Soul Food Entrepreneur Gets His Second Act
Alas, the NBC reality series America's Next Great Restaurant, whose premiere I reviewed back in March has been canceled after just one season -- proving, once again, that a favorable review from me is the TV equivalent of the infamous Sports Illustrated cover jinx. That's a shame because a reality show that rewards imagination, adaptability and a strong work ethic, instead of just looks or natural talent, is the sort of thing that we need more of on television.
In the end, America's Next Great Restaurant was given such short shrift by NBC that when its finale was preempted by President Obama's surprise announcement that Osama bin Laden had been killed by U.S. Navy SEALs, the network didn't bother to re-air it. (You can, however, still watch it online on the NBC.com website.)
Given the popularity of cable TV chef competitions and how-to cooking shows, you'd think that America's Next Great Restaurant would have been a cinch to succeed. While other critics -- the Los Angeles Times' Mary McNamara, for example -- liked Restaurant, too, its downfall was that it was a pleasantly satisfying show rather than a spectacular must-see event like American Idol, the sort that launches millions of conversations around the office coffee machine the next day.
In the increasingly Darwinian world of network TV, shows that don't immediately grab the nation's imagination by the lapels don't last long.
It could also be that the show's premise -- finding a person with both a great idea and the entrepreneurial drive to become a fast casual dining success along the lines of Chipotle -- was just a little too humble of an aspiration, compared to, say, launching a platinum-selling singing career. From people I've known in the business, I've learned that running a successful restaurant -- or even working in one -- requires a lot of hard, unglamorous toil and evenings of stumbling home at 3 a.m. and collapsing into bed exhausted, with the knowledge that the unceasing labor starts early the next morning. For that, if you're good enough, you eventually get an economic reward, and maybe, if you're a Bobby Flay or Curtis Stone, you become sufficiently renowned that you can have a TV show. But it seems like it would be a lot more fun to be Steven Tyler or J-Lo, even though in real life, they have to work pretty hard.
But if there's a saving grace to the demise of America's Next Great Restaurant, it's that the show's winning contestant, Jamawn J. Woods, gets a chance to realize his ambition and remake his life.
In the premiere, Woods was the guy whom one of his overconfident competitors figured would be an early cut since the laid-off Detroit autoworker had an idea -- updated soul food featuring chicken and waffles -- that seemed too simplistic and declasse. Woods was the one contestant who seemed to have genuine desperation lurking beneath his sunny smile; this was a man who was trying to start a restaurant not to feed his ego, but to feed his family.
In the the end, though, Woods -- whose love of cooking started at age 15, when he began helping his father in the kitchen -- was able to develop and modify his entrepreneurial idea to win the approval of the sophisticated chefs on the judging panel.
True to the series' promise, three of Woods' Soul Daddy fast, casual restaurants recently opened in Los Angeles, New York and Minneapolis. The jury is still out on whether Woods' vision of an updated, healthier, more nutritious version of soul food will work, though for what it's worth, most of the ordinary Joes who reviewed the New York location on Yelp.com had good things to say.
Says Woods, "The experience of being on the show has taught me that one small idea or concept can turn out to be a grand plan depending on who's looking at it."
Read more: From Home Cooks to Gourmet Startups.
Previous Post: Top Reasons Boomers Delay Retirement
Next Post: From Lawyer to LEGO Artist