Q&A: Andy Wise
Channel 5's restaurant watchdog dishes it out.
For 16 years, faithful viewers have followed his consumer-advice shows and investigative reporting, delivered with his hard-hitting style and signature swagger. An Ohio native who grew up in Atlanta and earned his journalism degree from Auburn University, Wise worked in Jackson and Biloxi, Mississippi, before moving to Memphis in 1997.
Since he joined WMC-TV in 2008, one of his more popular segments has been Thursday night’s “Restaurant Scorecard,” during which he reports health department inspection scores of Memphis-area eateries complete with down-and dirty details — from “flies on raw chicken wings” to “moldy debris in the soft-serve machine.” But he also gives a hearty nod to high-scorers along with rave reviews of restaurants that viewers recommend.
We sat down with Wise to get his take on the slimy, the sublime, and his own skills in the kitchen.
Let’s start with the low-scoring or failing restaurants. Do they always know you’re coming?
Yes, they get a phone call. The only time I’d ambush a restaurant is if they’ve had four consecutive failures (below 70).
Worst violation you’ve seen?
The most egregious violation was roaches on the meat slicer. The [manager’s] explanation? “Well, Andy, the roaches were dead. It’s not like they were alive or something.”
Ever been thrown out of a restaurant?
Nobody’s bodily handled me like they have with some of my investigative stories. But some have just invited me to leave.
You follow up with some restaurants who previously failed, right?
Yes, that’s a redemptive value for them. They’ll say, “Come on, Andy, let me show you how we’re improving.” They’re more forthcoming, and that is not lost on the viewers.
What about the high scorers?
We like to surprise them. I come in and make a scene and people cheer. Once a Quiznos in Bartlett made a 98. I walked in during a busy lunch period and the manager said, “Yes! I knew you were coming!” Owners are out there wondering if Andy is gonna show up.
Tell us about “The Big Tip.”
That’s part of the positive aspect I wanted to include. Through social media, viewers can nominate their favorite restaurants for a review and that gives them some ownership in the segment. In some ways they’re actually producing the show.
How often do you eat out?
About 50-50. Our family’s schedule lends itself to that. (He and his wife of 20 years have two teenagers, a daughter and a son.)
What are your favorite restaurants?
Restaurant Iris is wonderful. The experience at Flight is second to none. And I’m a big fan of Aldo Dean, who owns Bardog, The Slider Inn, and Aldo’s Pizza Pies.
Your favorite dishes?
At Restaurant Iris, it’s the stuffed New York strip with oysters, andouille sausage — omigosh, it’s a sinful dish. And Bardog’s Amazing Island Club; it comes with a bourbon mayonnaise you can dip it in.
Actually, I’m a beer and wine guy, and I love Gascon Malbec. I became a red-wine drinker because of Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman at Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen. I did an interview with them, and while I was waiting for them to finish the photo shoot, they offered me a glass of Gascon Malbec. Later, [Ticer] saw I had about a fourth of a glass left. He said, “Wow, you’re really nursing that.” I had to tell him, “Well, it’s my second glass!”
Talk a little about your own cooking.
I have fond memories of my dad grilling. When I got married 20 years ago, my fraternity brothers gave me a small grill but I didn’t use it for 10 years. Now I have a big six-burner gas grill and I grill probably three times a week. It’s a very calming thing for me, and the patio is our oasis.
One is my Disappearing Pork Tenderloin. I call it that because it really does disappear. The rub ingredients include chili powder and brown sugar and the marinade has Worcestershire sauce, orange juice, garlic, and extra virgin olive oil. And my beer-can chicken. I have a roaster now but I used to do it the old-fashioned way: Get a tall-boy Budweiser, drink half if it, dress [and season] a whole chicken and sit that sucker on top of the beer can, then gingerly sit the can on top of the grill . . . Talk about tender! And I make my own teriyaki sauce with 14 ingredients.
Staples in your kitchen?
Kosher salt, fresh ground pepper, Cavender Greek seasonings, Jane’s Crazy spices, Penzey’s spices. Also, Heinz Worcestershire sauce, a tub of Kikkoman soy sauce, several kinds of vinegar, and anything grill-related.
Would your kitchen pass inspection?
Yes. My wife and I are neatniks. For awhile I was borderline obsessive compulsive. You could eat off the floor in my house. And we clean it ourselves.
Tell us more about your other consumer advocacy programs.
I served as consumer investigator with WREG in 1997 and launched “Does It Work?” to find out if a product really did what manufacturers said it would do, and Channel 3 continues that segment still. When I first came to WMC, I launched “Stand Your Ground,” which was about scam protection as well as self-defense. On “Cold Cash” we surprised people with unclaimed property from government treasuries or mortgage escrows. And on the “Stop, Thief!” segment, which I produced in conjunction with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Alert Squad, I wanted people to think about retail theft, calculating how much you and I pay for stolen items.
Do those last three segments still run?
No. They were discontinued to give me more time for “Restaurant Scorecard” and to expand our longer-format investigations under “The Investigators” brand.
Your current segments in addition to “Scorecard”
“Consumer Reports”; “Andy’s Got Your Back,” which fights scam in connection with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service; and the consumer advice segment, “Ask Andy.”
Some find your reporting style brash or abrasive. Your response?
It’s only “brash or abrasive” when I have the goods on someone doing something illegal or unethical, and he or she won’t make it right. I would expect our audience to understand the need for someone in media to “get tough” with a source when accountability has been — and still is — our greatest service. People who don’t like my “brash” side are typically people who are due for a heavy dose of it. Critics used to hammer Mike Wallace about the same thing. History shows Wallace didn’t have to explain himself.
What’s the downside to this job?
People’s expectations. Everyone has legitimate concerns, but not every one of them is a news story. Also, those who don’t understand I have a life. I come into work and the overnight crew tells me they had a call from a woman saying she needs to talk to me. They’ve told her, “Ma’am, he’s home sleeping.” And she said, “He is not! He’s right there on TV.” She didn’t understand that’s a recorded promo.
And the upside?
Being able to produce a story or project that rights a wrong, changes public policy, or spreads goodwill — or simply gives our audience something they can take away and use, instead of some irrelevant crime scene with no context.
I know you like to nail the bad guys, but you like to reward the good ones too, right?
I do. Up until we added “The Big Tip,” the segment was all about inspection scores and for the most part negative. I agreed to do the segment on the condition that stories would have two criteria: accountability and goodwill. So now we incorporate both. And I really like our expanded chef profiles. I have a fantasy of being a good chef myself, though I’m not! So it’s fun to be in the kitchens of professionals and hearing their stories. We also feature great servers recommended by viewers, and their managers conspire with us to surprise them. These hard workers rarely get the attention they deserve and they’re the faces and voices of the restaurants.
Featuring them is Sort of like saying thank you.
You could say that. Memphis is too wonderful a restaurant community not to honor those who do an excellent job and who deservedly build a loyal following — not just for the hygiene of their establishment but the quality of their food and the uniqueness of their approach.