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Auburn's Funky Monkey gets 'Impossible' makeover

Donel Brinkman in the newly redesigned Funky Monkey dining room. - Shawn Skager/Reporter
Donel Brinkman in the newly redesigned Funky Monkey dining room.
— image credit: Shawn Skager/Reporter

It's a simple recipe.

Take one struggling restaurant – in this case Auburn's Spunky Monkey Bar and Grill. Add British TV chef Robert Irvine and a crew of carpenters, designers and cameramen. Sprinkle in some personal revelations, a few tears, a menu overhaul and $10,000 for renovations. Let bake 48 hours and, voila, you've got The Food Network's "Restaurant Impossible".

For Donel Brinkman, who has owned the Monkey for more than 16 years, being featured on the show – which airs sometime near the end of the year – was a mixed blessing, one that she hopes turns out to be a recipe for success.

"It's been a journey and the results were a little different than what I anticipated," she said. "But I'm still grateful for what they've done."

Brinkman said the show chose her restaurant after her partner, Shannon Fox, applied.

"They just happened to be looking for a restaurant on the West Coast, and they pulled the Spunky Monkey out of a hat," Brinkman said. "They called and said, 'Hello, this is 'Restaurant Impossible',' and we about crapped our pants. It was unbelievable and just a godsend, to not just us but the community in general."

Originally opened as a small, 22-seat café in another location, the Monkey for years has operated mainly as a bar at its location, 124 Second St. NE.

"In the last four years, since the economy (went bad), we've been more of a bar than a restaurant," Brinkman said. "So we've become known as a bar. We wanted to get our food back and change it back to what it was before."

Although Brinkman watches the show frequently, she said, she was in the dark about how the process actually works.

"They don't tell you anything," she said. "It was our surprise to find out that it was going to be a whirlwind from the minute they set up tents to take over. They showed up on Oct. 27 and set up their tents. And then on the 28th, when Robert Irvine arrived, we had a meal service here."

That meal service, Donel admits, was a bit of a "train wreck."

"They tore me up," she said. "He didn't think I had any passion."

Brinkman said much of the criticism leveled against her was from projects already started by the "Restaurant Impossible" crew, and not for the food.

But Irvine did ding her for the Monkey's ice machine.

"They found black mold in the ice machine," she said. "It looked like oil, and it had just been serviced, so that was hard for me to believe that it was in there. Now, needless to say, our ice machine is spotlessly beautiful."

Brinkman added:

"Everything in here is 16 years old. Our kitchen is really clean, but there are things that look old. But it's clean. They have to do that for the show, but at some point you're like, 'really, are you serious?'"

Some drama, too

In addition to dealing with the business side of the restaurants, the show is notorious for digging into the personal lives of their owners.

"Robert is exactly like he is on TV," Brinkman said. "All the way around, from being a hard ass to being soft hearted, he was totally real. He knows stuff that you don't know. And he digs deep into your personal life as well as your business life."

Part of the show, Brinkman said, focuses on her personal relationship with Fox.

"We worked together here and that was becoming a bit of a problem," she admits. "He saw that right away and dug right through it. And that's also what the show is all about. So some roles have changed.

"They keep you crying through the whole show," Brinkman continued. "They wanted me to be sad through the whole show because I had built this place. From the kitchen to the electrical to the plumbing to the decor to everything, I built it. I bought my first tool belt while here."

Thirty-six hours after the crew started in, the decor was redone, the menu completely changed, and the Monkey opened its doors.

"Everybody loves the food, and the service has been good," Brinkman said. "Out of respect we've kept everything on the menu for two weeks."

The only concession to the Monkey's old menu has been the reappearance of the Caesar salad and Caesar burger, the restaurant's signature items, Brinkman said.

"That's mainly what we sell," she said.

Other changes from the makeover may also be rectified, Brinkman added.

"They took out the pool table, dart boards and karaoke," she said. "Now we're trying to figure out how to bring back some of our entertainment without impeding on our dining."

Brinkman said she's grateful for the experience and the makeover. And she would do it all over again — with one slight change.

"I would want to have a little more knowledge on how I could organize the end result," Brinkman said. "Giving it back to us was awesome, but we couldn't find our bananas for about a week. We still have a few bananas that are lost. We didn't even have phone lines. They cut the phone lines, they cut the cable. We just found our TV a couple days ago. But they are probably the most amazing group of people I've ever worked with in 30 years of being in business on my own."

For more information, visit www.spunkymonkeybarandgrill.com

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