The blood, sweat and tears involved in creating and launching a new restaurant concept is the bane and addiction of many in the industry.
But who knew it would make such great television?
The NBC show “America’s Next Great Restaurant,” in which aspiring entrepreneurs compete to turn their restaurant idea into a fast-casual chain, has become a guilty pleasure for many in the restaurant world. Partly because it’s fun to watch the contestants get thrown into impossible situations — like running a Chipotle during a busy lunch hour without any training — but also because there are nuggets of good advice from the panel of judges, who are all restaurateurs.
The show stars chef Bobby Flay, owner of the Bobby’s Burger Palace chain and other concepts; Steve Ells, founder and co-chief executive of Chipotle Mexican Grill; Lorena Garcia, a restaurateur and chef in Miami; and Curtis Stone, the former chef of Quo Vadis in London who is now known for his television appearances (“The Biggest Loser”) and cookbooks.
As the show concludes in May, the winning concept will open three units simultaneously in Los Angeles, New York and Minneapolis, with backing from the four investor judges.
Nation’s Restaurant News asked three industry experts to watch the show and talk about the aspects that might, or might not, result in a winning fast-casual chain.
Our panel included consultant Bob Sandelman, chief executive of Sandelman & Associates in San Clemente, Calif.; Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of foodservice strategies at WD Partners in Columbus, Ohio; and Darren Tristano, executive vice president of industry research firm Technomic Inc. in Chicago.
The experts, who each said they have no inside knowledge of who actually wins the competition, evaluated each of the remaining candidates for America’s Next Great Restaurant.
BROOKLYN MEATBALL CO.: Originally named “Saucy Balls,” the concept of charismatic New Yorker Joseph Galluzzi, who previously worked in financial services, is designed to pay homage to his grandmother’s famous meatballs.
Sandelman, left, said if Galluzzi moves to a simple ordering system in which customers select the number of balls, meat, sauce and side, this concept could score highly on accuracy, an important attribute for consumers.
A positive is that Galluzzi’s menu is highly focused, Sandelman said. However, he noted, “Italian is a very crowded and competitive marketplace, especially as major pizza chains have added non-pizza items.”
Lombardi agreed, saying it could be significant that there currently is no national fast-casual Italian brand. “It could be a limiter in terms of veto vote for those who would like a lighter meal,” he said.
GRILL’BILLIES: The Los Angeles duo of bartender Gregory Westcott and Krystal Seymour first pitched their concept as “Hicks,” offering small-bites barbecue and comfort food.
The “new American grill” concept’s food has been highly rated, but Sandelman sees the menu as unfocused, saying they should focus on “comfort foods,” or even Southern food or barbecue specifically, rather than the grill-centered operating system.
Lombardi agreed, adding, “They will have to come up with signature craveable dishes that will cause people to put them in their mental phonebook.”
Sandelman also saw Grill’Billies as very close to competitor Soul Daddy. “Maybe these two concepts should be merged?”
HARVEST SOL: Chicago attorney Stephenie Park’s ambition is to teach Americans about portion control with her fixed-calorie healthy Mediterranean concept, which was initially dubbed Compleat.
Tristano, left, said Harvest Sol has the greatest opportunity as a growth chain, arguing that there are few Mediterranean fast-casual chains and no major players yet. The cuisine is flexible and regional and offers a wide range of ingredients, he said.
“Preparation styles and ingredients tend to be more healthful without losing flavor, and the cuisine has broad appeal toward all demographics, especially women and children,” he said.
Sandelman, however, said consumers are more interested in taste, quality and accuracy than they are in health and nutrition.
Fast-casual chains that have focused solely on health have not been that successful, he added.
“Perhaps it would be better to focus on fresh ingredients, rather than health/nutrition, as Chipotle does,” he said.
Lombardi contended that Harvest Sol should simply market itself as having tasty food, rather than pushing the calorie limit.
“If she’s controlling calories and portion size, she might find people who are wondering what else is for lunch,” he said.
SOUL DADDY: Detroit caterer Jamawn Woods started the show with a wings-and-waffles concept called W3’s, but the menu has become broader and the name reworked.
Soul Daddy’s food has been rated highly by judges. Lombardi liked that the menu offers dishes like jambalaya and barbecue, saying the food of the Southeast is attractive but under-appreciated. “Food from the Southwest has a following, why not food from the Southeast?” he said.
Sandelman said Woods still needs to clarify his positioning, and that he should emphasize comfort food or Southern flavors, rather than “soul” food.
SPICE COAST: It began the show as “The Tiffin Box,” but this concept by Sudhir Kandula, a software sales director and restaurant co-owner in New York, aims to be an “Indian Chipotle.” So far the judges have convinced Kandula to change the name, add meat to the menu as well as more portable, hand-held dishes.
Lombardi, left, said there is growing interest in the flavors of Indian food.
The cuisine has a high flavor profile, he said. It’s craveable, can be low in calories and is colorful. And because Spice Coast is not protein heavy, operators could gain more flexibility with commodity costs, he said.
Sandelman said one of the most important attributes of any restaurant is great food, executed well. Spice Coast appears to be a leader in that regard, earning praise from the judges. The concept’s menu is also unique and focused, he said.
The ethnic flavors would do well in Los Angeles or New York, and would appeal to 18- to 25-year-olds, who tend to be heavy users and willing to experiment, said Sandelman. It may not do so well in Minneapolis, however.
While Spice Coast is a favorite to win the show, Tristano argued that it has a tough road ahead as a potential chain. Though Indian cuisine may be an emerging trend for Americans, it remains far from mainstream, he said.
Indian food tends to be best suited for full-service formats, not fast casual, he said, and many casual-dining independent Indian restaurants have reasonable price points that would challenge even an $8 to $11 range.
“The spice and flavor profiles have lower appeal to American consumers, are not child friendly and lack the familiarity that is essential to launch a sustainable chain restaurant concept,” he said.
Tristano: Spice Coast will win the TV competition, but has the least likely chance of succeeding as a restaurant chain. Best chance for success: Harvest Sol.
Sandelman: Spice Coast and Soul Daddy have the best chance for success. Grill’Billies and Brooklyn Meatball Co. could work if they continue to tweak their concepts. Least likely to succeed: Harvest Sol.
Lombardi: Spice Coast has the best chance for success followed by Soul Daddy. Least likely to succeed: Harvest Sol, though chances would improve if the brand shifts its focus to “fresh” rather than “health.”
NRN's panel of industry experts also weighed in on the reality show itself, which they noted has yet to delve into crucial aspects of running a business, from the financial plan to costs, labor, equipment, sourcing or even basics like food safety.
“The common thread about reality shows is that they’re not very realistic,” Lombardi said.
In a real-world scenario, Tristano argued, “we would see a fast-casual burger, Mexican grill or bakery-café concept in the running,” which are the categories currently finding the most success in the fast-casual segment.
Tristano added that the three “celebrity chefs” on the panel may not be the best judge of what mainstream American wants to eat.
“And is it a surprise that a Mexican grill and Asian concept are not in the running at this point, considering Chipotle is developing a new Asian fast-casual concept and dominates the fast-casual Mexican space?” he said.
Sandelman, however, argued that the show is great press for the fast-casual segment, not to mention the props it gives Chipotle as the model concept.
“Fast casual” was previously an industry term with “minimal consumer awareness,” Sandelman said. Now viewers will be very familiar with the notion of fast-casual dining, though the term is never really explained.
“Still, it’ll be a while before people say, ‘Hey, let’s go to a fast-casual restaurant tonight,’” he said.
Lombardi also questioned the “grand prize” being the chance to open three units in such geographically distant markets.
“The last thing I would recommend to a client is to open simultaneously, even in just one market,” he said. “So the good news is you won. The bad news is we’re setting you up for failure.”
Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected]