping Plaza, is the 42nd restaurant to get the Irvine treatment, and the first in New Haven or Fairfield County.
In each episode, according to the show description, Irvine is given the “mission” of doing the impossible by renovating a “failing restaurant” in two days on a $10,000 budget.
Savoie said it ends up being more than $10,000 worth, considering the labor done by the crew. And he wasn’t exactly “failing,” but “struggling somewhat” due to the recession, like other restaurants.
Irvine was assisted by HGTV designer Taniya Nayak, whom Savoie called “amazing.”
For the reopening, Savoie says, there were 300 people waiting to get in, and he and his kitchen staff were “thrown into the fire” with a new menu and routine.
After some adjustment, kitchen staff “started flowing,” and Irvine later said it was the best kitchen staff he’s dealt with, Savoie says proudly.
The blind-faith renovation, the reality TV-tinged humility that Savoie had to endure, and the aftermath of dealing with the same weak area economy is all worth it, Savoie says.
“My restaurant is 100 percent different. They really did an outstanding job.”