"Restaurant: Impossible" chef Robert Irvine's turnaround of Texas Cowboy BBQ was about more than revamping the menu and décor.
There were a lot of tears too from owners Taylor and George Mulaj during the episode "Anguish in Abilene" that aired nationwide Thursday on The Food Network. The couple on Jan. 14, 2019, took over the building that has been home to other barbecue joints through the decades.
"Restaurant: Impossible" tackles not only a mom-and-pop restaurant's operations and design on a $10,000 budget but also the owners' relationship dynamics.
"I didn't expect we're going that deep into personal things," George said a day after the show aired.
"He said, 'We're not going to cry,'" Taylor interjected.
"And so, it was for me, it was very emotional, as you saw," George said.
And, for good cause. George is a cancer survivor.
"They did a wonderful job of protecting our dignity and our family and showing our story and our vulnerability, because it was probably the most vulnerable we've ever been, even with each other," Taylor said.
Food brings family together
At 17, George and his family immigrated to Abilene from Albania. He worked up from dishwasher to kitchen manager at Little Italy restaurant, owned by a relative.
George met Taylor at the restaurant, where she waitressed while attending nursing school at Abilene Christian University. Born in Abilene to a military household, she lived in several parts of the country, with family now settled in Pennsylvania.
A week after Taylor learned she was pregnant, George was diagnosed with an aggressive form of testicular cancer. That was April 2018. A month later, the two married.
The couple moved to Pennsylvania, where he underwent surgery to remove 35 lymph nodes. The procedure left a 10-inch abdominal scar. For three months, George could not pick up George Jr., who was born Nov. 2 because of a 10-pound weight limit during his recovery.
All told, there were two surgeries and three rounds of chemotherapy during a six-month period.
George is healthy today, with the couple's second son, Beckham, born 10 months ago.
In Pennsylvania, George had promised to not return to Abilene. Then he had a chance to buy the restaurant owned by a brother-in-law and where his father worked for seven years.
"His dad already knew how to do the meat," Taylor said.
And George liked barbecue. Grilled meats are common in Albania, but "there's not Texas barbecue," George said.
Given his cooking experience, George was confident he could learn.
"I could have changed it to Italian, but it just kind of felt wrong, competing with my family basically," George said.
At the start of their new venture, 2019 was a struggle. Taylor worked extra as a hospital nurse to keep the family afloat. The restaurant did better in 2020, even with COVID-19.
"Going into 2021, it was going well, and then started dipping mid-2021," George said.
He was working long hours seven days a week, sometimes going two or three days without seeing his children. When the family grew to four, Taylor quit work. The couple's stress mounted with financial pressures and George's long hours away from home.
And, despite Taylor's nurse management experience, George resisted her efforts to help with the restaurant's finances.
How 'Restaurant: Impossible' found Texas Cowboy BBQ
As the marriage strained, a casting agent connected to "Restaurant: Impossible" reached out to the couple via social media. The couple was not familiar with the show.
Taylor initially thought the inquiry was a scam, but a private message led to a phone call, which led to "Restaurant: Impossible" spending two days at Texas Cowboy BBQ in March to film an episode.
"I think it was right at perfect timing. It was like God sent them our way," George said.
At the start of the episode, Irvine is critical of the heavy smoke smell inside Texas Cowboy BBQ and on its meats. He labeled the interior boring.
George defended his barbecue, until he did a blind taste test of his brisket against other local barbecue joints. He picked a competitor's sample as the best.
The couple's initial skepticism of Irvine's understanding of Texas barbecue was quickly deterred.
"He's wicked smart," Taylor said. "A lot of people were like 'Robert doesn't know barbecue,' and to be honest, when he came in, George and I were like, 'I don't think he does.' And then he comes and starts talking to you about all the woods, like he knows a lot about everything."
George was smoking briskets with mesquite wood at about 250 to 300 degrees. Irvine convinced him to switch to cherry and oak, which cooks at about 200 degrees. George said he's been happy with the results.
He was overjoyed with the interior facelift too, intended to be cool, modern and fresh.
Custom-built floating banquette seating naturally directs customers from the entrance to the order counter. The barrel tables have been replaced with square tables and a long communal bar-height table.
The show also supplied the restaurant with glasses, silverware and metal serving trays to replace the plasticware and to-go cups.
Irvine talked with the couple for hours behind the scenes, George said. Long-distance conversations continued with Irvine and his staff after the taping.
"They kind of have the mindset that we'll be there for you as much as you want us to be involved for," Taylor said.
"Once they come and you get to know them and you understand that they were here to actually help you, you want to tell them everything," George said.
"Originally George didn't want me to show them any picture when he was sick. And then they got here and they were like, 'No Taylor, I want every single one of them.' And it was, I think, an amazing thing. You felt like a weight got lifted off your shoulders," Taylor said.
She expected the show to be scripted, but "it was super real," she said. "There are some things that were staged, but for the most part, Robert was like a really genuine person."
Since the taping, the restaurant has continued to use the scaled-backed, revamped menu.
Irvine's dishes are a modern take on barbecue, such as a pulled pork burrito dressed with sauces and a vegetarian entrée of smoked portabella mushrooms with mac and cheese. New sides include loaded potato salad with a mix of red and purple new potatoes.
"You still get those barbecue flavors in something that's a little more upscale," Taylor said.
Customers have embraced the new jalapeno popper brisket sandwich on a brioche bun and turkey bacon ranch stuffed potato, George said.
He also brought back previous top sellers, such as the barbecue-stuffed potatoes and traditional one-, two- or three-meat plates with two sides.
The couple is considering customers' requests for returning some items, such as fried okra and peach cobbler. They may rotate through with other daily specials.
The changes are helping. A follow-up at the end of the show said sales had increased 30%.
"We still have our customers, they still come back. But we're seeing some new faces," George said.
Since the show aired, Taylor said received feedback on the menu prices, such as $18 for the popular brisket jalapeno popper sandwich with a side of slaw.
Irvine showed on the episode how to calculate food costs of three new menu items and then set their prices. The new dishes were priced at about three to four times more than the food costs.
That percentage seems high to some people, Taylor said, but they need to consider that the prices also have to cover staffing, utilities, building maintenance, wood and other operational expenses.
The menu is on a chalkboard, so prices can be adjusted quickly.
"When food prices go down, we'll also go down, but right now we are exactly where everybody is," Taylor said.
More time with family
Another important change at the restaurant is closing one day a week. Hours are 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays.
That gives George more time with the family.
"Going home to little, sweet boys and feeling love, welcoming you and seeing them being happy to see you and things like that makes you feel good," George said.
Added Taylor, "Now we go on dates every month. We have days off. We see friends. I feel like our life has changed, and we're better with our kids. When we're happier, obviously our kids are," Taylor said.
If they had known what the show was like, George and Taylor said they probably would not have participated. But, they are glad they did.
"It was a lot of stress going through," George said. "it was a lot of pressure but it was definitely worth it."
Watch the show again
"Anguish in Abilene" – episode 10 of season 20 of "Restaurant: Impossible" – will rebroadcast at 7 a.m. July 14 and 3 a.m. Aug, 3 on The Food Network.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated with the correct spelling of Robert Irvine.
Laura Gutschke is a general assignment reporter and food columnist and manages online content for the Reporter-News. If you appreciate locally driven news, you can support local journalists with a digital subscription to ReporterNews.com.
This article originally appeared on Abilene Reporter-News: 'Restaurant: Impossible' updates Texas Cowboy BBQ in north Abilene