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Save My Restaurant

Owners learn to be careful what they wish for after inviting Gordon Ramsay and his reality TV series Kitchen Nightmares to right their ships.

Posted July 13, 2009 by Joel Keller

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Chef Gordon Ramsay Helps Out The Junction
Ramsay holds up his revised menu during shooting of the Kitchen Nightmares episode with Joe Cerniglia, owner of Campania in Fairlawn.
Photo courtesy of Kitchen Nightmares.

Chef Gordon Ramsay Helps Out The Junction
The dining room after rescinding some of Gordon Ramsay’s changes.
Photo by Colin Archer/Agency New Jersey.

Chef Gordon Ramsay Helps Out The Junction
Ramsay with the staff of Hannah & Mason’s during the taping of Kitchen Nightmares.
Photo courtesy of Kitchen Nightmares.

Chef Gordon Ramsay Helps Out The Junction
Photo by Colin Archer/Agency New Jersey.

After five decades in the restaurant business, Adele and Bill Csepi thought they knew what worked. But last winter they couldn’t deny that their 3-year-old tropical-themed restaurant, Flamangos in Whitehouse Station, was foundering for lack of customers. So Adele sent an e-mail to the Fox series Kitchen Nightmares, which she’d heard was scouting in the area, and invited its cheeky, sardonic host, English chef Gordon Ramsay, to diagnose the problem and help fix it.

When Ramsay and the crew showed up in May, the brassy, 42-year-old chef immediately identified a disconnect: a 19th century stone structure next to a railroad station in a bucolic Hunterdon County town—with a tropical theme? As Ramsay put it to Adele, “What possessed you?”

One thing restaurateurs who seek a Kitchen Nightmares solution have to be prepared for is radical change practically overnight. The whole episode is filmed in a matter of days. One day Flamangos had pink walls, rattan chairs, bamboo, and jungle-foliage upholstery and wallpaper. The next day, all those were gone, replaced by powder blue-and-white vinyl-covered seats, an ice cream and milkshake bar in place of the raw bar, a country look with square instead of round support columns, and a new openness brought about by the removal of the wall separating the bar from the dining room.

Flamangos also got a new name, the Junction, and a common Ramsay prescription: a smaller, simpler, and lower-priced menu (top entrée $20 instead of $36), with a big helping of comfort food (oven-roasted lemon chicken, babyback ribs, meatloaf, banana split). The Csepis have mixed feelings about the changes. They like the new name and most of the new menu—the decor, not so much. They quickly stowed the new blue-and-white chairs, which they (and many customers, they say) thought evoked a diner, in favor of sedate, dark-wood models. They found the crew’s workmanship shoddy.

“They put carpet down that wasn’t even glued, it was thrown,” says daughter Cheryl, who manages the restaurant. “People were tripping on it.” The family also is redoing the show-designed Junction logo, which they liked, but “it made people think we’re a Chinese restaurant,” Cheryl says. Response from customers so far has been mixed, with some regulars put off (not that there were ever enough of them) and some new patrons attracted by the changes. The family doesn’t know what to expect when the episode airs on Fox this fall. Ask Adele if she regrets sending that SOS e-mail, and she has to think for a second.

“We knew we had to make a change,” she replies. “I would never have gone this drastic. We built everything; I didn’t see knocking it down. But he tried to show us that this is a business decision, not emotional.”

The Garden State seems to be fertile ground for Kitchen Nightmares. In addition to Flamangos, the upcoming third season will include an episode shot at Bazzini’s in Ridgewood. In each of its first two seasons, the series visited a Jersey restaurant. After being featured in season one, Joe Cerniglia, owner of Campania in Fairlawn, felt his business had been saved from drowning. But after Hannah & Mason’s in Cranbury received a makeover in season two, Chris Posner, the owner, felt he had been thrown a curve, not a life preserver.

In 2006, Posner and his business partner, Brian Kelly, bought Hannah & Mason’s, a French-style bistro where Posner had been chef since 2003. Last year, according to Posner, the two became at odds with each other, and the restaurant started losing money. The operation’s catering arm was keeping things afloat, but not enough customers were dining at the restaurant. Posner, like other owners who have sought a spot on Kitchen Nightmares, thought he could play good cop to Ramsay’s bad cop. “When I filled out the application,” Posner says, “I said I wanted to light a fire under my partner’s ass, and who better than Gordon [to do that]?”

Having seen the first season of Kitchen Nightmares, Posner knew the tone would not be all peaches and cream. “I had a lot of people asking me, ‘Don’t you think you’re making a mistake?’” he admits. “My argument was that they had 22 million viewers last year. If 21 million are turned off by what they see, I’ll still take it.”

Ramsay and the TV crew arrived at lunchtime on Valentine’s Day, 2008. Posner prepared for him some of the restaurant’s most popular dishes. In a scene common to other episodes of the series, Ramsay, lo and behold, disliked them all. Posner seemed shocked, but Marie Milito, the waitress who served Ramsay, saw it as the series’ M.O. “After we talked it over,” she says, referring to Posner, “he went, ‘I guess you’re right. If he liked everything, they wouldn’t have a show to do.’”

That night the restaurant was packed for Valentine’s Day. A few customers who hadn’t gotten the message that they would be on TV, and who wanted no part of it, scrambled for someplace else to eat. In the middle of service, Ramsay confronted Posner with a container in which raw and cooked chicken had been stored together. Posner declared on camera what he maintains today, that he had no idea where it had come from.

When Ramsay announced he was shutting down the restaurant at once (“This is a Valentine’s Day Massacre! You’re going to kill somebody!”) and stretched yellow caution tape across the kitchen, “99 percent of the customers laughed,” Posner says. “They were having a good old time [being on TV].” But for his part, “I thought, Oh s---, they had the Valentine’s Day Massacre written weeks ago. If it wasn’t Hannah & Mason’s it was going to be someone else. I said, ‘We’re in it; we signed contracts. Let’s just roll with it.’”
Asked if the show had planted the unsanitary food, Kent Weed, an executive producer of the series, and also of Hell’s Kitchen, its British forebear, responded, “We don’t have to go looking for [poor conditions]. It always amazes me that these people know we’re coming and still have dirty kitchens.”

Like other restaurants on the series, Hannah & Mason’s received a menu-and-mortar makeover—in its case, a country café look and more casual fare emphasizing local ingredients. Posner (and his customers, he says), hated the changes. He reverted to the old menu and decor months before the episode aired. He thought the telecast might bring him new business, but it only produced phone calls from fans of the show chastising him for not taking Ramsay’s advice. Citing the loss of corporate catering business in the nosediving economy (it had been half his revenue, he says) Posner closed Hannah & Mason’s in January of this year, though he says the show had little or no effect on the decision.

“Any restaurant that embraces Gordon’s changes has done well,” observes Weed. “I haven’t seen as much success if they go back to their old ways.”

Joe Cerniglia was helping the casting company scout restaurants for the first season of Kitchen Nightmares when he decided to propose his own place, Campania in Fairlawn, as a candidate. He had bought the Italian restaurant in 2005 but was losing money. Like Posner after him, he thought Ramsay would spur changes he couldn’t pull off on his own. “If I did it without him, I would have incurred a lot of fallout [from regulars], and I thought it would be the kiss of death for me,” he says.

He wound up with a near-death experience. On camera in the dining room, with customers around, Ramsay criticized the huge portions Cerniglia, a self-taught chef, was serving and said they made no economic sense. This led to an on-camera shouting match, but in the end Cerniglia came around to Ramsay’s point of view—that he was losing money because his menu was too big, meaning a lot of unordered food was going to waste, and because portions were excessive.

As part of the menu makeover, Ramsay and Cerniglia collaborated on a recipe that Ramsay suggested Campania bill as “New Jersey’s best meatballs.” Cerniglia put them on the menu as a spaghetti-and- meatball entrée and as a side dish, and they continue to sell well. “The most important change was streamlining the menu, going from this encyclopedic menu to a nice, two-page menu focusing on seasonal picks. Overall, it helped our food costs and execution. That was the most important change,” Cerniglia says.

“I almost feel guilty about how well it worked out for us. I’m just extremely grateful we had the opportunity, and it was exactly what we needed to really get us from losing money to breaking even to making money now.”

Although the notoriety of being on TV did nothing for business at Hannah & Mason’s, it’s a different story at Campania. “Not a night goes by,” says waitress Katie Keppel, who was featured in the episode, “that a table doesn’t ask about the show.”

Joel Keller is a freelance writer and editor-in-chief of AOL’s TV Squad blog.

Click on the following links to read more articles from August's Special Dining Issue:

The 25 Best Restaurants in New Jersey.

Readers' and Critic's Choice Restaurant Poll: The results of our 26th Annual Readers’ Choice Restaurant Poll.

Savor City: Paterson, the one-time Silk City, is a Great Falls of ethnic eating.

Jersey Lightning: The Laird family of Scobeyville has been distilling applejack a long time. How long? They once gave George Washington the recipe.

The Wizard Of Zod: Why New York wants to grab New Jersey’s hugely talented, most idiosyncratic chef, and why he doesn’t want to leave—yet.


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Comments
Slight Error.

Kudos on a well written and balanced article Joel, but there was a slight error. The British original was called ’Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares’ not ’Hell’s Kitchen’.

Also as an aside, I would like to say I really detest Fox’s version of the show and wasn’t shocked at all to read that the workmanship was shoddy as that really seems to be the kind of thing to expect from Fox.

Posted by: newmiyamoto, London | Jul 27, 2009 23:42:43 PM |

why is ’restaurant’ misspelled in bold in the headline? no spell check?

Posted by: tracy, houston | Feb 03, 2010 03:20:14 AM |

Just about all of these establishments suffer from something that Ramsey cannot fix - poor management. Unfortunately, the clueless owners who drove their businesses into the ground will continue to do so no matter how drastic any superficial makeovers to the decor or contents of the menus can be.

Posted by: Ray, california town | Feb 03, 2010 19:33:55 PM |

also, I believe Gordon is Scottish, not English...
no fact checker?

Posted by: tracy, houston | Feb 03, 2010 03:23:18 AM |

More spelling errors

"Flamangos in Whitehouse Station, was foundering for lack of customers."
....I believe the correct term/spelling is, "floundering". Lots of errors in this story: makes me wish I was back in journalism if earning a living by cranking out this shoddy work is acceptable on a national scale.

Posted by: Linda Crawford, Richardson, TX | Feb 18, 2010 08:01:40 AM |

Gordon Ramsay

Hi all, I’m an English viewer and a fan of Gordon. However this version when compared to the UK version is truly awful, the over hyping "OMG drama, will this be the shortest episode ever!" and you look at the time and it is the same as every other episode and think "obviously not".

For me the UK version stays true the the cooking, where the establishment is, their customers expectations, needs and pricing for the said area. Not all of this burning some rubbish furniture and making it look like the restaurant is burning down in the adverts, I mean seriously get real producers you need sacking.

I don’t blame Gordon he is probably on good money, and I feel glad I can watch his many other shows for insight and inspiration into cooking and traveling.

Posted by: James, England | Feb 18, 2010 14:14:24 PM |

Word choice

Flounder and Founder could both be used.

Founder - (as a verb) to become disabled, go lame or come to grief; fail.

Flounder - (as a verb) to proceed or act clumsily or ineffectually.

Either would fit the context of the story.

The other spelling errors are annoying though.

Posted by: Jim Smith, New York | Mar 01, 2010 18:28:10 PM |

Ramsey was right

I was just watching the show and the kitchen looks like a dump and the owners have absolutely no enthusiasm. The food did look pretty disgusting that they served to Gordon Ramsey. I don’t get these people - they sign up for the show and then they get annoyed when Gordon tries to come in and re-vamp a dumpy restaurant. No wonder it closed... it’s for the best with that mess in the cooler they would have given people food borne illnesses. Yuck

Posted by: EEK, NY | Mar 06, 2010 02:33:20 AM |

ramseys kitchen coments

RE;

Slight Error.

Kudos on a well written and balanced article Joel, but there was a slight error. The British original was called ’Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares’ not ’Hell’s Kitchen’.

Also as an aside, I would like to say I really detest Fox’s version of the show and wasn’t shocked at all to read that the workmanship was shoddy as that really seems to be the kind of thing to expect from Fox.

Posted by: newmiyamoto, None | Jul 27, 2009 23:42:43 PM |

Well,

those are two diffrent shows, Kitchen Nightmares was aired in uk also with 4 seasons.

Posted by: thomas johannesson, bergen/norway | Mar 02, 2010 05:48:34 AM |

6 out of the of you are discussing spelling and choice of words? well... thanks for sharing.

interesting article! i haven’t come across anything equally ballancend and illustrating about this show.

Posted by: chris, oslo, norway | Jan 06, 2011 20:47:28 PM |

I Needs Chef Ramsey Help

Dear Chef Ramsey

Can You Please Come To Sudbury Because Me Restaurant Is Failing And I Have No More Ideas And I Really Need Your Help Please

Posted by: Elias, Sudbury Ontario | Feb 01, 2011 03:49:28 AM |

i need help for my pizzaria- - kearny nj- 07032

Dear Chef Ramsey
I have a pizzaria Restaurant i need your help, my business is failing. Please come to kearny.

Posted by: Andrea Cristina Benson, Belleville | Sep 08, 2011 01:22:31 AM |

i need help for my pizzaria- 149 midland ave ( 1202)991-1100 - kearny nj- 07032

Dear chef ramsey i have a pizza restaurant i need your help.
My business is failing, please come to LA VILLA PIZZARIA & CAFE. 149 MIDLAND AVE- KEARNY NJ - ZIP: 07032.
(1201) 991-1100 , (1201)-991-1166 OR ( 1201)- 991-1995.
THANKS.

Posted by: Andrea Cristina Benson, Belleville | Sep 08, 2011 16:33:36 PM |

HELP

dear mr.Ramsey i am a small buisness owner of a italian restaurant and im failing at what at one time i loved so much; food. my passion is fadeing, and im letting my family down, please from the bottom of my heart i could really use some help. i have a 5 yr old daughter her name is Hailie and she is my life,i just want to provide for her what i never got growing up. please please please help me here is my #386-237-2439

Posted by: Rafael Rivera, st. augustine florida | Dec 09, 2011 18:30:18 PM |

my needs

to go to shop or to go a hotel to eat something is my fav work i like to do it in my extra time i am loving it.........

Posted by: Pest Control Naples, www.suncoastpestcontrol.com/naples-pest-control/ | Dec 19, 2011 15:27:39 PM |

This is our crisis! we need help!

Chef please forever more help us!! We are a country club now open to the public for 2 years now and the place will close after this year if something doesnt change. We are two guys that have been moved up from the line to run the kitchen. We really are two of the best line cooks around our area and myself have over 16 years in the industry. I am losing Passion and cant keep up, I really dont know what to do. Our location isnt the greatest but should mean nothing if the food is right. But, we very rarely have complaints.we are trying a menu change again and it would be wonderful for you to help us our cooler/ freezer is also a problem way too small. Please help us and thank u for your time

Posted by: kevin snideman, anderson,indiana | Feb 01, 2012 18:41:21 PM |

from my last post

Truly sorry I really would like to leave my number for Chef Ramsay. I’ve left my please help me post here is my number 765 425 9256 our restraunt is called The Edgewood golf and dining. Hope to hear from you and really need help. Thank you very much

Posted by: kevin snideman , anderson indiana | Feb 01, 2012 18:49:01 PM |

Ramsey reads this?

I hope these are just people kidding around. G Ramsey does not read this news letter. I really hope these people are kidding because I doubt any help will come from here.

Posted by: Bump, Eugene | Feb 24, 2012 22:44:54 PM |

we need your help

We are a small restaurant has been around for 4 years. but are in desperate need of your help ramsey. are businesses been going downhill since last year. we as staff feel that we need your help. we are overworked and underpaid I’m still see no business. it feels to us that are owner is taking advantage of the restaurant. ramsey will you accept our kitchen prayer?

Posted by: michael, EL Yaqui mexican grill cornelius oregon | Jul 17, 2012 19:24:36 PM |

our kitchen

We have a coffe shop/resturant. I know we need your help,my boss haven’t taken a pay check in 4 years. She keep the employee’s aid but its time she makes a check. She is so dedicated to this bussiness. Please help us if you can we need a fresh start, the Ju Ju Bag is in nrrd of Chef Ramsay.Thanking you very kindly Jacquelene Gainor

Posted by: Jacquelene Gainor, New Orleans,Louisiana | Nov 25, 2012 19:09:00 PM |

For those restaurant owners looking for help:

This posting includes contact emails for the show:
http://eater.com/archives/2012/01/11/gordon-ramsays-kitchen-nightmares-casting-now.php

I’m sorry but I very much doubt the show’s producers would ever read comments on this website! You’ll need to reach out to the show itself! Good luck!

Posted by: Sarah Jahn, Pittsfield, MA | Dec 18, 2012 01:59:18 AM |

please a helpa me

o my goda ima having a pizzeria and all my pizza are square please a gordon helpa me...

Posted by: dufus mclane, sweden | Dec 18, 2012 14:12:48 PM |

Please Chef Ramsey i have worked in many restaurants i just had to quit this one but, I don’t have any money and I don’t think Andy no i know he don’t have any but you just cant believe how busy this little place is but there’s no organization there i mean seeing is believing this we take an order (you would say i will have your hamburger of course i would ask all the details of the burger) ,But then i have to right 1 in front of it why? if you order a steak salad of course i right it down for the cook but then we have to yell to the salad bar -back up cook and anything else she can do we need a steak salad base then the fun begins we throw our tickets up on a plate under the heat window when our orders are up we hear Paula your in my window only seeing is believing in this great restaurant it could be so great with just a little help it is called Adreians and is in Calcutta ,Ohio he is a wonderful man even if i don’t work there no more but he needs a less menue also he has 4-5 pages of food way to much waste please ,thank you so much for listening Paula From the Real Hells Kitchen.

Posted by: Paula Smith, ROGERS ,OHIO | Jan 11, 2013 05:54:41 AM |

we need help

wonderful 14 acers of fun need help in resturant!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by: lois dupont, yucaipa cal | Jan 16, 2013 16:21:52 PM |

Ridiculous Claims

First of all the U.K Version is NOT better than the U.S. I am so sick of so many snotty Brits making this laughable claim. All about cooking? They give no real cooking tips. Some General ones but they never go into real depth so that the viewer at home can imitate it. Sheesh. I wonder if it’s the same person making these laughable claims works for the "We Brits Are The Best At Everything’ Campaign. lol
Many of the British Cooks looked like they were in a stupor. I’m not kidding. I half expected some of them to start drooling all over themselves while Ramsay yelled and swore at them.
And contrary to popular lies, SOME of the owners or head chefs DID indeed yell or swear back at Ramsay in the U.K Version.
It is true that they didn’t ALWAYS delve into the family drama BUT IT DID HAPPEN on occasion. (Such as the Dovecoat)
Sorry but some Brits are truly delusional. Especially since all but TWO of the Restaurants Ramsay helped in the U.K either closed down or were sold. I checked every last one of them.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t blame Ramsay. Some people simply have no business opening a Restaurant.
About 50% of the American Restaurants have also closed.
Oh and this Nonsense about "Oh Poor Ramsay being at the mercy of Fox" NONSENSE! "Poor Ramsay" was one of the Executive Producers. The show went exactly the way he wanted it to. Enough Said.

Posted by: sassy3000, Richfield | Oct 12, 2014 02:13:00 AM |

Help

I’m asking for help for friends whom bought a restaurant and it’s failing. They are dear friends and nothing is working for them. Their chef’s and cooks have been disastrous,less food and higher prizes caused by poor management. Mush more to say but keeping this simple. To see this fail for them breaks our hearts. If you read this can you help.

Waiting your reply
Thank you

Posted by: B. Leeder, Chilliwack BC Canada | Jul 05, 2013 21:41:41 PM |



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