Food Network to aid failing Fruita restaurant

Sullivan’s Grill in Fruita will be appearing on Food Network’s “Restaurant Impossible,” a show that aims to turn around struggling restaurants. Ginny Sullivan, the owner, serves lunch.

When Ginny Sullivan and her husband bought Pancho’s Villa II four years ago, they did so at the apex of the energy boom. The Mexican restaurant on the main drag through Fruita enjoyed a steady stream of customers. It appeared the decision to follow the lead of her grandparents and uncle — they, too, owned and operated restaurants — was deft.

Then the economy tanked, and troubles with food, staffing and a host of other things beset Sullivan, pushing the restaurant at 229 E. Aspen Ave. to the brink of closure.

A new Food Network show hopes to not only prevent that from happening, but give Sullivan’s Grill the tools to thrive.

“Restaurant: Impossible” host and chef Robert Irvine and television camera crews will be in Fruita next week and scoop up Sullivan and her employees in a whirlwind makeover. The show, which targets struggling restaurants, gives Irvine and his staff $10,000 and two days to turn around the operations by retraining staff, redecorating and updating menus.

“Restaurant: Impossible” will set up at Sullivan’s Grill on Tuesday. The restaurant will close Wednesday morning for filming and unveil the changes in a grand reopening Oct. 6.

“I’m extremely excited about it,” Sullivan said Wednesday in between greeting customers and serving plates of chicken fried steak and spaghetti. “I can’t wait to see what it will look like.”

The 34-year-old mother of Brad, 16, and Lindsay, 14, figures she’ll have trouble sleeping in the days leading up to the grand reopening. Before now, though, it was the slow deterioration of the restaurant — sales are off 50 percent since 2007 — that left her restless.

As business dwindled during the recession and other Mexican restaurants sprung up in town, Sullivan decided a year ago to revamp the restaurant. She renamed it and scrapped Mexican fare for meat-and-potatoes American and Irish dishes. Business picked up in the first month, then fell off again. Food-cost and sewer-bill increases have gnawed away profits. Without money to market the place, Sullivan said she consistently runs into people who never heard of her eatery.

“I heard all the time, ‘I didn’t even know you were here,’” she said.

Then a regular customer suggested she look into “Restaurant: Impossible.” She applied twice to get onto the show. She received word a month or so ago that the muscular, frank Irvine would soon be walking into her restaurant.

“I was completely shocked,” she said. “It was one of those moments you think doesn’t happen to you.”

Help is arriving just in time. A week before show employees came to Fruita to scout the restaurant, Sullivan said she met with a bankruptcy attorney.

Sullivan signed a confidentiality agreement with Food Network, so she and “Restaurant: Impossible” are keeping some of the details of her restaurant’s struggles — and what drew the show to Fruita — under wraps until the show airs.

In deciding which restaurants to assist, the show looks for personality in the owner and the need and desire for help, “Restaurant: Impossible” associated producer Erin Hilgedick said.

“We’re going to Sullivan’s because they have the desire to be helped, but we have faith that they can take what comes from the show and grow with it,” Hilgedick said. “We pick restaurants that we think can be successful after we leave.”

Sullivan said while she is nervous about being yelled at, “It’s time to set pride aside and take some constructive criticism.”

Sullivan’s Grill is among the 1 percent of the restaurants — and the first Colorado-based business — chosen for the show. Out of 2,500 applicants, “Restaurant: Impossible” has assisted 25, Hilgedick said.

And if history is any guide, the eatery stands a good chance of success. With the show currently in its second season, only one restaurant has closed, she said.

The episode featuring Sullivan’s Grill is expected to air on Food Network at the end of this year or beginning of next year.


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