The Return of Restaurant: Impossible – Interview with Contractor Tom Bury
Contractor Tom Bury and designer Taniya Nayak help Robert shoulder the burden of turning around failing restaurants every week on Restaurant: Impossible. They’re so integral to the success of both the show and the revamped restaurants that it’s hard to imagine R:I without them. Click HERE to read Part I where we sat down to talk with Taniya about creativity on a tight budget. Here in Part II, Tom talks working on three hours’ sleep, managing Robert’s outbursts, and how R:I changed his life.
INTERVIEW BY MATT TUTHILL
Robert Irvine Magazine: The magazine has followed up with a lot of restaurants from the original run of the show and the first thing we ask them is, “How have the renovations held up?” Not one person has said “Oh, well, after six months, this thing started to fall apart.” They all say the craftsmanship has been basically perfect.
The question is: if a private citizen outside of the TV show paid you for a big renovation, you wouldn’t try to do it in two days. So, how are you able to deliver the same quality of work when it’s done under duress on R:I?
Tom Bury: Well, at the end of an episode I’m always saying, “Oh, I wish I had more time to do this. I wish I had more time to that.” With that being said, we build restaurants and I understand durability. And we all actually care about the restaurant, not just about the TV show. Because anyone can make something for a TV show. I can make a bunch of pretty things that look great on camera that’ll fall down in a week, and then we can walk away not care. But we care.
So, we spend time doing things that I know will last. Sometimes, that means using a couple of tricks in our bag, or using materials that I know will last over time. But we do pride ourselves on making sure that everything is made for a restaurant.
The designers do a great job also, working with me on that and finding new materials and new ways to use durable things in these restaurants. Because to be honest, when I see something that I know won’t last, I won’t do it. So, it’s a pretty easy argument for me to win because I just say no. And I know Robert won’t let me do it. He doesn’t want it if it’s going to be cheap.
The designers are always trying to push the envelope, so God bless them. They’re trying to do things inexpensively and make an impact. That’s hard to do. But I’m very happy to hear that people aren’t reporting issues. There have been over 160 episodes of the show and I think three times we had to go back and make some additional repairs where they called us a few weeks later.
And we’ve learned from those mistakes. We’re at a crazy level because of all the years that we’ve been doing this.
RI: That answer makes perfect sense, but every homeowner has had the experience of hiring a contractor for a simple job and then they discover rotted support beams or something like that and they’re into something ten times bigger than what they thought it would be.
TB: We always have issues. Every single construction job is going to have an issue. And I always account for issues. I’m always leaving time in my schedule for the unknown. It does add time to the schedule a lot of times. Sometimes, it results in either cutting a project or doing something else, or streamlining or simplifying something.
The second we start demolition, I’m already thinking about the end of that first day and I have a list of things I need to get done and if I can get them done. I’ll give you an example from a recent episode: We came across a major problem tearing up tile and discovering that the sub-floor was just horrible. The guys had to skim coat the entire floor, and they were in our way the whole time. So, we had to shift gears. I had planned on building this wall and I had to take it outside, pre-frame the wall in six different pieces, and make it like a Lego puzzle. That way, when the guys were done with the floor, we could bring it in and assemble it on Day Two. And that’s what we did.
It wasn’t the ideal way to do it. It took a little longer to do it that way, but I knew I had to start or we would not get the project done. So, I’m always kind of working ahead trying to figure out what’s going to impact our time. I’m never working on one project. I’m working on all the projects all the time.
RI: You arrive a day before Robert to get set up, correct?
TB: Yes. That’s our Day Zero day. I fly in. I walk around. We set up our tool stand, which is a huge part of that day because we set up the same exact way every single time so we know where everything is. Then I’m walking through with the designer.
RI: You work most of the time with Taniya Nayak. Does she know your skill set well enough at this point where she doesn’t have to ask you any questions? Or do you still need to have a lot of input with her in the design before everything is presented to Robert in front of a camera?
TB: We always, always work together. It’s their design 100% and it’s not that they have to, but they want to collaborate. So, they’re always throwing things out there and saying, “Hey, we were thinking about this. How can we make this happen?” I’ll bring ideas to the table based on that and then Taniya’s like, “Ooh, I like that. What if we did this and this?” We really work it together because, besides the design, I’m also thinking about cost and time. I always want to get to the solution that will give them 100% what they want on budget, on time.
We worked together for so long now that we’re brother and sister. The nice part is I never question her designs because I’ve seen the results so many times and they’re always so beautiful. So, if there’s something where I’m like, “Ooh, that looks a little weird,” I literally shut my mouth and just do it because I know at the end, it’ll be perfect, like, “Wow, T. That looks amazing. It always does.”
RI: In the show promotion, a lot is made of the $10,000 budget being the absolute limit of what you guys can do. But it’s always been kind of unclear to me, as a viewer, if that budget belongs to you and Taniya entirely. What happens if Robert needs to use some of that if the restaurant needs all new plates or a new stove, or something that not is really a design or construction thing?
TB: The $10,000 budget is technically the whole thing. But will it go slightly over sometimes if we run into a huge problem? Or, if they need new plates and silverware? Sometimes, but never by a lot. Any construction budget, you always have to have a contingency budget. I tell my clients that no matter what because there’s always something you’re missing. It’s still a huge win. The results they get are usually worth $75,000 to $100,000.
RI: How much do you sleep between Day One Day Two?
TB: I try to get at least three to four hours with the guys. The reason is we found that working through the night, not sleeping at all, does not speed up the process because when you’re not sleeping, the stuff you’re doing in those last couple hours is really slow and inefficient. It makes no sense. By getting three hours of sleep, the work I can get done in that first hour we start is more than I would get done in those three hours of sleep.
RI: What do you do when you are not filming Restaurant Impossible?
TB: I do the same thing. I build restaurants. We do a lot of pharmacies, too. Oddly enough, we do these pharmacies based off our work on Restaurant Impossible. We fly all over the country, and do them in six days or seven days, almost like an extended Restaurant Impossible. Totally different budget, but same concept. We’re able to get in out quickly.
RI: Did you have a typical contracting business before R:I? Contractors don’t usually fly around the country.
TB: Exactly. We did have a very typical business and doing stuff in the tri-state area. But we were building a lot of restaurants before we got on the show. It’s kind of like our niche because we know them really well. They’re very complex and we thrive on that. But since the show we do take on these oddball projects and do crazy timeframes. I get asked to do a Restaurant Impossible style thing all the time. It’s become a style now.
RI: How did Robert find you?
TB: I did the pilot. The designers that were cast on the show, I had built a lot of restaurants for them. They knew the show seemed to be complex and they knew it was right in my wheelhouse, so they dragged me in to do it. We were all in the middle of a huge project at the time when they asked me to do this. I said, “You guys are crazy. We don’t have time to go play around on a TV show.” But we did it and I loved it.
RI: Robert has had his moments on the show where we see that he’s yelling at you or your crew. How do you manage those moments of intense stress with him?
TB: We always call it the Robert Factor. Just like me and Taniya are like brother and sister, me Robert are just brothers. He’ll yell at me we’ll genuinely get in an argument, and two minutes later, we’re joking around and laughing. It’s that kind of relationship where we don’t take anything personally. It’s work.
I think his yelling, a lot of times, people take it the wrong way. To me, it’s kind of positive because he comes in and he’s pushing me because he knows he can get more out of me. He’s milking every drop. He’s like, “I know you can do it.” Sometimes, I need that kick in the ass. Just like the restaurant owners need it, I sometimes need it because on Day Two, I’m exhausted. Maybe I’m trying to mail something in and he’s like, “Tom, come on. You can do better than this.” So, he comes in and he yells and he’s like, “This is unacceptable.” I hate to say, but he’s usually right.
And if he doesn’t like something, he’s also open to suggestions. So, we’ve learned and Taniya’s learned that you can’t just argue with the man and say no. You come up with a better solution. Saying no to him is not the answer.
RI: You better come to him with solutions and not problems.
TB: He’s not a no guy. You know him.
RI: Off camera, he has mentioned that the show is running late on that second day and people are waiting very long outside the restaurant. Why do you think things are taking longer in this new season?
TB: The problem with the new season is that we are literally outdoing ourselves every week. Robert genuinely has been coming in every week and saying, “This is my favorite restaurant.” It’s become the joke on set that he’s been saying it constantly. But we’ve been outdoing ourselves. So, we’re just trying to do more and more and make the restaurants better and better.
Sure, I have a schedule in my head, but we’re talking about hours. When one thing takes 20 minutes longer or a half an hour, times two, times three… all of a sudden, we’re talking about two or three hours late. In the grand scheme of things, that’s nothing. But for the show it makes a very big difference.
RI: As you look back on all these episodes and being able to change so many lives, how does that make you feel? I know your business has grown, but I’m asking more about your personal fulfillment.
TB: That truly is one of the driving forces behind me working on the show and all of us killing ourselves like that, week in and week out. It’s because we truly care. Seeing those people’s face on the second day, and just genuinely being able to do something amazing for somebody you don’t know, it really does feel good.
Then hearing these success stories makes us even more motivated. It’s amazing to hear someone that was $600,000 in debt made $3 million last year. All it took was us coming in and kicking them in the butt for two days, and redoing their restaurant with 10 grand.
It was a total game changer for me. I was running around building restaurants, very happy. And all of a sudden, here comes this TV show, which was one fun day that I thought I’d never see any of these people again. Then it turns into me marrying one of the producers, and running around the country with Robert, doing a hundred something episodes, being in almost every single state of this country at least one time if not multiple times, and learning how you could do things differently in construction, and how to speed things up, which I’m using at my everyday restaurants right now.
RI: You marrying a producer is a wonderful sub-plot in all this.
TB: Yeah, it is. She basically hired me. She was my boss.
RI: How did you ask her out?
TB: I was actually seeing somebody when I met her. We did the pilot and there was a huge break between the pilot and when it aired and when the rest of the shows got picked up. In that time I had become single and we chatted again on the next one. We exchanged numbers. I was living in Hoboken at the time and I was like, “Hey, I’d love to come down and take you out to dinner.” That’s how it started. Been dating ever since, now we’ve been married for three years and we have a one-year-old.
Robert is going to take full credit for hooking us up because he did. On that pilot episode, I think he got a vibe that she was into me a little bit. So, he was like a five-year- old in the middle, going, “Someone’s got the hots for you, Tom.” But he did bring it to my attention because I’m kind of blind to that stuff, I guess.
Interested in hiring Tom and his company for a dramatic transformation of your own? Check him out on the web at Division9dc.com and Tom-Bury.com.