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Updated Feb 26, 2024

Robert Irvine’s Advice to Get Your Business Cooking

Maya Afilalo, Staff Writer

Robert Irvine Overcoming Impossible book cover

Chef Robert Irvine is known to millions for Dinner: Impossible, Restaurant: Impossible, and other Food Network shows. He’s also a successful businessperson with numerous restaurants and a line of health food products found in grocery stores. Irvine’s latest book, Overcoming Impossible: Learn to Lead, Build a Team, and Catapult Your Business to Success, has leadership lessons for entrepreneurs who can stand the heat in the kitchen.

1. A core principle of Overcoming Impossible is finding your passion. How can individuals pivot their existing businesses to align with what excites them?

Irvine: If we go with the premise that there are truly no more ideas that could be considered completely original — and I think there’s a sound argument to be made in favor of that notion — then the mandate for any of us is to not just do a thing well, but to do it in a way that is unique to us, in the way that only we can do it.

I own a pub, Robert Irvine’s Public House, at the Tropicana in Vegas. In many respects, it’s got all the elements that you would expect from any pub. But at every level of designing that place — from the layout to the décor, from the beer and cocktail menu to the apps, mains, and desserts — I filled that restaurant with the things that I love, things that excite me, things that I’m passionate about. At a certain point, you have to believe in your own taste and trust it implicitly. My personal taste is my North Star. I might be able to make a competent version of what excites other people, but if it doesn’t excite me, then I don’t think it has much of a chance of being great.

So, I think you need to look for opportunities in every corner of your business to imbue the customer experience with things that personally excite you. If you feel strongly about it, then there are probably a lot of other people out there who will also love it, even if they don’t know it yet.

2. You write about business skills and mindset. What happens if you have one without the other?

Irvine: They’re fully interconnected, to the point where I don’t believe success is possible if you’ve only got one and not the other. Technical or practical know-how can only go so far without passion, vision, and belief. Conversely, passion, vision, and belief without technical or practical know-how will get you nowhere.

Or, I guess I shouldn’t say that — if you had lots of bluster but no competence, you could totally become an internet guru and talk about “rise and grind” and blah, blah, blah. Social media is littered with the folks who never built a business besides offering to coach other people on how to chase their dreams. It’s a bleak landscape, but I think if people trust their guts — or just carefully look at the resumes of the folks they’re taking advice from — they can tell who’s the real deal and who’s a poser.

Now, you asked what if you have one without the other? While I don’t think any good can come from having one and not the other, a lack of either can be corrected with education and training. You’re never completely out of luck until you quit trying to learn …

3. What strategies can you share for entrepreneurs looking to successfully scale up?

Irvine: I dedicated a chapter to scaling up because it’s a lot trickier than it would seem on paper. It’s not about having enough capital or enough physical space to expand, though of course, those are crucial elements. It’s really about maintaining quality as you go bigger.

And the problem there is that, with very few exceptions, you’re going to have to invent an entirely new process to create your product at a larger scale. As a culinary example, I take a pancake recipe that might comfortably feed a small family. Now, if you have guests, you can double it easy enough. But by the time you’re trying to make it for a big crowd of people in a packed restaurant, everything needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. You’d not only need to upgrade from a household kitchen mixing bowl and spatula to an industrial mixer, you’d also need a totally different process for incorporating the wet and dry ingredients because if you stir it too much — a real possibility with a few pounds of flour in the mix — you can overstress the wheat gluten and turn the whole batch to rubber if you don’t do it just right. That’s simply not a concern when you’re cooking for four to five people.

Myriad unforeseen problems can crop up in any scaling situation, whether we’re talking about making pancakes or military-grade hardware. Besides the capital required, serious energy needs to be put into R&D to create the new, efficient process that will deliver the same quality product to a larger customer base.

4. As far as building meaningful relationships rooted in trust, what is your advice for leaders to cultivate a thriving workplace that goes beyond retention?

Irvine: Very simply, you need to invest in your people. Not just in terms of compensation and benefits, but in terms of providing them with an environment where they’re comfortable bringing their full creative force to bear upon their work.

Invest in them personally. Spend a little time getting to know their families and their passions outside of work. This goes beyond the desire for a happy workplace, though of course, that’s exactly what I’ve tried to cultivate. It’s also a good business practice. It’s a fact of life in business that we often wind up spending more time with our coworkers than we do with our real families.

You can debate whether that’s right or not all day, but I think as long as it’s true, then workplaces ought to function as supportive families — and not just have mission statements that pay lip service to the idea.

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