When Bravo debuted Top Chef, it altered the landscape of food television, showing that true culinary skills could be showcased and challenged in a competitive reality TV environment. More than a decade later, another non-food-focused network has changed food reality television again: CNBC, which is in the middle of airing Consumed: The Real Restaurant Business, a terrific documentary reality series that follows New York City restaurant owners (it airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET).
Reality television has its risks, from how it’s produced to what it exposes. On the one end of the spectrum, there’s the chance producers would stage action, or edit the footage they had in a way that manipulated reality. On the other end, there’s the potential consequences of letting the world see what happens behind the scenes. So why would successful restauranteurs expose themselves–and their businesses–to those risks?
There’s the obvious one, publicity and exposure to a wide audience, but when I talked to the co-owners of The Meatball Shop and the owner of Melba’s, all three independently told me the same thing, something very different.
They wanted to show just how damn tough the restaurant business really is.
It’s not a joke; it’s not an easy life; they’re not rolling in cash. At best, existing restaurant reality television suggests problems could be solved in 48 hours with new decor and a new menu; at worst, it hires actors and stages drama, just using a restaurant as a cheap backdrop regardless of how much damage that causes.
CNBC’s commitment to not airing “drummed-up bullshit”
The Meatball Shop‘s Daniel Holzman told me that when he and his business partner Michael Chernow sat down with CNBC executive Jim Ackerman, the senior vice president for primetime alternative TV, they were not yet convinced to open their doors to cameras. “We sat down with him in a room feeling pretty skeptical; we didn’t feel comfortable having a quote-unquote ‘reality show’ based on our business.” He said that reality TV has previously emphasized the “dramatic” and “has a reputation [that it is] not always based in truth.”
However, “Jim said I want to take a real look what it actually takes to run a restaurant business, and I want to follow in the documentary format, where we’re not recreating stories or faking stories, but actually seeing what the real trials and tribulations are.” Ackerman “convinced us that he wanted to make something that was artistic,” Holzman said, and a show that “wasn’t some drummed-up bullshit. That was very interesting to me.”
Consumed was filmed by camera crews that spent months with the restaurants and their owners. The show started filming late last year, and concluded production around April. Each month and at the start of each week, producers and the restaurant owners talked about what was ahead, but unlike many reality series, producers weren’t dictating what should happen. Still, documentary-style filming has its own challenges. Holzman said that filming is “difficult especially in a restaurant. … If you want to film something that’s realistic, a great way to screw that up is bring the cameras in, turn off the music, turn up the lights, and say, ‘Everybody, be yourself.'”
Holzman’s brother is well-known reality TV executive producer Eli Holzman (Undercover Boss, Project Runway, The Pitch) and the two “are really really dear friends, so we talk all the time.” And a benefit of doing the show was “getting to spend time with people you love and care about.” But Eli “recused himself from the day-to-day filming and the editorial,” Daniel told me.
Why? “I think the actual conversation went something like this: If Anthony Bourdain’s brother was in the edit room, would Anthony Bourdain be who Anthony Bourdain is today? And the answer is, probably not, because his brother would have been like, ‘Oh, you sound like a real sarcastic asshole. We’ve gotta edit all this to make you look great.’ Trying to make him look great out of love, he might not have been the character that we all fell in love with,” Daniel said.
A friendship and a business partnership on television
A central part of the storyline involving The Meatball Shop was the professional split that occurred on camera between its owners, Holzman and Michael Chernow,-and it changed the direction of the series.
“It was a moment in time they captured, and it kind of threw a monkey wrench in the direction the producers had assumed the show was going, and certainly the vision Michael and I set out with.” Holzman said that “the only part I’m a little sad about” is that highlighting that conflict makes it seem like a 20-year relationship ended or was only about conflict. He said the opposite is true, and Michael is “very much still involved in the business,” never mind that their friendship endures.
Michael told me the same thing: “If I’m being honest, it’s hard to watch Daniel and I on television. It hasn’t been the easiest thing to watch, with the arguing. It’s such a small portion of what our relationship consisted of at The Meatball Shop.” But he said that he understands “people out there want to see drama” and “there’s gotta be something that keeps people hooked an and interested.” And what Consumed shows is “all real.”
Daniel agrees. “I think it was very honest, and I can say that not being proud of everything that I said,” he said. But there is one thing it leaves out: “what makes a restaurant so special for me is that it’s really 40 or 50 people coming together to work on a project as a team. It’s a social environment where a dishwasher can be sitting next to a maître d’ from a very different background, and both of them are just as important to the success of the restaurant.”
As to The Meatball Shop itself, Daniel said “it’s early to tell what the impact of [the series] is on the business. I think it’s positive. For me, it’s a real gamble, and I don’t know if it’s the right or wrong decision” yet. However, Daniel noted that, “in the last three weeks, we have seen a significant uptick in our daily traffic and sales that is an anomaly,” and added that people–often New Yorkers–have cited the series as a reason for coming in for the first time.
Now, months after filming ended, Michael Chernow said that “The Meatball Shop is really thriving. We had a hard winter, really hard hard winter, it impacted the industry as a whole” so “it’s really refreshing to see our sales spike this month and last month.”
When we talked, Michael was on his way to meeting with his team for Seamore’s, his new fish taco restaurant, which he said should open within three to five weeks. Tonight’s episode includes this scene–watch it here first!–about his new restaurant considering using atypical ingredients.
Consumed “does depict what it’s like to run a restaurant and the stresses and tensions that come along with it,” Michael told me, adding that people have a misconception that running a restaurant is easy, but “it’s really hard to make money.”
Before agreeing to do the show, Michael said, “Daniel and I had a number of conversations,” but ultimately decided to say yes because “it had never been done before. … At the end of the day Dan and I really wanted to do this show because we wanted a real reality show.” And, of course, “any time our restaurant is on television, it does help us out.”
Why Melba Wilson of Melba’s is only in half the episodes
Since the show has been airing, Melba Wilson said that people have e-mailed her, surprised: “sometimes you were so candid about the numbers, [or] about my failures.” But she said, “once I committed to doing it, I had to tell it all. Like my mother used to say, ‘Go big or go home.'”
She did that, but perhaps the worst thing about Consumed is that Melba’s storyline ended in episode four. Her limited involvement was, Melba told me, a mutual decision between her and the producers.
Her Harlem restaurant Melba’s is well-known and Melba has also appeared on TV before (Throwdown with Bobby Flay, for example), and producers reached out to her. “I’m always amazed when people call me to do stuff, because I don’t have a publicist,” she told me. “I was happy to know that it was going to be on CNBC,” because “I’m a huge CNBC fan. I love business, I love Shark Tank, I love The Profit.”
Like Michael and Daniel, Melba says she was interested in the series “to be able to tell the behind the scenes story of what happens in a restaurant.” People are “not aware of what it takes to make this machine work–especially in a major city like New York, where there’s a microscope.”
“We make the restaurant industry look easy, but I wanted people to know what goes into that meal, what goes into that experience. I wanted people to really see the behind the scenes of the food and business industry. But definitely there are some risks,” she told me. “You don’t always want people to know that the fire inspector came. You just want them to come in and enjoy the experience.”
So why isn’t she on the entire season? “We–and they–were hoping that I was going to be on all eight episodes,” she said. But, Melba told me, “I’m a divorced single mom” and “it was very very time consuming for me. … I still have to run my business, feed my son, and walk my dog.”
Melba was filmed from October to February, which shes aid is “the busy season for my catering business.” To complicate things, her cookbook deadline was Dec. 15. What about her delay in meeting her deadline, which was included on her final episode? “Part of that had to do with the filming schedule. It was a really rigorous schedule,” she said.
The cookbook, incidentally, will be released in March 2016; photographs are being taken this week and next. And construction on the space next door to Melba’s starts in July.
“At the end of the day, it can’t impact the flow of my business,” she said, pointing out that she doesn’t have a business partner and likes to be very involved. As to what was filmed and included in the series, Melba says “the producers really did an amazing job. I didn’t know what it was going to look like in the end.” She wondered, “am I going to come off cocky? I do have a potty mouth sometimes.” The results were that Consumed included “the good, the bad, and the frugal.”
Her story has already inspired others. “We’ve gotten a lot of great feedback, a lot of support,” she said, from people who say “you give me hope, there’s something that I wanted to do. Now, I’m empowered.”
Speaking about people in general, Melba said, “we’ve got to get out of our own way. … You might fail, but what if you win? What if you win? You have nothing to lose but a little bit of time.”
A second season of Consumed?
If Consumed gets a second season–and I hope it does–Melba said she’s definitely in. Holzman said he’s not yet sure.
There’s some potentially interesting ground to cover: Melba talked about new friendships with the others who were followed by the series, as its subjects have gotten to know each other off-camera.
“This show was an amazing experience for me. It gave me an opportunity to really learn from other people on the show, which was great. I’ve become really good friends with Ralph and Anthony from Ann and Tony’s,” for example, Melba said.
“It gives us a great opportunity to look at each others story and see that we’re not alone in this.”