Why Most Restaurants Featured on 'Kitchen Nightmares' Fail

I’m a longtime fan of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. So long that I was watching the show when it was first done in the U.K. and I kept watching when he brought it over to the U.S.

The scenario is always the same. Ramsay, a brilliant chef, great business person, above-average soccer player and a very energetic and forceful personality, walks into a failing restaurant whose owners invited him to turn the eatery around. He sits through a terrible meal, where he complains about the quality of the food and service to the camera.

Related: Gordon Ramsay's Lessons for Motivating a Sales Team

Ramsay then meets the owners and tells them how lousy their restaurant is. He watches them in action. Oftentimes, he throws his hands up in the air and furiously storms out. But he always comes back. It's his show, right? He always identifies the problems (family squabbles, poor management, lack of experience, lack of heart) and then sets about fixing them. 

How does he fix them? He yells. He cheers. He throws things around. He drops the F-bomb. He takes off his regular shirt and changes into his chef’s shirt (on camera, of course -- and it’s my wife’s favorite part). He tells his hapless students that they need to use “fresh” ingredients that are “locally produced.” He whips up something spectacular just to show them he knows what he’s doing. And (on the American version of the show, which clearly has a higher budget) he then splashes out a 100 grand or so to refurbish the restaurant. Then they have a big, new “opening night” where the local press are invited, a great success is declared and everyone high fives and hugs each other at the end. Restaurant saved. Hooray!

But the restaurant probably wasn’t saved. In fact, a recent report found that a whopping 60 percent of the restaurants Ramsay tried to help failed after his visit. Does this surprise you? Not me. I meet thousands of business owners and would-be entrepreneurs. Based on my experiences, I would’ve thought that the number was higher. The fact that it’s only a 60 percent failure rate is a testament to Ramsay’s abilities.

The world is full of coaches, consultants and experts like Ramsay who try to help struggling small-business owners succeed. Ramsay stands out mainly because he’s a successful restaurateur himself, a celebrity with a big budget and a big personality. He knows what he’s doing and he’s got the track record to prove it.

When he marches into a restaurant and tells that brother and sister to stop fighting with each other, a father to retire, or the spineless owner that he needs to fire his incompetent chef, he’s offering that advice from the experience and knowledge that he’s gained running successful restaurants all over the world and seeing hundreds of other restaurant owners succeed and fail. The problem isn’t Ramsay.

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The problem is that some people can run businesses, and some just can’t. Some people are born with the ability to inspire people, make the hard decisions, negotiate prices and be organized. At the same time, these people can not only create a great, sellable product but know how to sell and service it while still making a better than decent profit at the end of the day. Some people have it and some people don’t. Some of this can be taught and some of this can’t.

A person can learn to run an average business but you just can’t teach someone how to be a fabulous success. I’m a decent little softball player (really, I am!) and was always a pretty good student, but no one can teach me how to hit a baseball 330 feet over a major league outfield wall or get an A on an organic chemistry exam like my more academic daughter. I will never be able to do that. I just don’t have those innate abilities. There are some things that can’t be taught.

For most of the business owners on Kitchen Nightmares, Ramsay tries to do the impossible: he tries to turn them into successes. Sure, a very small percent of them can rise to that level. But it’s likely they already had the ability and just needed a kick in the butt to send them in the right direction. But for the majority (at least 60 percent for sure) of those Ramsay provides advice to, they’re beyond help. They shouldn’t be running a business in the first place. And no amount of yelling, F-bombing and shirt changing is going to change that fact.

If you’re struggling with your business and you have an evening to spare, watch a few old episodes of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares (I highly recommend the U.K. version on Netflix if only because the settings are nicer and everything sounds better with a British accent). Take a close look at the people trying, and failing, to run their businesses. Can Ramsay ever save them? If he were working with you could he save your business? Or are you part of the 60 percent?

Maybe you’ll never be a great business owner. But that’s OK. There is something that you are great at and I’m sure you’ll figure that out. The earlier you do, the more money and angst you’ll save in the long run and the happier your life will be.

Related: The 4 Reasons Why My Startup Failed