It was back in the fall that Citizen Pictures, a Colorado-based production company, contacted me in hopes of finding some restaurants to feature on the Food Network's Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. The company hit up all the food writers in town, hunting for what it called great food, great characters, great atmosphere and great stories.
By December, news of which restaurants the producers had chosen began to leak when Maple and Motor, the meat-patty mecca built by Jack Perkins, posted a cryptic notice in its window. "We will be closed for lunch Dec 8. I'll tell you why later," the sign read. But everyone already knew.
Over the coming days sightings of Guy Fieri, the Food Network star known as much for his frosted hair as his love for blue-collar chow, were being reported on blogs and in Tweets from all over town. He was spotted at Preston Hollow's Dough Pizzeria, whose San Antonio location was previously featured on the show, and Pecan Lodge, a barbecue stand hidden in the Farmers Market. He was spotted in Cane Rosso and Pepes and Mitos in Deep Ellum, too. Each sighting brought Facebook and Twitter photos of Fieri's trademark tag, left behind on the walls of the restaurants: a tie-dyed, spray-painted likeness of himself with a Sharpie signature: Guy ate here.
Now, as the Dallas-based episodes run and re-run, the inevitable question remains: What's next for the restaurants featured on his show? Cane Rosso's episode debuted last week. Maple and Motor, Pepe's and Mito's and Chophouse Burger have also recently enjoyed the Food Network spotlight. And they follow Dallas-area restaurants featured on past seasons, including Avila's, Twisted Root, Prince Lebanese Grill and more.
DDD reaches 30 million viewers a month, and devoted fans turn to web sites like flavortownusa.com to track featured restaurants and report on recent visits. Before social media, an appearance on the show caused one massive surge in business, followed by subsequent pops each time a rerun aired. Now, with Twitter and Facebook making news of show appearances public earlier, business picks up before the show even runs.
Restaurants have come to view an appearance on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives as an instant windfall. Those featured on the show in the past have reported doubled revenue, and some much more. But that increased revenue can come at a cost to restaurants, too, as their capacity to meet exploding demand is pushed to a brink. There's even been talk of a Fieri Curse.
Jason Boso, the owner of the Twisted Root burger chain, handled his new stardom flawlessly. After the show aired in 2009, sales at his original store tripled, growing from $50,000 a month to more than $150,000 a month, he says. But he was ready for the onslaught, he says, in part because Fieri warned him about smaller businesses that had been overwhelmed in the past.
"When Guy was filming he came up to me and said, 'I'm real sorry I'm here,'" Baso says, describing the cryptic exchange. Fieri told him that some locations featured on his show had crashed and burned. Tiny mom-and-pops, used to handling scores of customers a day, suddenly had hundreds. "He told me to be prepared and I got prepared for it," Boso says.
Twisted Root was already in the midst of expansion plans when producers approached. (Only businesses with one location are featured). Two locations opened shortly after the show aired and viewers, recognizing the logo, swooped in to eat Fieri-approved burgers. Now there are seven Twisted Root locations in Texas, with more on the way. The restaurant has ceased to be a diner, drive-in or a dive: It's now a fully franchised restaurant.
Avila's was featured the same year. Patricia Avila and her family did the best they could to prepare. They had a refrigerated truck parked outside their Tex-Mex restaurant to serve as a temporary walk-in refrigerator, and they hired extra waitstaff and management. "It pretty much doubled sales," Avila says.
But while the Avila's kitchen struggled to meet demand, the stress of running a busy restaurant began to divide the family. Suddenly there was a lot more money on the table, and disagreements about employees, management style and ownership grew volatile. The disagreement ended in a courtroom battle, and son Ricardo left to pursue his own venture.
Jack Perkins, who owns Maple and Motor, took an unconventional tack to prepare for his recent appearance: He did nothing. There was no reason to worry about the extra business, he says, invoking an image of an old, angry man with slicked back hair, standing on the beach and scoffing at the coming storm.
Perkins reasons that most people already knew about his burger restaurant. A line ran out the front door and wrapped around his building, even on the weekdays. Perkins figured he'd nearly maxed out his market. Twisted Root by comparison did healthy business but the store was far from mobbed. Perhaps in part because the Deep Ellum neighborhood the restaurant called home was still finding its footing.
Perkins claims business is up 10 or 15 percent during the week and 30 percent on weekends. That's much less than other restaurants report, and he stands by his decision to not expand. "I'm extremely glad we didn't do anything special," he says. "We didn't add a room like Jay did, or hire 15 people extra."
Jay is Jay Jerrier, who owns and runs Cane Rosso, the Neapolitan pizza joint in Deep Ellum. Jerrier leased the empty space next to his restaurant to prepare for the surge. He's also looking to open subsequent locations. "We've been primarily focusing on Fort Worth," he says. (A deal that would have dropped a Cane Rosso in East Dallas recently fell through.)
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Jerrier has also been ramping up staff. Last year — before he'd heard about the show taping at his location — he brought in Dino Santonicola, an Italian born pizzaiolo from Washington, D.C., to oversee his dough balls. Jerrier has since hired a new manager and worked on training his staff to cater to new customers.
While Cinco de Mayo celebrations decimated sales last year, this year Jerrier enjoyed a bustling Saturday. Sales were up 40 percent the first week after his restaurant appeared on the show, and the new customers are ordering differently. The Delia, an arugula topped pizza that Jerrier used to sell less than 10 of a day, is enjoying increased popularity: On Saturday, the restaurant sold 40.
Meanwhile, Sandy Rojos, the co-owner of Pepe's and Mito's in Deep Ellum, says she gets a nice little bump in business every time the show airs. According to Rojas, one customer even flew in from California to eat at her restaurant because of the show. The Fieri factor has that much pull.
The warning Fieri issued Twisted Root is echoed in Internet rumors of a curse. But in Dallas, so far anyway, Fieri's recent tour seems only like the gift that keeps giving. No wonder they let him mark his territory.