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For small restaurants, Guy Fieri and ‘Triple D’ are ‘the gift that keeps on giving’

When the frosted-tip celebrity chef rolls up for a segment of ‘Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,’ restaurant owners buckle up for a wild ride.

Isabel Espanol for The Boston Globe

A candy-apple red 1968 Chevrolet Camaro roars down Beacon Street in Somerville on a sunny day in 2014. The door swings open, and Guy Fieri, the star of Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, hops out, his platinum-frosted tips glistening under the blue sky. As he crosses the street and heads into Trina’s Starlite Lounge, a neighborhood comfort-food joint, a local yells from across the street: “You gonna have those chicken and waffles?”

Indeed, Fieri would rave about that dish (“That’s good fried chicken like your mom would make!”) during a whirlwind, multiday shoot that would culminate with the restaurant appearing on the popular show, which is referred to by fans and Fieri himself as “Triple D.” But as the teams at Trina’s and the several other Boston-area restaurants would discover, it’s what comes after the camera crew packs up and leaves that’s most interesting.

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Since the series premiered in 2007, the show and its tried-and-true formula have become a television staple. In each episode, Fieri profiles three restaurants, typically mom-and-pop-type spots without the financial support of a major chain. Those that are actually chosen to appear — a list that includes dozens of spots in New England — often reap the benefits of Fieri’s greasy-spoon, golden touch.

“Guy’s like Santa Claus to business owners like me,” says Paul Barker, whose Boston sandwich shop, Pauli’s, appeared on an episode of Triple D.

Several owners of local restaurants recounted similar experiences with the show, all involving copious preparation for filming and Triple D fans streaming to their tables to feast on dishes approved by the mayor of Flavortown himself.

Barker had been selling overstuffed sandwiches to a crowd of young professionals and tourists for eight years when Triple D producers called to tell him Pauli’s was under consideration for the show.

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Barker had seen Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, and sensed what it might do for business. What he didn’t know, however, was how involved the tryout would be. The process included hours-long phone interviews with producers, during which he explained every detail of preparation for a handful of dishes. Next, he had to send in a video of himself preparing the meals.

“It’s an audition,” says Barker, who believes producers scoured the restaurant’s social media accounts as well as online messaging boards to make sure Pauli’s was Triple D-worthy.

Chefs who send in videos are generally well aware the show is looking for quirky, unusual dishes that will get viewers drooling. Barker showed producers a variety of sandwiches, including the Fat Felix — a combination of shaved steak, bacon, grilled peppers, onions, mushrooms, and cheese fries “named for a guy that works here.”

Guy Fieri with David Vargas, chef/owner of Vida Cantina in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.Martha Sullivan

David Vargas, chef/owner of Vida Cantina in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, sent a video of himself preparing his popular Maine Meat Pig Head Platter, a locally-raised pig head brined for several days, cooked in its own fat, and served with homemade tortillas. Ultimately, it was that dish that scored him a spot on a 2016 episode, which featured Guy alongside his son Hunter Fieri.

Vargas recalls feeling nervous about filming, fretfully making sure the kitchen at Vida Cantina was spotless before the film crew arrived. At the time, he hadn’t had much exposure to working on television. But Fieri, who referred to the pig head platter as “one of the most beautiful presentations of roasted pork I’ve ever seen,” quickly put him at ease.

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“Guy made us feel that comfortable,” Vargas says. “Not only myself in the kitchen, but he also made my front-of-house staff and kitchen staff feel very comfortable.” Fieri later invited Vargas to join him for an event at Gillette Stadium. “Unfortunately, I was stuck in the kitchen, but he could have easily not said anything like that.”

Suzi Maitland, executive chef and co-owner of Trina’s, says to create a casual atmosphere, producers don’t want much interaction between the chefs and Fieri beforehand. “They want you to meet on camera,” Maitland says. “Right before you start rolling, he walks in and says, ‘Hi,’ and you just go.”

Before an episode airs, the show’s producers warn restaurants about the onslaught of business about to engulf them — referred to as the “Triple D effect.” Stock up on the dish that appears on the program, owners are told, and be ready for the Fieri super-fans to descend in droves.

At Trina’s, fans of the show from other countries began to come in during brunch hours and requested the house-made tater tots with garlic rosemary aioli and Parmesan featured on Triple D, even though the item wasn’t on the brunch menu — a request the restaurant obliged.

For Pauli’s, whose episode aired in November 2019, however, the Triple D effect was put on hold by the COVID-19 pandemic. Like so many restaurants, the initial lockdown period ravaged business. Realizing he would need to pivot to survive, Barker formed a second business shipping lobster roll kits across the country from his facility in Woburn. But by the time restrictions began to lift in the summer of 2020, the Triple D effect was taking hold.

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Isabel Espanol for The Boston Globe

“There was such a pent-up desire,” Barker says. “There’s not a day that goes by that people aren’t coming in and saying, ‘Hey we saw you on TV, can we take a picture with you and my family?’ As things started to open up, it just got crazier.”

And it’s not just the initial airing that drives viewers to the restaurants. Triple D reruns air constantly on Food Network, and episodes are available on demand. Until your episode airs, “You don’t really understand it fully,” says Vargas, who estimated a 50-percent boost in business after his episode premiered. “I would say if I had a rough estimate, maybe it’s aired 500 times since then. It’s what I always call ‘the gift that keeps on giving.’”

Barker, more than two years after his appearance on the show, says the constant reruns have helped him take his business nationwide by driving viewers to his website, where they discover he ships across the country.

“I got a call on a Sunday at 11 a.m. from a woman who just saw the show and wanted to order lobster roll kits delivered to Alabama,” he says. “Every time the show airs, I feel a bump in sales.”

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For some viewers, the show — and Fieri’s “If it’s funky, I’ll find it” mantra — are a way of life. “We get people that just tour his restaurants,” says Vargas, who frequently meets travelers who build entire New England trips around Fieri-approved joints.

Others watching at home find ways to snag a piece of Triple D. Vargas has fielded calls from fans in France asking to buy Vida Cantina T-shirts, as has Maitland for Trina’s and its sister restaurant, the Paddle Inn in Newburyport. Others just ask for dinner to be sent long distance, which Maitland is happy to do, “If you can pay for the shipping.”

Of course, an appearance on Triple D isn’t a guarantee a business stays afloat. Several Boston-area restaurants featured on the show have shut their doors, both before and after COVID hit. But as the pandemic drags on, fans continue to inhale reruns, which Barker says has helped shore up his business.

“Having Guy Fieri in our corner has helped us get through COVID,” Barker says. “It was a very, very tough year because business was down, but we were lucky we had the [Paycheck Protection Program] loan, which allowed us to keep all of our employees. We came out of it even better, because now we have a second business.”

So what exactly is it about Triple D that inspires such a devoted following? The restaurant owners chalked it up to the show’s casual, blue-collar feel, a stark contrast to the airbrushed celebrity chefs who often make waves on television.

“People realize it’s not perfection. It’s not a perfect snippet of a perfect chef,” Barker says. “These are mom and pops, family-owned, many not chef-trained, but who know the food business, who know people, and can really deliver, and he’s trying to get that.”


Megan Johnson is a writer in Boston. Follow her on Twitter @megansarahj. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.