Is “Soul Daddy” America’s Next Great Restaurant? NBC Thinks So [Kicking Back with Jersey Joe] May13

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Is “Soul Daddy” America’s Next Great Restaurant? NBC Thinks So [Kicking Back with Jersey Joe]

On Sunday, May 1st, just hours before President Obama took to the air to inform the world that Osama Bin Laden was shot dead, NBC crowned the champion of their newest reality series, America’s Next Great Restaurant.  The winning concept, Soul Daddy, opened to the public in three cities the very next day.  I had a chance to visit the New York location to see if this chain will sweep across the country.

America’s Next Great Restaurant is one of the newest reality shows to hit the small screen and is one of the most unique.  21 contestants compete to win a grand prize of having their idea turned into a chain of three restaurants across the US.

When I first heard about the series, I was really excited.  Finally, a new idea for a reality show and the grand prize is something that we will all get to take part in.  It’s a cross between The Apprentice and Top Chef.

A unique twist is that the four judges are also investors in the new chain and have genuine monetary motivation to make the winning restaurant work.  If the concept is successful, not only will the contestants win in the long run, but so will the judges/investors.

After fighting through weeks of competition and surviving the other contestants,  America’s newest chain of fast casual restaurants went to Soul Daddy, which opened the very next day at these three locations:

*Los Angeles at The Hollywood and Highland Center (near the Kodak Theater)

*Minneapolis in The Mall of America

*New York City at the South Street Seaport

Soul Daddy is the brainchild of contestant Jamawn Woods from Detroit.  He had originally worked in the auto industry there, until being laid off, and eventually pursuing his love of cooking.  The food and menu concept are all Jamawn’s.

The restaurant serves up a modern spin on soul food that their website claims is healthier, lighter take on traditional soul food.  The menu features ribs, herb chicken, a vegetarian plate (which is 4 sides), roasted and pulled pork.  According to their literature, all of the menu items are made from scratch on-site each day.

The New York location is at 189 Front Street at the South Street Seaport.  Having watched the show, I talked my friend Mike (who has an appetite as big as mine) into giving the brand new restaurant a try.

We arrived for a 7pm evening dinner.  The restaurant is not exactly on the main walking path to the seaport.  It is off to the side by one block on the very edge of the shopping district.  A sign on Fulton Street (the main street most New Yorkers walk on to get there) directs visitors to the restaurant.

Inside, most of the tables were full.  There was maybe a dozen or so enjoying their meals, but there is only limited seating.

The design and the execution of the restaurant feels exactly like walking into a Chipotle’s.  The ordering process, menu board, seating, and condiment area are exactly the same.

Again, like a Chipotle’s, the menu is quite simplified.  There are only 5 main dishes, 8 sides, and a choice of a whole wheat biscuit or corn waffle.

I decided to order the baked herb chicken meal, while Mike went with the roasted pork.  You can order items ala carte, but as with most places, it’s cheaper to go with a meal.

For sides, I went with the collard greens and cheese grits with the biscuit.  Just like Chipotle, you then take your meal, fill your own fountain drink, and add any amount of specialty sauces at a condiment stand.

The chicken was cooked perfectly.  It had a nice amount of seasoning, was moist, and the meat easily came off the bone.  The collard greens were just OK.  I would like a little more butter or seasoning on those.  The cheese grits had a great flavor, but as they got cold, they turned a bit gelatinous.  Mike said he too liked the roasted pork and cabbage slaw.

We both agreed though, there wasn’t quite enough food.  My chicken meal cost $11.75 with drink, but you only get one chicken wing section and it’s not a large piece at that.  He also said more of the pulled pork was definitely in order.  Neither of us was completely full.  The size of the sides is good, but they need to up the main course.

There is a can’t miss here and that’s Jamawn’s sauces.  The BBQ sauce definitely has something mixed in, giving it a great sweet flavor.   The mustard sauce also has some sweetness mixed in and both made the perfect addition to the meal.  I did not try the third offering, a hot sauce.

Several menu items that Jamawn tested during the America’s Next Great Restaurant show are missing from his final menu.  His original concept was W3 which stood for Woods, Wings, and Waffles.  During the show, his concept got refined and along with came the removal of many menu items.  At one point, he also served up a fried chicken and BBQ beef biscuit.

On advice of the judges/investors many of the items disappeared, although judge Bobby Flay really enjoyed the fried chicken and suggested it return.  At one point, he had removed the waffles all together, but they later returned as a small side item.

When the series premiered on Sunday, March 6, 21 contestants were eliminated down to just 9.  Each week one more contestant and their restaurant concept were cut.

The contestants were required to come up with their own original concepts and menus.  On each episode, they would face a business challenge and then a food challenge designed to refine the food, the menu, and the concept.  These challenges would also prove to the judges/investors how the restaurants are coming together.

4 judges/investors from the world of food were in charge of selection the winning concept.  They are:

-Bobby Flay, Food Network star, chef, and restaurateur

-Steve Ells, founder of Chipotle Mexican Grill

-Lorena Garcia, chef and restaurateur

-Curtis Stone, chef and television personality

All of the judges are very experienced chefs, and minus Stone, all have successful restaurants.  Each is putting up their own cash, along with some support from a company called ANGR Holdings, which will oversee the franchise. ANGR Holdings is an LLC company that is actually a spin-off of the Chipotle restaurant chain.

Knowing this was a limited run series, I decided to give the show a chance.  The four judges/investors were to also function as mentors to the contestants and offer up tips and suggestions on how to improve their restaurants.  Sadly, that’s not how it worked out.

I found all four hosts to be nothing more than a band of bullies.  It seemed that they enjoyed knocking and mocking the contestants at every step.  Only on the series finale, did the hosts actually offer up constructive criticism and seem to have a heart.  While they weren’t nasty or negative 100% of the time, they seemed mean-spirited more often than not.

Flay, who is the most well known of the judges/investors came across as a smug, pompous, jackass.  Just about every dish served and every challenge completed, he had a snide or negative reaction.  In the Vegas episode for example, when the Spice Coast contestant offered him a mango milkshake as a suggested menu item, Flay threw it down saying he just didn’t like it and that it tasted like baby aspirin.  Not offering a reason why or how it didn’t work, just threw it down with an attitude.  On another occasion he told one contestant “You gonna let your chef run your restaurant?”

Remember, Flay is the same guy who danced on the counter on one of his first appearances on Iron Chef.  Honestly, I have no desire to check out any of his eateries after seeing his true colors in action.  It’s a far cry from the happy and fun chef he portrays on The Food Network.

I had a problem with the other three judges as well.  Curtis Stone is a celebrity chef and probably is most known in the US for his appearance on The Celebrity Apprentice and as the host of Top Chef Masters.  While he has lots of television experience in Australia, his knowledge in the restaurant world is limited mostly to working in the kitchen.  His latest endeavor is starring in a Post Whole Grain Cereal commercial.

Lorena Garcia, a chef who promotes and cooks heavily with Splenda, does have some restaurant experience, including a quick serve deli counter in the Miami Airport.  I guess that’s all you have to do to get on a show these days.  Her accent was also very difficult to understand at times and most of what she said on the show, when it wasn’t negative was nonsense.   She told contestant Sandy of Sinners & Saints, “You have had a lot of chances to bring your concept to life, but really all we’ve been hearing are a lot of excuses.”  This caused an exhausted Sandy to nearly have a nervous breakdown right there on the spot.

Finally, Steve Ells is the founder of Chipotle Grill which I guess gives him some say in running a successful restaurant.  Chipotle currently has over 1,000 stores in 38 states.  That is quite a large chain, but by no means is it number one (that’s Subway).  Sadly, he, too, was nothing more than just another thug who was out to slam the contestants.  In one of the first episodes, he snapped at one contestant with “I just don’t get that waffle sandwich.”  No encouragement – just attitude.  I wonder what Steve would say to the fact that I got a serious stomachache after eating a chicken burrito at the New York Chipotle  at 1153 3rd Ave around noon on April 13th.

I’m not here to attack the judges/investors.  But, on the Vegas episode, for the first time the general public was able to vote and critique the food.  The result of the vote was way off from what the four hosts were attacking.  It doesn’t matter what you think, it’s which restaurant concept America will buy.

I honestly couldn’t make it through all the episodes of this show.  The hosts were just too brutal and watching it made me feel like I just got called to my boss’s office to get slammed for no reason.  It was often very uncomfortable.  I felt so bad for the contestants, since they were simply just getting beat up throughout the entire show.

Simon Cowell is brutal when a contestant totally blows it.  But, he will at times offer a critique as to why and what can be changed.  He’s not there to be a thug, he’s there to get the best singer possible because he too, has a cash stake in the winner.

Gordon Ramsay of Hell’s Kitchen is the same way.  He loses his temper, he yells, but it’s not to be mean, it’s to get the best product available.  If something is wrong, he’ll tell you.  (Gordon is not as rough on his chefs on the UK versions of his shows.  That has been stepped up in his US adaptations airing on FOX.)

The judges/investors on this show were simply there to make a smug remark and walk away.  These four were simply firing torpedoes and should all be quite ashamed of themselves.  I agree they had the right to be a little tougher because it will cost them cash money, but there still has to be some human decency.  Only in the very last episode did these four start to warm up and treat the finalists with some respect.

Jamawn and Soul Daddy, the winner of the show will not part ways with these four anytime soon.  By winning, he is entering into a partnership with the four.  They are all investing in his concept, so they will have a say into what goes on at the chain.  They don’t like it, he has to deal.  In fact, several of the restaurant ideas presented by the contestants are now a registered trademark of ANGR Holdings.  The losers don’t get to simply walk away and try to open own their own, because legally they signed on the dotted line and signed the idea away.

According to the disclaimer at the end of the show, the decisions made by the four hosts/investors were also made with along with producers and NBC.  So these four weren’t the only ones figuring out who would win.  It was also about who makes the best television.  That’s how the business works.

According to the last scene in the finale, most of this series was shot 10 months ago, except for the winner’s big reveal.

Sadly, America seems to agree with me.  The ratings for the show usually had the series tied for second or third place.  It was not a ratings blockbuster and will only be back for a season two if Soul Daddy becomes a national hit or there aren’t any better ideas in the works.  The aging Celebrity Apprentice still scored more viewers on Sunday nights.

As for Soul Daddy, it’s just an OK restaurant.  I thought that the Brooklyn Meatball Company who was one of the finalists, would have made for a better fast casual restaurant.

You can definitely see Ells’ Chipotle influence in the winning Soul Daddy.  Honestly, you could swap the menu between the two and it would be the same place.  Sadly, one of the competitions on the show was for the contestants to design their own look and layouts for their restaurants.  Jamawn went with a purple and slate grey scheme with hints to the simplicity of Chipotle, but the judges/investors thought that concept didn’t work.  I guess they thought copying a Chipotle would be better.  How would it look if your next local pizzeria carbon copies the same layout and design of a Pizza Hut?

The New York location of Soul Daddy is also a bit out of the way.  Tourists will not be flocking to this location, because it’s not easy to find.  The nearest subway station (Fulton Street servicing the A-C-J-M-Z-2-3-4-5 is several blocks away.)  The seaport is also not a top tourist destination.

I would eat there maybe once a month or so if it was more conveniently located.  As of now, it will cater to New York locals for a quick lunch or dinner.  This place would have raked in a ton more money if they had put it in Times Square and promoted it better as the winning restaurant.  Only a small sign is present at the seaport.   I’m sure the Mall of America and Hollywood locations will do OK, since they are simply in better places.

So will Soul Daddy be America’s Next Great Restaurant?  As it stands right now, probably not.  I think the judges/investors made the complete wrong decision, here.  It’s a great idea, but others presented on the show, were simply better.

The Brooklyn Meatball Company would have had a larger audience appeal.  They had everything from vegetarian to pasta dishes and sandwiches.  Who doesn’t love meatballs?  The other runner up Spice Coast would only have worked in mall food courts that don’t have an Indian restaurant.

While Soul Daddy’s prices are slightly higher than a fast food chain, it’s just not a broad enough menu to really make a go at it.  I can see this working best in an airport terminal or a mall food court.  A few standalone locations in big cities here and there, but this will definitely not be the next huge chain.

Still, Jamawn should immediately start to bottle and sell those signature sauces he serves up, because he has a hidden hit on his hands.

THE 411

Title: Soul Daddy

What: winner of America’s Next Great Restaurant reality show

Where: 3 locations – New York, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis

Airdate: March 6 – May 2, 2011 on NBC

JERSEY JOE RECOMMENDS: The restaurant is an OK place to stop if you happen to live near or walk by one of their locations.  For all the harassment the contestants went through, I expected the winning place to be more than just a Chipotle’s with a different menu..  If you are vacationing in one of the cities, skip it all together – there are better places to eat.

As for the show, it was a great idea in the reality television genre that unfortunately suffered from four judges/investors that came across as nothing but a group of thugs.  Remember seeing the senior jocks pick on the freshman in high school?  That’s what we had here.  Had there been a better panel, this might have worked better.  If this show somehow survives to season 2, the producers must go back to the drawing board.

The episodes are currently available to watch online HERE if you’re interested in checking them out.  And you can check out the menu for Soul Daddy, here.