Gordon Ramsay is a big, tall, imposing man.
Bigger is not necessarily better when it comes to writing restaurant menus.
And being on a reality show is not as glamorous as it seems. In fact, it can be terrifying.
These are just a few of the many things that Fetch Bistro owners Greg and Pamela Buss say they learned last fall when their young-and-struggling restaurant at 7718 E. 37th St. North in Wichita was selected to be a part of Gordon Ramsay’s new reality show “24 Hours to Hell and Back,” a summer ratings hit for Fox.
The Fetch episode, filmed during Thanksgiving week 2017 in Wichita, will air at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, July 25, and it will be a big moment for the Busses — one they’ve been waiting for with a mixture of anxiety, excitement and a little fear.
If it goes as they hope, the episode will be viewed by millions and will put their restaurant, which opened in November 2016 as a place people could dine with their pooches, on the map and give it a boost in business it will need to survive.
Then again, they have no idea how they’ll be portrayed on the show, what sort of ego-checking comments might be made by Ramsay, and whether their moment in the spotlight will translate into the added traffic they need.
Last week, the Busses — who signed a strict confidentiality agreement before their episode was filmed — were finally cleared by Fox to sit down for an interview about their experiences last fall. The process of getting on the show and filming it was intense, stressful and draining, they said, but it was also a once-in-a-lifetime experience they know they were lucky to have.
The biggest perk of the experience, the couple said, wasn’t getting a chance to be on television. Instead, it was getting access to Ramsay, a Michelin-award winning chef and successful restaurateur whose advice, both on and off camera, was invaluable. They felt like he really cared about their success, they said.
And he wasn’t really the screaming jerk he appears to be on television, the Busses said.
“Everybody asks, ‘Is he really like that?,’ ” Pamela said. “And I say, ‘He’s a very intense individual. But there’s a difference between being intense and being an a**hole. He doesn’t play games.’ ”
It was a year ago when Pamela first received an email from someone claiming to represent a television show. The email’s author would not say who she worked for or provide any real information.
Pamela initially wrote it off as a scam. But she couldn’t forget the email. She and her husband had sold their successful west-side restaurant, Egg Crate Café, so they could focus on an offbeat (for Wichita) concept: a dog-friendly restaurant where people could bring their pets inside while they dined.
But the restaurant didn’t catch on like the Busses hoped. People were confused by the concept and many thought it was a place where you dropped off your dog for day care. Others wondered if they served people food.
“We didn’t have the capital really to do it,” Pamela said she realized in retrospect. “We thought that with the success we were having with Egg Crate, we could just duplicate that here on the east side of town. But the east side of town is not the same as the west side of town.”
She started researching the email she got and decided it could be legitimate. She and her husband had nothing much to lose, she decided, so she responded.
For the next several months, she was in contact with a producer who had a British accent but who still wouldn’t tell her much of anything beyond the fact that an “expert” would come to the restaurant, if it was chosen, and give it a major redo.
As they got further in the process, the Busses and their employees did a series of Skype interviews. The Busses had to agree to extensive background checks, and so did all of their employees. (Some were willing, and some weren’t.)
The Busses also had to promise not to change anything if they wanted to remain under consideration, which meant keeping some employees they wanted to let go and living with some restaurant features they wanted to change.
“The way they keep you on the hook is they say, ‘We want everything as organic as possible. If you start changing things, we won’t do it,’ ” Greg said. “And there were changes we needed to make but we couldn’t because you know that’s your best shot to get that show.”
It went on for weeks. Sometimes, they’d hear from the producers. Sometimes they wouldn’t. They were told they were among the final two Wichita restaurants being considered. Then they were told that Fetch was out of contention all together.
Eight weeks later, they heard back again from the producers, who asked if they were still interested. They wanted to set up hidden cameras in the restaurant, but the Busses would not know where. Fetch’s longtime kitchen employee Sue Smith wanted nothing to do with it, but Ramsay’s team loved her and insisted she had to be part of the cast.
“We finally said, ‘Sue unless you agree to do this they won’t do it,’ and she said, ‘Well I love you guys. I’ll do it,’ ” Greg said. “And Gordon just loved her. She won 100 bucks off him on some bet.”
A crew came in October and hung out at the restaurant for days, taking pictures, measuring, typing.
By November, the couple still did not know what the show was or who the famous host was. They didn’t know when filming would begin.
Then, one day a group of people came in the restaurant and asked for a table. They had a German shepherd and a Great Dane with them, and soon, they were complaining about a burger they’d ordered.
“One of them said, ‘I wouldn’t feed this burger to my dog,’ ” Pamela said. “He said it was horrible, even though not 30 minutes before, another table had told me it was the best burger they’d ever had.”
She soon realized that something was strange with this group..
Those who have seen episodes of “24 Hours to Hell and Back” likely know what happened next. Ramsay’s schtick on the show is to enter the restaurant he’s remodeling and dine in disguise before revealing his presence.
While Pamela continued to try to appease the table, Ramsay approached Greg and revealed himself then addressed all the diners in the restaurant with the show’s catchphrase:
“Forks down. The restaurant is closed.”
24 hours and counting
The next 24 hours were a blur, the Busses said, and people will have to watch the show to find out exactly what transpired.
We do know that Ramsay and his crew gave the restaurant a major makeover, putting in what the Busses would estimate to be $100,000 worth of improvements.
Ramsay installed a point-of-sale system by TouchBistro (the Busses had previously been using pen and paper to track their sales) and he pared the menu way down, adding several new dishes with a Ramsay touch. The crew also turned a bocce ball court next to the restaurant into a state-of–the-art dog park with turf. They also put in a photo booth where people and their pets could pose for snapshots together.
Most important, the crew changed the restaurant’s slogan, which had been “For the love of dogs and good food.” Ramsay was adamant that the Busses change their approach to focus on people first and pets second.
Now, the slogan is “A place for people and pets.”
Throughout filming, Ramsay would try to get a rise out of Greg Buss, who is a laid-back guy. He’d prod and provoke him, but Buss would rarely bite, he said. It’s not his style.
Plus, unlike some of the restaurateurs he’s seen who made it onto a Ramsay show, he actually appreciated the help.
“I genuinely felt like he was here to help,” Greg said. “I looked at him and thought, ‘He wants to help us. Why would I argue with a Michelin-star chef in my restaurant?’ ”
A second chance
The Busses say they still aren’t sure about the future of Fetch.
The changes Ramsay made have helped them already, Greg said, especially the point-of-sale system and the menu refinement.
But the couple has built up some serious debt trying to make the restaurant work, and if the boost they’re hoping to get from the show doesn’t happen, they may not be able to keep the doors open.
Greg said what was most satisfying for him was hearing from Ramsay that he believed in the concept. He thinks being a dog-friendly restaurant is what helped Fetch get chosen for the show.
“He did tell me that, ‘I think this concept, if you do it right, which you’re not, I really believe in it. I think America is ready for this,’ ” Greg said. “I felt like he meant that. I really felt like, at that moment, this is why he’s here.”
Now, Greg said, he and Pamela feel like they must stick to the advice they were given during filming and do their best to make their business work.
After all, as they like to tell people, Fetch Bistro is now “Gordon Ramsay-approved.”
“It’s our second chance in life,” Greg said. “It’s our chance to show what we have.”
FETCH VIEWING PARTY
Greg and Pamela Buss will be throwing a viewing party of the episode of Gordon Ramsay’s “24 Hours to Hell and Back” that was filmed at their restaurant last fall.
When: Doors open at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday. The show airs at 8 p.m. on Fox
Cost: A $20 admission gets attendees a buffet of the dishes that Chef Gordon Ramsay introduced to the menu. Cocktails will cost $4
Reservations: Call 316-927-2227