The lives of SiP Bistro owners Sarah and Justin Hummell haven’t been the same since Chef Robert Irvine, the host of “Restaurant: Impossible Ambush,” burst through the doors of their Holly Springs establishment in February.
SiP Bistro is a European-style wine bar, coffeehouse and eatery off Bass Lake Road. But the restaurant had been struggling. Customers once described the business as having an inviting atmosphere, but with a limited menu and sparse decor.
SiP Bistro wasn’t always a full-service restaurant. It opened in 2013 as a coffee shop.
“It was obvious that we were trying to become something that the actual space that we have could not support,” Sarah Hummell said.
That’s why she applied online for help from Irvine. But it wasn’t until two years later that he showed up at her door.
Unlike many restaurants featured on the show, which helps revamp struggling restaurants, SiP Bistro’s owners already had plenty of experience under their belts.
The Hummells previously operated a coffeehouse in Winston-Salem called Cafe Roche Espresso Bar. Sarah Hummell also had extensive hotel management experience, and she is a published writer.
“The big problem with this restaurant that we found out is there is an identity problem,” said Marc Summers, the show’s executive director, in February. “What is it? Is it a coffee bar? Is it a wine bar? Does it serve food? What kind of food? We try and give these things an identity.”
While the show provided SiP Bistro with a new decor, equipment and an expanded kitchen, the episode also focused heavily on the Hummells’ tumultuous relationship.
Irvine even put Sarah and Justin Hummell through a role-reversal exercise to illuminate the cracks in their relationship and to show Justin how he had been treating his wife without respect.
We sat down with Sarah Hummell after the show aired. She discussed the excitement that surrounded the ambush, the changes to the restaurant and life after the show.
Q: What was the experience like?
I feel like we won the restaurant lottery. At the same time, it was like the most overwhelming experience I’ve ever had. My only way of describing it is: imagine 130 people descending on your home, taking everything you own and within 15 minutes completely clearing your whole place out and then stuffing it in this storage pod. You know that everything is going to be for the better, but then not being allowed to go into your own place until it’s over.
And, in the meantime, going through the most intense psychological and physical evaluation of your life and then having this all be on national television. Then being allowed to see the makeover, which is absolutely amazing, but only getting five minutes to look at it, and then having 250 people arrive at your place immediately after and having to entertain them and not knowing where anything is. That would probably be the best way to describe it.
At the same time, they valued the renovation at $10,000, but if we were to do all this, add all this up, and do it on our own, it would have been well over $100,000 and the consulting that we received was invaluable.
Q: What is your favorite part of the decor?
The SiP sign. The thing to do now is guests come in (and) take their selfies and pictures in front of the SiP sign. Then it gets blasted all over social media, and it’s like the best form of advertising I could have asked for.
Q: How did participating in the show differ from what you would have expected?
When I applied,I expected to be able to mentally prepare for being on national television, to be able to mentally deal with the whirlwind that we were about to go through. So I kind of thought we would have that opportunity, which we didn’t and that’s okay.
Looking back after, it was kind of nice not to have to make a decision for those 36 hours. But at the same time, it’s the most scariest thing when you put your blood, sweat and tears into something, and someone else is in complete control over it. But we really did trust the production company, Robert and the whole team, so that helped.
Q: What did you think of Robert Irvine?
Robert, off camera, is the most genuinely nice person that I’ve ever met. On camera, he does that yelling and screaming and tough love. Honestly that’s why we applied for the show, because that’s what we needed, that’s what we wanted.
When I asked other people for advice, I kind of noticed that they weren’t really giving me the whole truth, because they were afraid to hurt my feelings. We needed a third-party person that wasn’t afraid to hold back. So we’re really thankful for that.
But tough love, honesty, tell you like it is, but at the same time, when those cameras are off, he is the most nicest, genuine and actually really cares about the restaurants that he works with and, most of all, the people. I can tell he really wanted to walk away from his projects knowing that he changed the lives of the people he works with.
Q: Did you expect there to be so much emphasis on your marriage?
Not at all. I knew that our dynamic they might find entertaining, but no, I didn’t expect that in-depth emphasis. I thought more emphasis would be on the ridiculously small kitchen that we have versus our relationship, but I see why they did that.
There’s things from my childhood that I wouldn’t tell anybody, much less on national television to Robert Irvine, but he is like the best shrink, psychiatrist that I’ve ever heard of. Because he pulled things out about my childhood that I never would have even spoke about, but I felt comfortable doing it, even knowing that it was going to be on national television. So that was completely unexpected.
Q: Has your relationship with Justin improved since the show?
It has. It’s been an eye-opening experience for both of us. I mean, the way we interacted never bothered me personally. It bothered me that others who heard it felt uncomfortable by it, that customers that heard it felt uncomfortable by it, and our staff and our friends, family.
But I never realized how much of an impact it had on me until after the role reversal, which I’m pretty sure they designed for him. But if anybody got any benefit out of it, it was me. Being that other person and having to do that to someone, who I love and care about, it actually caused me physical pain to do that. It actually caused me to be pretty frustrated and upset to think that here is someone who had been doing this to me for years. ... But to have me go and do it to him, it really opened my eyes to what had been going on for several years.
Q: Was there anything they didn’t show that you wish they had?
When I made Robert his coffee, he tried saying that it wasn’t hot enough, and it absolutely was hot enough. I took a digital thermometer and it said 160. Coffee temperature should be between 140 and 170 degrees. Anything over 180 is burnt. He didn’t even taste it.
He put his finger in it and was like, “That’s not hot enough. That’s hand-washing temperature.” So I said, “Okay. Do you want it extra hot?” He said, “No, I want you to serve it properly.” ... So he told me to remake it for him. I remade it for him. I didn’t change anything, checked the temperature again – still 160. I handed it to him, (and he said), “Now that’s a good cup of coffee.”
Q: Tell me about the surprises you’ve had since the show ended that you weren’t expecting.
The biggest thing was we expected that the appropriate authorities would be notified of our permit changes (to serve additional foods), and they weren’t. I found them to be pretty upset that they weren’t notified, so it was a lot of damage control.
We basically were told by the health department, effectively immediately, you need to stop serving scallops. So now what we are doing is a seasonal seafood entree. It is basically what is available to us at that time, since it does change periodically. We would need to get a hood system in order to make (scallops) happen. The hood system itself is a pretty hefty monetary dollar but the installation and the appropriate fire system that goes along with it, all those things are a huge expense.
Q: How has the community responded to the changes?
Everybody has been super excited about the new changes to the dining room. I do have to say there has been a lot of backlash against Justin based on what they saw. I guess my response to that is, I don’t know any couple that doesn’t have issues or has a perfect marriage. It’s something that I personally wanted to go through so we could get some healing from it.
I’m happy we did. I think, thank you for those who are supportive of me, but the backlash seemed pretty judgmental, because no one is perfect. I just ask them to take a good look at themselves and their own marriage, and how would they like to have all that aired on national television?
Q: Throughout the episode, you talked about your dream of owning a coffee shop. What were you envisioning, and how closely does what you have now match that vision?
What I envisioned, we had in Winston-Salem, and I gave it up for my family and don’t ever look back. I’m happy for it, and I’m happy that I was able to have that experience and basically mark it off my bucket list that I did it.
Now I’m on to bigger and better things, and now my biggest focus is just making things work here. Granted, the show fixed a lot of issues that we had, but at the same time, we have even more issues that we need to iron out, work out, but they’re good issues.
Trying to figure out how to handle the demand, that’s a good issue. Worrying about having the staff to handle the demand, that’s a good issue. Basically my focus has been making things stable here, so that way, there’s still more for us to do and more dreams for us to achieve.
Kathryn Trogdon: 919-460-2608; @KTrogdon