Dennis Fogg decided to hold firm: Pancakes shaped like race cars would not be scratched.

Fogg’s stand came last June when Robert Irvine and his crew from Food Network’s “Restaurant Impossible” were making over Fogg’s landmark diner, Uncle Andy’s, in South Portland.

In the 11 years that Fogg has owned the 60-year-old eatery, the pancakes he makes in the shape of whatever a child desires have been a key attraction. Could be a car, could be a map of the United States, or a flower or a bear.

“He told me the pancakes took too much time, and I needed to stop,” said Fogg, 53, who prides himself on making Uncle Andy’s family-friendly. “I told him he’d never seen a kid’s face when they get one of these pancakes. He and I did not get along very well. I thought some of his ideas were silly.”

The pancake tussle, which Fogg won because he still makes them, was just one of several battles over the direction of Uncle Andy’s that were waged during the 36-hour period the “Restaurant Impossible” crew was in town filming their makeover. Each week, the show claims to turn around a failing restaurant in record time on a tight budget, although Fogg says the place was not failing, just in need of a boost. The amount spent, as usual for the show, was $10,000.

But even though Fogg found plenty to argue with Irvine about, six months later he says that he can’t argue with the results. In the first few months after the Uncle Andy’s episode of “Restaurant Impossible” aired in August, the diner’s business increased roughly four-fold. That initial boost has leveled off, and today Fogg says the family-run place is doing about twice as much business as it did before the show.

And that was the point. Fogg’s four adult children had applied to “Restaurant Impossible,” asking for help so their parents, Dennis and his wife Tina, could stop losing sleep over the diner’s bottom line.

“We still work as hard as we did,” Fogg said, “but we do worry less about how much business we’re doing.”

Fogg credits the publicity with helping bring in new customers and re-introduce the place to old customers. He keeps a map showing how far some of his new customers traveled to eat at Uncle Andy’s after seeing the “Restaurant Impossible” episode. The diner is located on Ocean Street in the Knightville section of the city, near the Casco Bay Bridge and Mill Creek Park.

Fogg also credits new menu items suggested by Irvine and his team, including the diner’s new best-seller, a “Pilgrim” omelet with smoked turkey and apple, and hand-cut French fries instead of frozen.

To increase efficiency, Irvine and his team suggested moving the drink machines and drink coolers near each other. Now, Fogg says, servers can get milk, coffee, juice and other drinks in one place, no backtracking.

But many of the other changes Irvine wanted were based on national trends, what die-hard foodies supposedly seek in a diner. Fogg, who is a stand-up comedian in his spare time and a grandfather, thinks instead about what works for families like his.

First, there was the matter of corned beef hash. It’s homemade at Uncle Andy’s, and a menu staple. Irvine told Fogg it was the worst he had ever eaten.

“He said it was just mushy meat,” Fogg said. “I don’t know what he thought it was supposed to be.” The hash stayed on the menu.

Irvine also wanted Fogg to serve lobster year round. Being “from away,” Irvine (a buff, tight-T-shirt-clad Brit who, according to his bio, “has cooked his way through Europe, the Far East, the Caribbean and the Americas”) thought lobster in a Maine diner would save the day. Fogg knew the price of lobster, which fluctuates, was way beyond his budget.

Irvine and his crew hung two TVs in Uncle Andy’s, and told Fogg to tune them to CNN or ESPN so customers would have something to watch if they dined alone.

But people at Uncle Andy’s don’t dine alone. They sit inches apart from each other at the horseshoe-shaped counters, and naturally start up conversations. Fogg didn’t like the idea of TV chatter drowning out those conversations.

Fogg kept the TVs, but he uses one to show a constantly flickering flame, and the other to scroll pictures of smiling kids with Fogg’s custom-made pancakes.

“You get to know the other regulars, to talk to everyone, that’s a big part of coming here,” said Tom Buckley of Westbrook, 68, an Uncle Andy’s regular, who was sitting at the counter on a recent Thursday morning. “So I’m glad they didn’t change that.”

The TV crew did erect a wall, featuring big windows encased in brown wood, between Fogg’s grill station and the counters. The wall makes it a little harder for Fogg to hear his customers. On the other hand, he conceded, it does keep the counter area cooler.

Plus now, Fogg says now he can make an entrance when he comes to talk to customers.

Several regulars interviewed at the diner recently said they liked the changes. The TV crew replaced some booths with tables, making the place feel more spacious.

“I love the way it looks, the layout. It’s all great,” said Alison Skillings of South Portland, as she had breakfast with four friends at Uncle Andy’s. She’s been coming to the diner for 30 years. “I’ve always liked it here, but it looks much better now. Much brighter.”

The old Uncle Andy’s had a color scheme of blue and white, with a blue and white checkered tile floor. Some days, kids were told they could only walk on white, other days blue.

But the TV crew told Fogg that green and yellow were in, and blue and white were out. When Fogg agreed to let the crew come, he also had to agree to let them do whatever they wanted. Under the terms of the contract, he could make changes, but only later. But in the end, he decided that the new wood floors and new paint gave the diner a warm, clean look. So he left them.

Other changes in decor appealed to Fogg right from the start. The TV crew enlarged some small pictures of Uncle Andy’s in the past, including photos of the original owners. Now those pictures, in frames, line one wall.

During the filming, Fogg said his family had to keep reminding him that the TV crew had been invited, and not to fight them too much. He was told by the production staff that if someone gave him a “cut” signal with two hands, he was to stop arguing with Irvine as cameras rolled. He says in the episode he can be seen walking away from Irvine in a huff a few times after getting that sign.

After 36 hours, when the TV crew walked away, things at Uncle Andy’s started to fall apart. Literally.

“I came in the next day and woodwork had come off the walls, frames had fallen. I got on the phone to the producers right away,” Fogg said. “But then I got a knock on the door and it was another crew, the crew that comes after to make everything permanent. Nobody told me that was going to happen.”

The publicity from the show had an unexpected side effect: It helped Fogg make more money in his other job, as a stand-up comedian. Before being on TV, he used to get middle billing. Now he gets top billing at local and regional clubs, he says.

The fact that Fogg is a comedian was a double-edged sword for the “Restaurant Impossible” crew. They picked Uncle Andy’s knowing that it’s run by a comedian. The episode even features footage of Fogg doing his routine.

But Irvine wanted Fogg, at the diner at least, to stop being funny with the customers, to stop entertaining them. He told Fogg to stop making the funny pancakes, to stop pulling grapes out of kid’s ears (a trick he’s done for years) and to never, ever again wear the gorilla suit he keeps for special occasions. “Dennis is one of the funniest guys I’ve seen. When he gets on that stage, he relates to everyone,” said Jim Grattelo, owner of Headliners Comedy Club at the Gold Room in Portland, where Fogg often performs. “I had him headlining here before he was on (“Restaurant Impossible”). He’s fantastic.”

But to Irvine, comedy and food were like water and oil.

Six months on, this is how the whole experience looks to Fogg. So how does Irvine see it? Food Network publicists said Irvine was not available to talk about Uncle Andy’s for this story. In response to a question, they said they don’t keep data on how many of the restaurants that the show “rescues” (the word they use on their website) go on to long-term success. A blog entry on the Food Network’s website – – provides a brief follow-up on Uncle Andy’s, though. In it, Fogg says that the place is making a lot more money now. But it also mentions how Irvine felt, strongly, that he needed to improve Fogg’s demeanor.

“I can see that Dennis likes to joke around, but what I see in front of me is no laughing matter,” Irvine is quoted as saying.

Fogg still jokes around with customers, and he still pulls grapes out of children’s ears.

And he’s also pulling in more profit than ever before.

So who’s laughing now?


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