Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Restaurant Impossible - Zest Bistro, Lemon Tree Grocer Update

Photo - Food Network
Tonight on Restaurant: Impossible, Robert Irvine and his crew are in Downers Grove, Illinois to makeover Zest Bistro, which is a restaurant located inside a grocery store.  Owners Tim and Shaun had experience as a chef and a produce broker, so decided to open a grocery store with a bistro inside of it.  After four and a half years, and nearly three million dollars in, the debts are continuing to climb.  Tim's wife Jessica also works there and this has caused some friction between Tim and Shaun.  Robert Irvine needs to fix the relationship as well as the restaurant and grocery store to turn this place around.

As I normally do with Restaurant: Impossible episodes, I searched around the Internet to read stories, comments and reviews about Zest Bistro and Lemon Tree Grocer to get an idea of how the restaurant/grocery store is doing since Robert Irvine visited, and here is what I found (note - all reviews are post Restaurant: Impossible):

Positive Reviews:
  • "This place is a perfect for breakfast and lunch. Everything I have had here is excellent. The ingredients are fresh and the menu has typical dishes that have a nice twist to them. Service is low key but good! Everyone's very friendly"
  • "This place does not get enough credit....There are such amazing people that work there....I've honestly never had a bad meal here....This place has become the new hangout for brunch on Sunday's with my girlfriends and family. If you haven't been there please check it out. You will not be disappointed."
  • "We were already frequent Zest visitors and weren't sure how they could improve the already stellar menu. Well they did a great job! We shared the short rib nachos and they were so fresh with jalapenos, meat, light on cheese and avocado. Everyone loved it and no one was overly full for the next course...My main reason for giving 4 stars is that the level of service is exactly where it used to be. The servers are very nice, but they take awhile to get to the table to take your order, and then take awhile to get drinks & food to you. Nothing overly horrible, just not as good as it could be."
  • "Monday night burgers in Zest are the best bargain around. The menu is extensive and delicious any night of the week. LT grocer has fresh produce (many organic options), fresh meat and fish and many meals ready to eat if you're in a hurry."
  • "This is a great place to get a healthy dinner that actually tastes good and you don't leave hungry! Taco Tuesday is my favorite the tacos are amazing!!! Three tacos for $10 you can't beat it. They also have a full bar."

Negative Reviews: 
  • "One of the challenges we have experienced first hand is parking.  That is to be expected in this location where parking is at such a premium as it is here...However, to our disappointment, we have noticed on several occasions when attempting to run in and grab an item that no spots are available and the owner's car is regularly parked in one of the few spots out front, often well in excess of the posted time limit...Our customer experience has been hampered (and consequently, business lost) by not being able to get a parking space."
  • "So, the restaurant takeover hasn't fixed the fundamental problem with lemon tree. The service is still bad. New lighting, some new walls, same menu, same good food, same terrible service...They get three stars for the food and the beer/wine offerings only. Unfortunately, the service is bad and ownership needs to address it.  The frustration isn't worth the food."
  • "Every time I have been here I have had to wait an unusually long time to be served at the bar (25 minutes for a cheese and cold cut tray; 5 minutes for a cup of coffee on a Sunday morning - both times when there were no other patrons in the restaurant....So whatever Restaurant Takeover did, they did not do anything to improve the service which is pretty bad.  I hope it improves, but I am not confident that will happen."
*Reviews from Yelp, Tripadvisor

Other News and Links:

  • The Restaurant Impossible makeover happened in February of 2015.
  • The show descriptions are usually a few sentences, but this episode had a giant paragraph describing the episode.
  • Here is the Lemon Tree Grocer website, and the Zest Bistro portion of the website.  Also, here is the menu which features a Robert Irvine Pot Roast.
  • Here is the Lemon Tree Grocer Facebook Page, which is kept up-to-date.  They are having a viewing party tonight with free snacks and a Q and A with the staff.
  • Here are some pictures (mostly food/produce) of the makeover from their Facebook page.
  • Lemon Tree Grocer is offering Groupon deals for produce boxes. (Link)
  • In February of 2011, Lemon Tree Grocer submitted a proposal to village council to increase their bistro space with liquor sales from 550 square feet to 750 square feet due to better than expected cafe sales. (Link)
  • Lemon Tree Grocer has a deal with village council where they receive 100% of their sales tax on groceries and packaged liquor in the form of a rebate for eight years.  In 2012, this amounted to about $14,000 due to estimated sales of $1.4 million. (Link)
  • Here is a document from the Village of Downers Grove that details the agreement and it appears they have to be in business for 13 years to receive all of the benefits.  The key terms include:
    • For a period of eight years, the Village shall rebate 100% of the sales tax for only the sale of groceries, including package liquor. 
    • The Village shall withhold the initial quarterly payment. 
    • No payments shall be made unless Lemon Tree is in compliance with all Village ordinances and the terms of the agreement. If any violation exists for 90 days or more, the Village may permanently withhold one quarterly payment for each period of 90 days of the violation.
    • Lemon Tree Grocer shall agree to operate the grocery store for not less than 13 years from the date of the agreement and 51% of the sales in each quarter shall be from the sale of groceries.
    • If Lemon Tree fails to continue to operate, it shall forfeit the withheld quarterly payment and shall pay back the tax rebate on the following schedule: 
      • If Lemon Tree or an approved successor fails to continue to operate during:
        • ƒYear 1 through 3: 100% of the Incentive Payment
        • ƒYear 4 through 6: 75% of the Incentive Payment
        • ƒYear 7 through 10: 50% of the Incentive Payment
        • ƒYear 11 through 13: 25% of the Incentive Payment
    • At the end of each quarter Lemon Tree Grocer shall submit true and accurate sales figures by category along with an affidavit. The Village has the right to audit sales figures provided by Lemon Tree


The reviews of Lemon Tree Grocer and Zest Bistro are mixed since the makeover with people liking the food but having issues with the service.  Complaints before the makeover seemed to be high prices, service, and not being able to do all of your grocery shopping there, so we will see if Restaurant Impossible addresses these issues.

Lemon Tree Grocer has a pretty generous tax deal with the Village of Downers Grove and now they have the benefit of a Restaurant Impossible makeover.  They need to stay in business for at least 13 years to be able to fully take advantage of the tax deal, so they will need to stay open for quite some time. 

UPDATE - Lemon Tree Grocer closed in late 2015 to renovate with more space dedicated to the cafe/restaurant.  There are some questions about whether they should receive all of their tax breaks still.  (Link)

*Visit Our Restaurant Impossible Update Page to see all Restaurant: Impossible updates, and which restaurants are open, closed, or have been sold. Also Like Us on Facebook and Follow Us on Twitter


  1. Great ehow never miss it.

  2. For once, a good episode in my opinion. I felt like the guys were lost and really deserved Robert's help, and he was able to set them on the right path without a lot of screaming and yelling, remarkably enough. I don't think they would have been in this position in the first place if they knew how to take advantage of the wealth of knowledge that Jessica had. Seems to me that she knew mostly what the problems were and how to fix them. I thought Robert's crew did a great job with the remodel, and that the bistro portion of the place actually felt like a real restaurant separate from the grocery store.

  3. Agreed. I was skeptical when I read this bistro was inside a grocery store, but this episode was like old times. This is the show I like watching.

  4. If I'm not mistaken, didn't Robert see that they were selling $3+ boxes of pasta (I think the brand was DeCecco)? The truth is, I could just as easily go into my local grocery store chain and buy that same brand of pasta, To add on to what you are saying, which I agree with, if they wanted me as a loyal customer they'd have to provide me with either some personalized service or with something that I knew I couldn't get at my local chain grocery store.

  5. What you said, and I had my doubts initially too. I hope future episodes will run along the same lines but I'm not holding my breath, lol!

  6. Tonight it seemed like RI was back to form.No screaming and crying. The owners seemed positively clueless and I hope Irvine's visit opened their eyes. How many people are willing to pay $6 for a bottle of ketchup ? Very few would be my guess.
    I was put off by the "hanging wooden crate gardens". Those plants will be dead in a week and the boxes will need to be taken down or constantly re-planted. And how does one water plants over and next too tables ? What about when the bugs find the plants ? Yech !
    I continue to be unimpressed by the ridiculous design choices made in almost 100% of the episodes.Everything is so artsy-craftsy and anti-design. I hope this episode is able to turn around the fortunes of these nice,but ill-equipped people. Robert LOVED the food !!!
    That was a first. Congrats to the chef.

  7. I agree. The wife seemed to be a very underutilized when Robert showed up. I think both of the guys finally saw the light and recognized that putting Jessica in charge of marketing will be better for the business than having both of the guys kinda grasping at straws when it comes to 'pushing their brand.'

    Although, I do understand how Shaun could feel 'outnumbered' by the husband/wife partnership that's always looking back at him from the other side of the table. But I really don;t htink Jessica was trying to pull a Yoko Ono. She's clearly a smart. capable person. I think she just wants to get in there and do here thing.

  8. Yeah - they were definitely trying follow the 'Whole Foods' model.

    On paper, it sounds pretty good: a 'mini Whole Foods - just outside your doorstep.' And to me - someone who has no knowledge of the area - it seems as if the location should be able to support a higher-end, niche 'grocery.' You're in the suburbs of a major metro area inside a really nice condo community filled with lots of people who commute into Chicago for work. That sounds like a viable demographic.

    But, clearly, it wasn't.

    I wonder if they did any actual market research BEFORE they opened the grocery or if they just made assumptions that their store would work...???

    I do kinda like this bunch. They seemed to be well-intentioned people who really just needed some good, tough business advice.

    I'm already curious to see how things pan out after they start stocking their shelves with more 'mainstream' items.

  9. You know, my understanding of the purpose of the rescue was that the food in the bistro, while good, was severely overpriced. As a result, they weren't drawing people into the bistro with the hopes that they would do any grocery shopping, AND that was compounded by the fact that they only carried "high-end" grocery items (although I can go into my local grocery chain and buy an $8-$9 jar of pasta sauce if I really wanted it that badly!) which weren't fresh looking/displayed properly.

    The problem was that when RI went into that really nice condo community to talk to the tenants, they basically all gave the same answer: the bistro food and grocery items were all overpriced, hence they had no reason to eat or shop there.

    I echo your sentiments about these folks...and I think Jessica had a better understanding of the surrounding demographic than Tim and Shaun combined.

    Well, this is one group of people that I am definitely rooting for!

  10. I think that's what made this episode so good! Robert loved the food, and even said Tim clearly knew what he was Robert had no reason to pitch a hissyfit. I am really hoping for the best for these people...

  11. Nice, intelligent folks with an educational background for the food industry. No issues with cleanliness or food quality......GOOD!!! I wish them well. What was the other restaurant that Robert did not have an issue with the taste of the food?

  12. Bah, another relationship based episode.
    Why do people throw good money after bad though? If you lose a million dollars you will keep losing money in these types of businesses.

  13. Unless its Chipotle ketchup which is always 5+ bucks for some reason.

  14. DiCecco pasta is pretty mainstream. I get artisanal pastas from Williams-Sonoma and Zingerman's. If I want DiCecco, I can go to my regular grocery.

  15. Stacey Poon-Kinney's The Trails got good marks for its food. The issues there were more about limited operating hours and customers who would order a cup of coffee—with free refills—and sit around all day socializing without buying any food.

  16. The idea for this episode sounded a bit odd, but it turned out to be fairly conventional. (though this is technically three in a row with multiple locations...) First impressions were that the place is dark (fine/expected for a restaurant, not a grocery store), possibly loud with that concrete floor. The restaurant seemed brighter afterwards, but the store was the same. Maybe it wasn't as dark as I thought. The bistro wall was a big improvement over that stupid curtain! It's nice when things don't look like an afterthought anymore.

    The tax deal is interesting and wasn't mentioned on the show. That's definitely more pressure for them.

    P.S. Did anyone else think of Emo Philips when they heard it was in Downers Grove? ;)

  17. There was another place where he thought the food was excellent, but I can't think of where it was. :p It was a male chef, maybe season 8? That's all I got. There was that pizza place (the one with the competing brother across the street) where he ate the whole thing, too.

  18. The pizza place was Mamma Lucrezia's.

  19. It reminds me of the living plant wall at the now defunct Cave Inn. They had to get rid of that in short order. They just couldn't keep it up. Then again they could keep the restaurant up either

  20. So many questions. Why do they make things hard for themselves with building inspectors and condo rules? Gimme the old days where they go into a free standing dump and work like dogs for 36 hours straight. Also, if people did say the merch was too expensive, who's going to buy the expensive pre-made meat balls and pasta salads? That crap will also go stale pretty quickly, so they're right back where they started. They need high traffic or they will tank. Plus, they can't make money from the bistro alone. Seriously, if the neighborhood doesn't buy all their food there, they are toast.

  21. IMHO, the owners didn't research their market well enough. The mini-Whole Foods concept could work, but not in Downers Grove. For those unfamiliar, it is a suburb roughly 30 miles outside downtown Chicago. Nearby residents are families with children. They don't have the time or money for expensive dinners and wine. A better location would have been somewhere on the north side of Chicago where there is an abundance of upper income, single and newly married without families types would have the time and money to be a Lemon Tree customer. In that Downers Grove location near a train station, a better business model would be more in line with a 7-11 than the current LT model.

  22. I loved this episode. This typifies the businesses I'd like to see on this show -- intelligent, respectful/respectable and hard working people who were just at sea and lost within their own ideas. I like when Robert educates owners give some supportive words along the way.

  23. Just like this show, Bar Rescue started out instructive and with a story, but it, too, eventually migrated too far in the tacky reality show direction. Educated/smart people like reality too, just without the fake fights and purely emotive plots. I'd love to help choose the businesses to pick; that'd be so cool!