In a last ditch effort to save the family business, Jessica Furman lobbied the Food Network's hit show "Restaurant Impossible" to help her resurrect her grandmother's longtime Smyrna business. It's been six months since host Robert Irvine was in town to help. Furman discusses her life as the new manager and her plans for a modern Wagon Wheel Restaurant.
It's been more than six months since the Food Network's immensely popular restaurant rehab show, "Restaurant Impossible" came to town to turn around the ailing business plan and menu of Smyrna's own Wagon Wheel Restaurant.
It was no accident that the show saw potential—for its ratings and for the business—in the small eatery owned by Patty Gallegos. Her grand-daughter had lobbied the show for help. And, for those who know her, it's probably no surprise. The Wagon Wheel was her first love.
"I loved being here as a kid," said Jessica Furman during a quiet moment before opening up last Friday. "I would follow my mom and my grandmother around taking orders and doing whatever I could get away with."
Despite being here for the show's taping, which Furman refers to as an intense experience, she had to leave shortly thereafter to tie up loose ends in California where she was finishing up her undergraduate degree in accounting at California State University at Long Beach. It took her two months but once everything was settled, she knew she wanted to come back and make sure that her grandparents' legacy was going to be around for at least 24 more years.
"I went to school for accounting but it's business that I'm interested in," she said. "I've always toyed with the idea of being an entrepreneur like my grandmother and the more I thought about it, the more I thought that taking on a position here was the way to move us all ahead."
Furman is the manager now, coming in on a daily basis to "mind the store." She's instituted some changes, like making sure the Wagon Wheel has a social media presence, tweaking the menu for seasonal ideas and adding nightlife.
"I thought 'How am I going to do what I want with the place but keep it true to what it is," she said. "I settled on an idea that would keep our regulars happy while also introducing a new crowd to us by changing things up 'after hours.'"
Families can still go in for dinner but several nights a week, Furman is bringing in entertainment and trying to build up a presence as venue for local and regional artists. Now, on Tuesday nights, she alternates open mic nights and open poetry mic nights. On the weekends, she brings in live entertainment with acoustic music, rock music and more.
"In California, where I've been living and going to school, it's such a melting pot," Furman explained. "On any night of the week, you can see punk, reggae and whatever. I want people to get to experience that diversity here. I want to have that kind of music here."
Aside from music and poetry, she's also bringing in more laughs thanks to her comedy night, also on Tuesdays. The last comedy show brought in a semi-local comic from Middletown as well as funnyman Patrick O'Donnell, who's been seen on Comedy Central and Jay Leno. He was also the $10,000 winner on ABC's early 1990's show "America's Funniest People."
Furman's ideas don't stop at live entertainment. She's also planning holiday themed bashes, like this weekend's Halloween parties for kids and adults and a "Day of the Dead" celebration in early November. She'd also like to see more private parties.
"It's so beautiful now," Furman said of all the aesthetic changes the show made, from fresh paint and upholstery to the bar. "It's the perfect size, I think, for showers and parties."
Her list of ideas, bolstered by her adamant determination to make people see the "new" Wagon Wheel is never-ending. She talks of a possible lunch delivery service before moving on to becoming a community presence at festivals.
It's a lot of change for the tiny restaurant but she said the reactions, so far, have been good.
"At first, my grandmother wasn't sure about all this. She didn't want to change anything," Furman explained, adding that Gallegos still comes in every day. "But, she's open to anything now because she sees the changes I'm making are working."
And, for the most part, their regular customer base is adapting, too. Ed Hohman, a daily customer "every day since 1952" still stops in, only now he's greeted—by name—by Gallegos's curly-haired grand-daughter.
"I was happy with the way things were but I could see that business had fallen off," said Hohman as his coffee cooled just enough to drink. "What they did was a big change from what we had but I like a lot of it. The antique furniture they refinished looks really good."
As he talks about the menu changes, he mentions that he loved the muskrat and was happy that Gallegos stood firm to keep it, saying that he has twice driven to the small Smyrna airport to pick up customers who flew in for the country delicacy.
"For our customers who would miss it, it will still be a seasonal item from the end of January through March on Thursdays," Furman said. "It's not for everybody but we do have long-time customers who love it and know us for it."
Most importantly, Furman wants people to know that the problems the restaurant had before, like inconsistent hours and frozen ingredients, are a thing of the past.
"The show gave us some great recipes that we're still using," she said, referring to corn beef and cabbage and freshly cut fries made daily. "We also change things up a lit bit as the seasons change and for special events. And, our hours are set and consistent now."
As the customers start to trickle in for coffee, her attention turns to orders and silverware but not before saying that she's hopeful that Smyrna will give the little restaurant a chance.
"Smyrna is a great community and the people here can be really supportive," Furman said. "I just want my grandmother's business to keep going."