At Zoogs, improvement possible: Caveman evolves in Hadlock

By Patrick J. Sullivan of the Leader
Posted 2/10/15

Not many people are willing to lay everything on the line, from personal financial and family issues to commercial kitchen cleanliness.

That's what Bret "Zoog" Forsberg did to land a starring role …

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At Zoogs, improvement possible: Caveman evolves in Hadlock

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Not many people are willing to lay everything on the line, from personal financial and family issues to commercial kitchen cleanliness.

That's what Bret "Zoog" Forsberg did to land a starring role for Zoogs Caveman Cookin on the Food Network TV show "Restaurant Impossible," a program filmed Nov. 16-18, 2014 in Port Hadlock, and aired Feb. 4.

Forsberg is glad he did. He said business has increased, the number of sit-down customers has surpassed the number of take-out orders, and there are more customers using credit or debit cards instead of cash, indicating a change in clientele.

"The whole experience, we couldn't ask for anything better," Forsberg said. "It's given us a chance."

The show's premise is that with $10,000 for a physical makeover, expert advice and a ton of volunteer work, restaurants deemed to be failing financially can be given a fresh start.

Forsberg, his family and his employees were not allowed to discuss the TV experience in public until after the program aired. Here are some of their big "takeaways" from the three-day experience in November 2014:

• Business had improved by 20 percent in January, still a slow time of year. Customers definitely appreciate the interior remodel (even if some things were a bit incomplete), and many of the menu items (including roasted Brussel sprouts), suggested by celebrity chef Robert Irvine are still being served.

• Chef Irvine did not complain about the quality of food being served (although he actually did not eat anything himself). In fact, Forsberg said that his Texas-style barbecue "pit master" skills have been validated.

• There was not as much yelling on the TV program's final cut as actually happened during the two and a half days that Irvine was around the business.

• The issue of Forsberg tending to drink beer while on the business premises was front-and-center during the show; he said he is changing his ways. (He has also made two trips to the hospital with cardiac and blood pressure issues since November).

• A casual viewer of the show would come away with the impression that the restaurant kitchen was not fit to serve the public. In fact, the kitchen had passed a food safety inspection on Nov. 5, less than two weeks before TV cameras arrived.

Overall, the restaurant crew is happy with the changes, and that includes the menu that includes nightly specials.

“It has improved business,” said Charlie Babcock, line cook, who has worked at the location, off and on, for six years. “It changed everything. The look, the feel, the energy, the people. The whole environment of the place has changed.”

THE SHOW

Celebrity chef Robert Irvine had filmed about 125 episodes of “Restaurant Impossible" since the program debuted in January of 2011. The loud, burly Englishman is known to tell it just like he sees it and his first impression of the building’s exterior, complete with cavewoman and dinosaur: “ridiculous.” Inside, he notes the “beat up walls,” a stone fireplace that protrudes into a public walkway between interior rooms, and old carpet.

“One thing that hits me more than anything and that is the disgusting putrid smell of a mix between urine, dirt, grease.” [The words "disgusting" and "disgusted" are used at least nine times].

The restaurant, housed in one of Hadlock's oldest commercial buildings, immediately draws the chef's attention.

“If a fifthly restaurant and bar wasn’t bad enough, the kitchen is beyond foul.” Irvine says on the show. “This has got to be the worst place I’ve ever seen.”

He took issue with how fresh food was labeled, the cold unit’s temperature, the grease vent’s cleanliness, and a lower section of a food prep area that was never used, but did not appear to have been cleaned for some time.

“With every moment I spend here I realize there is no part of this restaurant that should be used for anything, especially food service," he says on the program.

“Shut this down now,” Irvine yells, and adds, “You should be ashamed of yourself. You are seriously going to hurt somebody and it’s going to come back and bite you.”

Customarily, the chef samples the food as well as checks it out for plating. He told Forsberg to prepare five of his signature dishes for him to inspect – but he would not taste, due to his concerns about kitchen cleanliness.

Forsberg told the Leader Feb. 6 that "we had it as clean as it had ever been," after having a Jefferson County Public Health Department inspection Nov. 5, and knowing the nit-picky chef was due Nov. 16.

FOOD SAFETY

According to public records obtained from Jefferson County Public Health:

• There have been no customer complaints about food-related sickness at Zoogs in 2014. The JCPH responds to every public complaint regarding something like food poisoning, which generally occurs within 24 to 72 hours of a person dining. “Studies show that one is much more likely to get a food-borne illnesses from a private residence than out of a restaurant,” said Jared Keefer, director of the county's Environmental Health and Water Quality operations.

• The only restaurant subject to emergency closure in 2014 on a health violation was Zoogs – but it was not for anything people may have seen on the Reality TV show. A complaint was made to JCPH last July that Zoogs was operating without hot water, and that prompted an inspection July 29 where that proved to be true. The lack of hot water for sanitary facilities and hand washing is an automatic closure, Keefer said. The broken water heater was replaced and the restaurant was reopened July 30.

Overall, about 10 different food service businesses scored poor enough in 2014 to merit a prompt re-inspection to ensure corrective action was taken, said Mina Kwansa, the JCPH environmental health specialist who conducts inspections. Zoogs was one of those businesses.

“People take pride in their food. It reflects on them and you have a responsibility to your customers” Kwansa said.

The top four basic rules of food handling, things that score "red" points, deal with this sequence of events: Cook, chill, separate and wash hands, Keefer noted.

Establishments are closed immediately for these imminent health hazards: lack of water, lack of hot water, sewage backup and lack of electrical power. Other problems revealed on inspection must be fixed immediately, and some must be done within 30 days.

[In our Feb. 18 issue, the Leader will examine more about our local food safety inspections].

Still, the kitchen clearly was not clean enough for Chef Irvine, who ordered in a kitchen equipment repair person (from Sequim), and a crew that spent 14 hours cleaning the kitchen.

Zoog staff realized that Reality TV needs excitement, and feel the chef made a scene in the kitchen mostly to add spice.

“The production crew said he’s been in much worse conditions than ours and he allowed them to keep operating,” noted Holly Pritchett, restaurant manager.

THE MONEY

The profit margin in the restaurant world is generally thin, and Forsberg admitted to being over their head, or should it be, underwater, in terms of finances.

"I’ve lost everything,” Forsberg tells Irvine, saying he has lost his home and is $65,000 in credit card debt. Employees were let go, he cashed in his 401K, and being short on money meant being unable to buy enough food product.

In what Irvine said was “the first time ever” in his program’s 11 seasons, a government representative actually came to the business in search of money. “At the end of the day the tax man will always get their money,” Irvine said on camera.

Forsberg told the Leader that he knew he owed the state Department of Labor and Industries the fourth-quarter payment for 2014, and that a representative stopped to deliver paperwork. It was not a stop-work notice or anything that serious, he said.

The reality is that $400 goes to pay the credit cards, every day. Pritchett said she pretty much works without a salary, hoping to get the restaurant in the black so someday, the money she and her husband, Zac, invested could at least be recouped.

“I’ve put so much into this already, I don’t want it to all be for nothing,” she said. Her husband, an experienced cook who on the TV program was put in charge of the kitchen, is now working a different job.

FOOD QUALITY

Fans of the TV show know that in most cases, food quality is a major issue, often because of the lack of fresh, homemade ingredients. Not so at Zoogs.

Although Irvine berated kitchen cleanliness, and did suggest a few menu changes and additions, little time was spent debating actual food quality.

Forsberg told the Leader that two of the show’s producers and crew had eaten at Zoogs, and the word had already gotten to Irvine that food quality was not an issue. A barbecue consultant from Texas was brought in to go over things with Forsberg, who said, “gave me validation” that his methods are good.

“I was really upset that [Irvine] did not try my food. I take great pride in my smoked barbecue meats,” Forsberg said.

DESIGN, CONSTRUCTION

Contractors had visited two weeks prior to filming, so the show's designer and builder knew the building's size and shape, and came prepared with a re-design idea. The concept of a "rustic, industrial man cave" was developed, including driftwood turned into wall art, and a metal gate transformed into a room divider. The floor plan was opened up, the fireplace from 1964 was resurfaced and, first of all, the old carpeting was ripped out and replaced with a laminate.

“One way they can tell what a community thinks of the business is how many volunteers show up,” Forsberg said. “They were impressed that we had more than 200 people. They did a place in Renton after ours, and they had 20 volunteers.”

Although the construction effort did a lot of amazing work, and the staff is unquestionably happy with the end result, it was not a complete job. For example, the screws used to attached the reupholstered cushions to the wooden chairs were too short, and fell out within a week or two of installation. The dining room tables had been sanded and varnished but not sealed.

The laminate flooring, a huge improvement over the carpet, bubbled, particularly near the sloped side-door (now front door) entrance. It has been re-stretched once.

While some construction problems took weeks to arise, one became clear on opening night, Nov. 18: a phone line had been accidentally cut, and no credit card machines would work. It took three days to get the break fixed.

BEHIND THE SCENES

Irvine is famous for being loud. Forsberg grew up in a military family and served six years in the U.S. Air Force, so he was prepared to follow orders, not willing to let "$10,000 in work and a million dollars of publicity slip through my grasp.

“I do have a temper, but I’ve seen the episodes where people have gotten in his face and he just gets in their face that much more," Forsberg said. “He yelled at the camera crew as much as he does at us."

How did the finished show compare with the live experience?

“What they showed on TV didn’t match up," said Brandy Hendricks, a Zoogs employee. "They made Robert Irvine a lot nicer than he really was.”

Forsberg did note that Irvine pulled him off camera and said, “No matter what you think of me, I’m here to help. I can fix the décor but I can’t fix your family. If you can fix that, you will have a successful restaurant.”

GETTING PERSONAL

Pritchett's application to be on the Reality TV show made it clear that family and staff morale had been affected by Forsberg’s apparent lack of passion for the job, complicated by financial woes and his beer consumption.

For TV purposes, producers asked Pritchett and her sister, Sara Steele, to approach Irvine in the production tent and ask for help about the drinking. “That was staged,” Pritchett said, although the concern is real.

The sisters noted that their father has acquired a reputation for drinking on duty, although Pritchett noted that since he lives in an apartment upstairs, and is not always working, he may be seen with a drink when he is not actually cooking.

The women suggested that Zoog drank about a keg of beer (33 gallons) a week, a type of draft beer [Bud Lite] generally not served to patrons.

Forsberg told the Leader he did not believe he ever drank a keg a week; now, his Bud Lite is purchased in cans.

Irvine sat Forsberg at a table and made an elaborate presentation based on poker, a game Zoog understands quite well. He dealt a hand of a Jack of Diamonds with the words “broken equipment,” a 6 of Clubs (filthy restaurant), a 9 of hearts (poor management), a 7 of Diamonds (unsatisfactory food) and the final card, a 4 of Spades (drinking while working.

“This is the hand you showed me,” Irvine told Forsberg. “You are betting your life on this hand.”

Forsberg acknowledged it as a “losing hand.”

Fixing each of those problems resulted in new cards, ending up as a Full House – poker's highest hand.

“What I came away with is, it’s not like you’re getting drunk every day, but people are seeing you drink,” Forsberg told the Leader. “I have made the decision that while I’m on duty, I won’t touch anything but [water]. My family was having to make excuses, and they won’t have to do that anymore.”

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