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America’s Next Great Restaurant: What Restaurateurs Can Learn (Part II).

December 21, 2011

This past summer, I wanted to write something about Soul Daddy, the concept that won on NBC’s first and only season of America’s Next Great Restaurant, but I never got around to it. And since I try to keep things relevant and up-to-date, there wasn’t a good time to do so until now. There was very little news about Soul Daddy or Jamawn Woods, the winning contestant on the show, until just last week when Valerie Killifer of Fast Casual Magazine wrote an article titled, “2011: The five stories and trends that shaped the year.” After listing the five stories and trends, she added one more, “One flop” as she calls it. She was right, the concept was a flop, but I think I see it differently than others. Many link Jamawn Woods and Soul Daddy together, I don’t. Notice that I stated that Soul Daddy was the winning concept and that Jamawn was the winning contestant. They are two separate winners, not one in the same.

If you watched the show — not enough of us did to warrant a second season — you may recall mention of Jamawn’s original side gig, selling fried chicken and waffles. As his concept developed on the show to include many dishes recommended by the judges/investors, it became less of his concept and more of theirs. The desire to make the winning concept something most Americans would enjoy eventually transformed W3’s tasty fried chicken — good enough to make Bobby Flay happy — into the baked chicken of Chipotle’s Steve Ells. There is no way that fried chicken should have been left off of the menu. This was no longer Jamawn Woods’ brainchild.

I remember my wife and I watching the show thinking that Steve was looking for a variation of Chipotle from the contestants, not necessarily a winner. I don’t mean to make Steve Ells look like a bad guy, I love what he’s doing for the restaurant industry, but I can’t help but to think what the show or the winning concept would have been like without him. I feel like he had more influence than the other investors (Bobby Flay, Curtis Stone, and Lorena Garcia) and maybe that’s why Soul Daddy wasn’t successful. It was like he wanted to easy way out of duplicating Chipotle just with a different menu. Yes, Steve Ells runs a successful chain, but I think that Bobby and Lorena have a better understanding of ethnic foods that aren’t yet mainstream American delicacies.  Okay, enough with my rantings. Let me get to what restaurateurs can learn from this story.

Lesson No. 1: If you have a passion for a concept, do not conform.

1.1: Do not conform for your investors. It may be hard, but you can find others. You don’t want to be butting heads with your investors on simple things like side dishes.

1.2: Do not conform for your location. If you love your concept, find a location for it. If you are given a location first, like on the show, you are not guaranteed that the demographics of the location will line up with the demographics of your concept’s ideal customers. It’s like buying a wedding dress for your wife before you meet her. Is it going to fit?

1.3: Do not conform for industry trends. So what everyone’s looking at calories and nutritional info. If the industry trends are going to take away from what you’re passionate about, ignore them. Look at the Whopper®, that’s not healthy but man is it good!

Lesson No. 2: In the memorable words of Aaliyah, “If at first you don’t succeed, dust yourself off and try again.” Just don’t make the same mistake twice. After Soul Daddy failed under the direction of ANGR Holdings, Jamawn took legal action and won the rights to the Soul Daddy name, as well as equipment and recipes. Chipotle still has the domain name, souldaddyrestaurant.com. Jamawn has now gone from a 10% stake to being the majority owner with a new partner. Next spring, look for the return of Soul Daddy — this time with fried chicken and in its rightful place of Detroit.

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