The Diners, Drive-Ins And Dives Effect
When Guy Fieri arrives at a restaurant to film a segment of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, he rarely hangs around more than a few hours, but what follows is a cascade of buzz and public interest that transforms the business in his wake.
Minnesota and neighboring parts of Wisconsin have contributed 32 of the 800 business profiled on DDD, starting with St. Paul’s Dari-ette Drive-In in 2007, and most recently the Brick House Cafe in Cable, Wis., in November. Compare this to four in the Milwaukee region or 14 in Colorado.
“They told us ‘We can do a lot for your sales., ” says says Ann Kim, co-owner of Pizzeria Lola in Minneapolis, “‘We had no idea.”
“They told us to get ready,” says Josh Thoma, founder of Smack Shack in Minneapolis. “I was like, “ ‘I got it.’ I did not get it.”
A month later, his sales and customer counts were up 500 percent.
Typically a DDD appearance begins with a phone call from the show’s production company.
Though DDD is always among Food Network’s top-rated programs, the network doesn’t seem to be appointment viewing for restaurateurs. Most of the ones TCB spoke to either were unaware of the show at the time it approached them or had a skeptical view of it as a result of Fieri’s campy style and the production’s kitschy quality.
“I was not familiar at all,” says Niki Stavrou, owners of Victor’s 1959 Cafe in Minneapolis, “I didn’t even have cable.” Stavrou says a producer called to say “they were interested in featuring us, possibly. They emphasize that. So I did two or three phone interviews and eventually they sent a producer out in person.”
The rather insular chef and restaurant community isn’t always convinced they want or need national exposure. “I was concerned about the filming, that it might cost us a fair amount of business those days,” says Kim. Her husband and business partner, Conrad Leifur, “told me I was nuts” to pass up the opportunity.
Other restaurateurs talk of sending producers their recipes, photos of prepared dishes, all with zero promises made. There are tales, possibly apocryphal, of Fieri arriving at a shoot and not liking the look or cleanliness of a restaurant and simply walking out. (Fieri declined an interview with TCB.) “We heard the stories,” says Trish Appleby, co-owner of Donatelli’s in White Bear Lake, “so you never take it for granted.”
She says a member of the production staff stumbled into the restaurant and decided it might make a good subject. Then “we spent 12 hours on the phone” with the producers.
Though some were wary of the show, when it came time to shoot, the skepticism faded.
The typical DDD shoot lasts two days. Early in the show’s run, crews worked around customers and operations, but more recently restaurateurs have been asked to close. “We were closed for four days,” says Thoma, whose operation at the 1029 Bar in Minneapolis was profiled.
The DDD crew shows up on day one to set up lighting and shoot the food shots, “b-roll” and other miscellany. On day two Fieri arrives, usually for half the day. “I think we cooked every item on the menu three times with Guy,” says Ted Casper, co-owner of Casper and Run- yon’s Nook in St. Paul. “He wanted to try everything on the menu, just about. Then they decided what to feature.”
Concerns about the show’s values are quickly dashed. “They are really focused on scratch cooking,” says Kim. “I was surprised and impressed. They vetted us very carefully.” She says she had no interaction with Fieri until the shoot. “Guy doesn’t like to meet people before the taping. He is focused on it being as spontaneous as possible. They’re super-serious about it being authentic.”
Still, the shoot is not without its strains. Though many operators say the shoots cost them little more than some wasted food and inconvenienced customers, many of the restaurants DDD profiles are by their nature all-day operations, open seven days a week. Some use food with high ingredient costs and rapid spoilage. “I was reluctant,” says Eric Goerdt, owner of Northern Waters Smokehaus in Duluth. “I think it cost us nearly $15,000 in wasted product and costs associated with cleaning” his specialized fish processing area after the shoot.
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“I estimated about $12,000 in overall expense,” says Thoma. Then you wait. It can be as long as a year until a DDD segment airs after taping, but it’s always at least several months wondering if all the effort will pay off.
The back story
It’s one of the more extraordinary stories in the history of big media and small business. Northern California restaurateur Fieri—with a shock of bleached-blond hair, tattoos and ever-present shorts—wins Food Network’s Next Food Network Star TV competition and gets to host a special for the network, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives in 2006.
The DDD special enjoys strong ratings and receives a series commitment from the network. It’s produced by Plymouth-based Page Productions, helmed by David Page, who approached Food Network with the idea for the show. With a staff of producers based in the Twin Cities, the local region took on a disproportionate role in the life of the series, which has featured eateries from Hawaii to Italy since debuting in 2007.
Page and Food Network cut ties in 2011 after a high-profile dispute (David Page did not reply to requests for an interview), but much of the show’s production staff remains Twin Cities-based.
A DDD segment typically runs a third of a half-hour show, roughly eight minutes, though some can be twice or half as long. In the initial weeks after premiere, episodes rerun a handful of times each week. The impact on the restaurants profiled is neither gradual nor subtle.
The tidal wave
At the time DDD called, Pizzeria Lola was riding the crest of a wave of strong local reviews. It was the pizzeria of the moment, with its iconic French copper pizza oven and quirky offerings reflecting its founder’s Korean heritage. “We didn’t think we could be any busier,” Kim explains. “We wanted to be a neighborhood pizzeria. A turn or two a night would be awesome.”
Lola added lunch hours the day after the show aired. “People were lined up waiting for us to open,” Kim continues. “The first weekend was insane. We were open 11 to 11 and never not full. We had to go to Subway to buy the staff lunch because we had no time to make one here.”
Their story is similar to the many regional DDD restaurants we spoke to: instant bedlam, a tidal wave of business.
“At the time we were really struggling,” says Tim McKee, co-owner of Smalley’s Caribbean Barbecue in Stillwater, which offers spicy Jamaican jerk-style barbecue in a town of summertime day-trippers and antique shoppers, and wasn’t really connecting with the customer it needed. “We wondered if we were going to have to close. [DDD] saved the business.”
Smalley’s saw an initial jump in revenue of 60 percent. “That, to me, is staggering,” says McKee, a principal with Parasole Restaurant Holdings and a veteran of the Twin Cities restaurant game. “I thought we’d see a peak, then it would fall off, but it’s been only up from there.”
Barbecue is a favorite Fieri theme, and a Page Productions producer discovered Charlie Johnson’s QFanatic in Champlin. A one-time Italian fine dining chef, Johnson’s barbecue passion project labored in relative obscurity until its brief appearance on DDD. His was only a three- or four-minute segment and one of the rare ones where Fieri never even showed, but merely narrated video shot by the producers. No matter.
Eight Minutes to Fame
10 DDD success stories
Casper & Runyon’s Nook
Air Date: 21 Jan. 2008
Short Term: 100% increase in sales
Long Term: “We see growth every year.”
Notable: The 69-seat bar had to add a podium and host to deal with the crowds.
Chester Creek Cafe©
Air Date: 4 Oct. 2010
Short Term: Single-digit change in revenue
Long Term: No gain attributable to DDD
Notable: “The show really made us look at ourselves a bit and tighten our operations.”
Air Date: 30 July 2007
Short Term: None
Long Term: Sales have doubled
Notable: The first local restaurant to be profiled on DDD.
White Bear Lake
Air Date: 3 Nov 2008
Short Term: 30-40% increase in revenue
Long Term: 20% sustained increase
Notable: “It saved us from going out of business.”
Northern Waters Smokehaus
Air Date: 21 June 2010
Short Term: Revenue jumped 60%
Long Term: “It hasn’t slowed.”
Notable: Jump-started its mail-order business.
Air Date: 2 April 2012
Short Term: 50% increase in sales
Long Term: Annual sales bumps, no plateau
Notable: Every time the rerun airs, a man from Ohio calls and asks for a menu to be mailed to him.
Air Date: 10 Jan. 2011
Short Term: 50% boost in revenue
Long Term: Sales up 75% two years later
Notable: The one local DDD profile that Guy Fieri did not tape in person.
Smack Shack at the 1029 Bar
Air Date: 9 April 2012
Short Term: 500% increase in sales
Long Term: 300% increase
Notable: The four-day shoot cost $12,000 in lost revenue food expense.
Smalley’s Caribbean Barbecue
Air Date: 7 May 2012
Short Term: 60% bump in sales
Long Term: 7-10% annual increases
Notable: “When the show reruns, there’s always a bump.”
Victor’s 1959 Cafe©
Air Date: 29 Sept. 2008
Short Term: 40-50% jump in dinner sales
Long Term: Annual growth every year since ’08.
Notable: Featured in one of the DDD books.
The First to Flavortown
Angela Fida got a phone call in 2005. The man had just moved from the East Coast and was looking for good Italian food and wanted some details about her restaurant, Dari-ette, the 1951 drive-in on St. Paul’s East Side. He showed up a few days later and stood out for ordering nearly the entire menu for a car with two people.
It was David Page, creator of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, doing early reconnaissance for a show he was preparing to pitch to Food Network, pre-Guy Fieri. The following year Page, Fieri and a crew returned and spent four days taping a segment for the first season of DDD. Fieri, then a virtual unknown, was on-site the entire time.
Dari-ette was part of episode 12 of DDD, along with Al’s Breakfast, a diner in Michigan, and a pub in Northern California. The episode aired a year later, and Fida describes the impact as “Nothing. Nothing at all. Nobody knew him or the show.”
Gradually though, as DDD gained prominence and reruns kept airing, crowds thickened. Around 2010 Fida felt a real impact. Her sales have since doubled (though customer counts have tripled, many coming just to take a picture of the iconic midcentury drive-in).
Fida has stayed in touch with Fieri, occasionally exchanging emails and business insights (Fieri has owned restaurants in California since 1996), and Dari-ette has made it into two DDD books. The business that her grandfather founded is ship-shape, she says—enhanced revenue allowing her to replace aging equipment and bring the place up to contemporary code.
“Without Guy,” Fida says, “I’m not sure we’d still be here.”
Duluth’s awkwardly named At Sara’s Table Chester Creek Cafe© hit the airwaves in late 2010 as part of Guy Fieri’s first trip to the Northland. The hippie-ish seasonally driven natural foods restaurant girded for a boomlet of business that never really came.
“We see an increase in our out-of-town business in tourist season,” notes manager Jillian Forte, “but we were growing at roughly the same rate before and after the show.”
Forte attributes the different impact to Duluth’s out-of-the-way location. Nonetheless, Forte, who was the face of the restaurant on the DDD episode, regards the experience as entirely positive. “It was really valuable,” she says. “It made us take a look at ourselves a bit. We were this hippy-dippy joint, and it forced us to tighten up our operations and become more consistent.”
Though the cafe doesn’t see new customers with each rerun, Forte knows they air nonetheless. “I usually get a bunch of friend requests on Facebook that night. Mostly from middle-aged men.”
“You get an explosion, instant notoriety,” Johnson explains. “Barbecue has a passionate national following, and suddenly we’re on the barbecue trail.” QFanatic had been lauded in the Star Tribune and Minnesota Monthly, but the effect was nothing like DDD. “You can’t buy the impact you get. We’ve seen diners from 30 countries. There is someone in my parking lot from Canada almost every day. We are a destination.”
With over 200 episodes in the can and 800 restaurants in its pantheon (only three area DDD restaurants have closed, and none attributed the closing to the celebrity), DDD has spawned its own cottage industry of websites and apps that collate and curate the restaurants. Fans organize bus tours of restaurants, and the hardiest travel the country in hopes of sampling every one, ordering exactly what Guy ate.
“Businesspeople and travelers come to town and they go to the Internet so they can eat at DDD restaurants when they’re here,” says Johnson.
“We’re in the middle of a residential neighborhood,” says Victor’s Stavrou. “You don’t stumble upon us. Yet we see consistent growth in out-of-town business and travelers every year. We’re not just a neighborhood place anymore.”
“It’s cultish,” says Donatelli’s Appleby. “People wait three hours in line. You feel bad for your regulars, who can’t get in.”
Food Network continues to air all seasons of DDD (eight years of production, not counting 2015). Some have been repackaged into hour-long episodes focused on pizza, barbecue, burgers, regions and other themes.
“It seems like they’ve re-aired the thing a million times,” says the Nook’s Casper. “We were begging for mercy.”
Many segments live on YouTube and other reaches of the Internet. In that sense DDD functions as an annuity for the restaurants it profiles, while it literally saved others.
“We had just expanded as the recession hit,” says Appleby. “We had debt and were really scared. It saved us from going out of business.”
What’s fascinating is the show’s impact on already highly successful restaurants. “I had my doubts,” says Casper. “I mean if you’re full, you’re full.” His 69-seat tavern already had a cult following in St. Paul. “Then you start to see the people from out of town who will wait two hours, day after day.”
For other operators, the show has jump-started an aspect of their business they were struggling to develop. “We were known for our breakfasts,” says Stavrou. “They focused on our lunch and dinner menu. It was a godsend.”
No one saw a bigger boost that Northern Waters’ Goerdt, who was working to develop a mail-order business of smoked fish and related specialties from his tiny Duluth storefront. “We were uniquely poised to benefit because we can service a national audience,” he says. “We can tell whenever our episode airs because we get tons of calls and orders.”
Pizzeria Lola no longer contents itself with a turn or two at dinner. It is open all day and full much of the time. It’s spun off a slice shop at France and 44th, and there are other plans as well. “The notoriety has made us the No. 1 local restaurant on TripAdvisor,” says Kim. “So now we get business from around the world. It’s just been up, up, up. Our banker told us this isn’t how it usually works in restaurants.”
The restaurateurs remain surprised. They’re grateful to the man they spent four hours with and never heard from again, the next Food Network star, Guy Fieri.
“He’s had a lot of success, that’s for sure,” says Niki Stavrou. “But boy, has he paid it forward.”
Adam Platt is TCB’s executive editor.