Their story had the two necessary ingredients: a failing restaurant and a stressed-out love life.
When it became clear six months ago that Goombazz Big City Eatzz in Rock Island was not going to rally back from its $10,000-a-month losses, owner Brenda Brewer did the only thing she could think of: She applied to be on the Food Network's popular reality TV show, "Restaurant Impossible." Host Robert Irvine, an accomplished chef, takes two days to turn around desperate restaurants by overhauling their menu, service, decor and, more often than not, the relationships of the owners.
Brewer said she knew things were getting rough with business and personal-life partner, Sal Cracco, but she didn't realize how bad things were until Irvine laid it all out for them.
Referring to the Brit-born chef as "an in-your-face Dr. Phil," Brewer said she and Cracco learned a few things from him about their restaurant and about themselves.
Brewer, the primary investor in the business, was skeptical by the time Irvine's taillights left Rock Island, but seeing the final show last week gave her tremendous relief. It also produced a complicated combination of gratitude and lingering resentment.
A long wait
In July, Brewer spent three hours filling out the online application for "Restaurant Impossible" and waited until the last minute to tell Cracco.
"Five minutes before I sent it, I told Sal," she said. "He didn't think they'd actually come. I don't suppose I really did, either."
Even if Goombazz was picked, Cracco said, he couldn't imagine what Irvine could do for them.
Born in Newark, N.J., 64 years ago, Cracco has spent more than four decades in the food business. In fact, Goombazz is his 13th restaurant. He couldn't imagine what anyone could teach him about the business. Plus, he and Brewer spent six months renovating the former Godfather's Pizza on 18th Avenue into their dream restaurant, so he didn't see much that needed changing there, given it was only about a year old.
"I thought, well, he can't knock too much, really," Cracco said. "People have asked why we were even in the show. Our food is good. The place is nice. And I say to them, 'You weren't coming.'"
But there was more to it.
"After I sent the application, five weeks went by, and I thought it got lost or we weren't interesting enough," Brewer said. "Then they called us, and 10 days after that, we did a Skype (online) interview, and they saw the place and interviewed the staff.
"Another 10 days or two weeks later, a scout came from Pennsylvania and did a five-and-a-half-hour interview. Two weeks later, I got a phone call at lunch, saying we were in. I was so excited. Then, I sat down and just sobbed."
From application to the crew's arrival in the second week of October, the wait was about four months. Then there was more waiting for the episode to air.
That's where the resentment kicks in.
"It doesn't make sense to a struggling business owner, going from July to December," Brewer said the day after her episode of the show finally aired. "Six months for a struggling restaurant is too much. I'm now six months deeper in debt."
After all, her hopes were just as highly invested in the promise of what the free publicity could do for Goombazz as they were in what Irvine's coaching could do.
So far, the publicity and coaching have paid off in equal measure, which is to say that neither has exactly turned things around.
The hard parts
Brewer didn't entirely trust Irvine at first, knowing that he was merely making a TV show, while her future was on the line. But she warmed to him.
"One thing he said to me that I probably needed to hear was a very personal thing," Brewer said. "He said, 'If Brenda fails, I fail, because now my name is on this business.'"
So, she was guarded. When Irvine, known for his call-it-as-he-sees-it approach, laid Goombazz's problems on the line, she flinched.
For starters, he picked apart the decor. Brewer and Cracco loved the inside of the restaurant, which they had designed themselves. But the TV crew tore it apart, replacing their beloved, colorful bar top with a much more muted style.
The place still hasn't grown on Brewer.
"People say, 'The restaurant looks great!'" she said. "I say, 'If it was your restaurant, it would look great.'"
Then things got personal, and Cracco got the worst of it. It was bad enough that nearly every Goombazz employee fingered him as the restaurant's primary problem, but Irvine told him his food was not up to par. That hurt, too.
"I have a huge ego," Cracco said. "To expose myself to all these people — admit I've got $325,000 in this thing and have been losing $10,000 a month — it's very humbling. On top of that, people find out I can be a real jerk."
But Brewer said he needed to hear it. Asked whether her partner has taken the criticism to heart, she took a moment to consider her answer.
"Is Sal better?" she repeated aloud. "That's a hard one. He's definitely improving."
It didn't help, she said, that producers "staged" a scene in which Cracco is pounding on the bar and screaming. Both said he was directed to behave in an angry manner, adding that customers even were warned to expect the outburst. The producer for "Restaurant Impossible," John Williams, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Brewer said Irvine should have been accustomed to Cracco's management style, because she noticed Irvine treats his production staff similarly. Regular viewers of the show no doubt would agree Irvine often takes a less-than-gentle approach.
"The thing is, Sal is everything Robert is, and Robert gets a TV show for it," she said. "At the end of the day, though, he was right. Sal is working on that."
Besides the restaurant makeover, some menu changes, the finger-wagging at Cracco and the highly advised return of Goombazz general manager (now back on the job), Irvine had specific advice for Brewer: As the owner, she had better figure out what she's doing. Her lack of restaurant experience is adding to the restaurant's troubles, he said, and that has been Brewer's take-away from the show.
"I stepped up," she said, adding that she will be working full-time at the restaurant, beginning this week. "I am taking ownership of my business. I have a voice."
Will that be enough?
"Time will tell if the publicity we get from this, which money can't buy, is enough to kick-start us again," she said. "I've always been about the customers, and I'm learning now about the business side. That's important, too."
Cracco said he also is doing his part.
"All in all, aside from being the heavy in the whole thing, which I didn't mind, I think it was worthwhile," he said. "We need the attention. Our loyal patrons love us, love our food. But we don't have the volume to support this place. We want our customers to love our place and love us. We're Goombazz, and that means we want to be friends."
Added Brewer: "We chose this place, because we saw a need in the area for a nice place to come in and sit down and have a good meal among friends. If people would give us a chance, we can be all of that. It's been tough, real tough. I'm ready to do this."