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Friday, May 17, 2024

Local culinary competition heats up, 24 finalists vie for $1M and Burgaw restaurant

A contestant will win a $1 million investment budget to turn a historic building in Burgaw into a restaurant. OYO founder Richard Johnson has purchased multiple properties in Burgaw, with the goal to recenter its commerce in the historic town square. (Courtesy OYO)

PENDER COUNTY — The numbers continue to dwindle: from more than 500 to 64 to 24. 

READ MORE: Burgaw’s first brewery opens in renovated mid-century building

ALSO: Fat Daddy’s Pizza coming to Burgaw as part of downtown investment project

Come October, a winner will be named in a nationwide challenge that will bring a new restaurant concept to Burgaw’s historic town square.

Own Your Own Competition was launched in the spring by Richard Johnson, who is offering one winner a million-dollar startup investment and a space on West Courthouse Avenue to open an eatery. 

An entrepreneur, Johnson — who founded HotJobs.com two decades ago and sold it to Yahoo in a $400-plus million deal at the height of the dot-com boom — has been buying up properties in town over the last few years. The goal is to revitalize the 143-year-old Burgaw town square, promote its preservation and future development, recenter commerce and restore its quaint charm.

Two of the buildings he invested in have already become restaurants. One is Fat Daddy’s Pizza, which opened in 2020 and is run by Jay Kranchalk.

“Fat Daddy’s has well exceeded its sales projections from the start,” Johnson told Port City Daily Wednesday, adding that Kranchalk “has really knocked it out of the park.”

The other restaurant is Burgaw Brewing, now overseen by Kevin and Emmaline Kozak. It opened earlier in the year during St. Patrick’s Day weekend and is the town’s first brewery. It has shifted Burgaw’s landscape already, according to Johnson.

“Both have become an integral part of fostering additional businesses in the downtown area,” he said. 

Seeing the local support for the establishments was essentially what led Johnson to creating the Own Your Own Competition. Applicants began sending in video pitches earlier in the year, filling out questionnaires, taking phone calls and participating in Zoom interviews with the OYO team, who did the majority of the vetting, according to spokesperson Jessica Maurer.

However, judges also were selected to include people from the local culinary community: Christi Ferretti of Pine Valley Market, Myra McDuffie of Mema’s Chick’n and Ribs, Keith Rhodes of Catch and Dean Neff of Seabird. 

Maurer said they were chosen due to their vast community involvement, business acumen, and experience. 

“The judges have been involved in developing the questions for each round and have had access to the submissions for each round to offer feedback,” she said.

The OYO team ranked each applicant’s skill set and assessed their experiences in culinary and hospitality, as well as leadership and management, finance and sales projections. They also considered whether each contestant’s concept was a fit for Burgaw.

The winner of the inaugural competition will be determined in a few more rounds. The first will be a cookoff at Burgaw’s Autumn Fest on Oct. 21, where judges and locals can cast votes on contestants’ signature dishes. 

The 12 chosen from Autumn Fest will then present business plans, which will lead to paring down the competition to eight contestants. Those folks will go on to work shifts in the judge’s restaurants, to help narrow the field to the top two.

On Sunday, Oct. 29, the two final chefs will be required to execute a three-course meal for an invite-only VIP dinner for 50 people at the Historic Burgaw Train Depot. They will work from a list of seasonal, local ingredients, with the winner announced that evening and the keys to the building handed over.

I’m beyond impressed with the level of talent and passion this group possesses,” Johnson said.

So who are the contenders? Ten are from out of state, one also from Canada. The rest are North Carolinians, including eight from Pender and New Hanover counties. 

Wilmington resident Mandy Chow said she “applied on a whim” when she learned about the contest while late-night scrolling through social media months ago. 

Her family has been in the restaurant game Chow’s entire life. Her dad and aunt started Hiro Japanese Steakhouse and her cousin oversees Okami Japanese Hibachi Steak House, both in Wilmington. Her uncle was the owner of Mai Tai, once located on Oleander Drive, before closing in 2009.

“I was the little Asian girl behind the counter,” she said of her youth. 

Chow received a degree in psychology and worked at the Wilmington Treatment Center for six years before deciding to change career paths. She and her husband are in residential real estate, though she is currently enrolled in virtual classes at East Carolina University to receive a degree in business.

However, Chow really missed working in restaurants. 

“It’s in my blood, it’s just natural for me,” she said. “But when you grew up in a restaurant family, it never really feels like yours — your ideas aren’t really tangible, so just having that freedom to implement my ideas and make it applicable is exciting — a feeling that you can only get through something like opening your own restaurant.”

The concept she turned over to Own Your Own is called The Funky Wonton — a fusion of Asian and Southern cuisines. It was inspired by her upbringing; her father is from Hong Kong and her mother is from New Bern, North Carolina.

“I was raised on a wok and also Southern cooking,” she said. “It’s the food I like to eat, that I can’t really reach for anywhere.”

A sample menu she had to devise for the challenge consists of around 30 items and includes Chinese barbecue made with pork burnt ends, served with a Hoisin glaze, pickled vegetables and Asian slaw. Wonton tacos — the thin dumpling shell fried into the shape of the taco — come topped with Bang Bang shrimp, firecracker chicken or teriyaki chicken. “Uncle Spam” — the canned meat often used in Asian culture from Korea to Japan — will consist of a fried rice bowl, while “Lighter Feather” highlights Cantonese flavors, including a ginger scallion sauce doused over chicken on a bed of rice or noodles.

Chow’s signature dish is a sandwich created with Chinese spice-marinated, panko fried chicken, also topped with Asian slaw and a hoisin glaze. It will be the item she prepares at the cookoff this fall.

“It’s still familiar enough that people won’t be too scared to try it,” Chow said.

She said the process has been fun to go through, for the most part but also challenging. Chow is already working out her business plan.

“Not only did you have to come up with your mock-up menu, but you also have to come up with the financial side: What is your overhead? How much per ticket do you think an average customer will have?” Chow explained.

For Funky Wonton, it’s around $18 to $20 per customer, she indicated, with the goal for the restaurant to be open for lunch and dinner. 

A recent OYO round also included the contestant writing an ad for a job posting to help staff the facility and how she would respond to a negative customer review on social media.

“That was tough, but at the end of the day you have to solidify their opinion and have to let the consumer feel heard — that’s most important and what I did, focused on improving the experience and making their feedback applicable on how we move forward in our business,” Chow said.

While the money and space is the ultimate prize, part of the OYO competition is to foster community, as Burgaw is a small town of roughly 3,000 people. The building up for grabs is rife with exposed brick and industrial ceilings. Chow’s vision includes bringing in a lot of color punctuated by the community, particularly local artists’ works.

“Burgaw has a big arts district and I want to have a place that’s fun and reflective of that,” she said. 

Khristen Hunter, Mandy Chow and Caroline Schwartz have made it to the top 24 in the Own Your Own Competition, which brought in more than 500 application from 26 states in early spring. (Courtesy OYO)

Though born in a larger metropolitan area outside of New York City, Karoline Schwartz has fallen in love with small-town life in Colorado. She currently works in a historic lodge at Rocky Mountain National Park in Grand Lake, though lives in a town nearby — Tabernash, population 300. She moved there during the Covid-19 pandemic when the industry was basically shuttered.

“So I am very familiar with jumping into a small town and building it back up somehow,” Schwartz said. “I just remember the first couple of weeks after moving to Colorado, I realized how magical and beautiful it was. You can have an excellent culture in a small town. I love running into people I know all the time and supporting each other whichever way we can.”

It will be the first restaurant pursuit of her culinary career. She learned about it in a newsletter from Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, from where she graduated with a focus on pastry arts. 

“I thought it was interesting and could be fun to apply, so I did — not thinking anything would come of it,” Schwartz said. “And now I’m here.”

She was drawn to OYO’s idea of rebuilding the community and creating a gathering space for residents. Her concept is centered on highlighting foods from area farmers. However, she also wants to bring in local purveyors across multiple fields, whether it’s with area artists performing live during dinner or creating art for the restaurant’s walls. 

The food itself would be hearty and approachable, priced around $12 for appetizers and $25 to $30 for entrees.

“Nothing too weird,” Schwartz said. “Tomato-braised pork shank and goat cheese polenta, probably some local steaks and homemade fresh pasta. It will be the basics that can support whatever ingredients we have available locally and seasonally.” 

The cookoff dish she plans to present when visiting Burgaw for the first time will be a braised pork belly, crispy goat cheese and honey grapes.

“It’s just balanced delicious flavors,” she said. 

So far the biggest challenge for Schwartz hasn’t been conceptualizing the restaurant or even planning its execution. The chef has worked in every position of the industry throughout her life — bartending, cooking, managing. Yet, it’s always been for other people; she hasn’t had to carry the financial burden of a restaurant on her own.

“That’s probably the most terrifying part,” she said. 

Johnson helps the winner build out the restaurant. The restaurateur will then have a “reasonable lease,” he said, to be calculated based on the total amount spent on the project.

“They will not need to pay back any of the principal,” Johnson clarified. “The first year’s rent will be based on a 5% return on the investment, which will gradually escalate to 8% by year 10. The rate is far below that of any commercially available space they might find elsewhere.” 

There will be an option further down the road for them to buy the building, Maurer said.

While Chow and Schwartz are focused on a lunch and dinner approach to dining, Khristen Hunter is looking for the 2,250-square-feet eatery to home in on breakfast and brunch. Her concept’s working name is Patty’s Corner Kitchen, in homage to her mother.

“I grew up on a North Carolina farm and so food is my love language,” Hunter said, crediting the matriarch of her family to teaching her all the tricks behind the stove.

The restaurant is highlighting the Southern breakfast — eggs, meat, grits and toast — but punching up items like biscuits and gravy. Hunter has designed a Southern flight, so to speak, featuring various gravies like traditional sausage, salt-and-pepper, Red Eye, rosemary-garlic, or a tomato-based version.

“The gravies will rotate,” she said, adding the biscuit recipe comes from home. “I learned to cook Mom’s ‘cat head’ biscuits. She could never cook a few biscuits at a time and never small ones — it was always 20 biscuits that were huge, the size of a cat’s head. Luckily, we had a big family.”

The rotating gravy could also be served on different toasts or other baked goods, which Hunter wants to procure from local bakeries and jams from area artisans.

Her restaurant would also offer various waffles, such as blueberry-rhubarb, strawberries and cream and a savory one to feature on chicken and waffles. The latter is the signature dish the town and judges will taste a bite of at Burgaw’s Autumn Fest. 

“It’s a cornmeal-buttermilk waffle, made with cheddar cheese and green onions baked into it,” Hunter said. “Then it’s topped with a fresh-battered chicken tender, and I do a spicy honey-butter drizzle on it.”

She’s toying with various syrups to top the waffles, such as a bourbon-maple infused flavor.

Appetizers, like fried green tomatoes and Patty’s homemade pimento cheese, as well as a Thanksgiving-inspired leftover turkey sandwich, complete with cornbread dressing, appear on her mock menu. Blue plate specials — country-style steak, chicken pot pie — would rotate daily during lunch hours. Her restaurant would open at 7 a.m. and close by late afternoon.

Hunter, who once worked as a special education teacher, began her career in the industry while working her way through college at UNCW. Though her passion lies in helping people, the money wasn’t enough to sustain the career.

She re-entered the food industry and is currently a general manager at Eggs Up Grill in Wilmington. Even if the competition doesn’t turn out a win, she said her business plan could still work, even if as a food truck.

“This whole process has made this real — something that, one way or another, I want to make a real thing,” Hunter said. “Winning, of course, would fulfill big dreams.”

Johnson said the Own Your Own Competition model is one he can see utilized in other small towns that are looking to revitalize, in essence fostering a movement. 

He’s using the success of Burgaw’s story as a proof of concept and at one point was considering making the initiative a reality show or documentary. Meetings were held with production companies but talks petered out.

“Our main goal is to host the competition and select an entrepreneur that can be successful, but we do believe in the power and appeal of this story,” OYO spokesperson Maurer said, though a TV show isn’t off the table.

Johnson has created OYO Productions to document the process, which can be found on social media. An in-house documentary is also being filmed, to be released after the competition completes.


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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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