He Said, She Said: Revisiting America’s Next Great Restaurant

ICE’s Culinary Management Instructors are seasoned industry professionals who are still active in the industry, working on their own projects while teaching classes at ICE. With such a wide range of experience between them, we decided to ask Julia Heyer and Vin McCann to take a closer look at some of the trends and culinary businesses we keep hearing so much about. Their first post was about NBC’s America’s Next Great Restaurant. Now that the winner of the show has closed his restaurants, they decided to revisit the show.

Julia Heyer

About a month ago, a new restaurant closed its doors within weeks of opening — generally a bit of a non-event in NYC. However, in this case it garnered some news as it had been the winning ‘concept’ of America’s Next Great Restaurant, the TV show we didn’t lose any love for in our first blog post here. Restaurants are a tough industry to break into in general — but what if you can’t even make it given financial backing, “mentoring” by some industry experts (and unknowns presented as such), the operations machine of Chipotle behind it, good locations and national marketing on a level an ordinary operator can only dream of? What went wrong here? The cynic in me asks where to start. Well, number 1: Opening one restaurant is no picnic. Trying to open THREE, at the same time, in COMPLETELY different areas of the country seemed like a, well I could call it less prudent, but really, just mind bogglingly DUMB idea from the beginning — especially with a NEW concept that will need to be honed, tweaked and adjusted. And yes, all concepts need that in the beginning, no matter who the operator is or how genius the idea seems.

Vin McCann

Of course, the idea was stupid and unsurprisingly it failed. I don’t normally think of you as cynical, Julia, and true to form, you are simply not cynical enough. The show was canceled after the first season, but the producers had to deliver on their promise of a new national chain with three versions of a new concept in three different markets at the same time. Without the ratings to continue on it was a matter of just getting it done — here today, gone tomorrow. One has to wonder what the lease terms of the Soul Daddy locations were — 60 to 90 days?

Despite doing sales the store in downtown NYC didn’t stay open long enough to determine if it was a viable business or not. It was just a continuation of the show’s script, and the ending had been written well in advance. The effort behind the production of the three openings is what they should have put on the air instead of the endless carping about “passion” and food taste. At least the mad, doomed scramble to get the doors open would have been somewhat engaging. Hopeless ventures born of passion are hallmarks of tragedy and touch us all. We have certainly seen enough in our time in the trade.

Julia’s Response

I second that. It would be more interesting to show the actual MAKING and opening of a venture, without the airbrushing and PR spin. Fat chance, unfortunately. It irks me that they threw away opportunities because they were lazy and likely not caring that they wasted someone else’s money. Jon Stewart read this great quote from a soldier on his show this week on a much more serious topic, but it seems applicable here — “We fight hard and do our best. There may be disappointment, but there will be no shame.” Well this show and the openings were not just disappointing as a BLT with flabby Tofurkey on it. They were shameful, and made everyone involved look like a “Hampelmann” — an incompetent fool. They did not try hard.

Vin’s Response

My guess is that the viability of the restaurants was not written into the script in the event the show flopped, which it did resoundingly.

Julia’s Last Word

But Vin — here is the question — why would the businessmen behind it let this possible opportunity go, in a time where growth is not abundant? Why throw away an expensive new concept that has been well-marketed ? Even if the lease is 60 days, the build-out (as barebones as it apparently was), staffing and start-up costs have been incurred — why not at least TRY to make something of it and get something back to minimize your loss?

Vin’s Last Word

As the old song goes, “That’s entertainment.”

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