How much should restaurant concepts appeal to kids and families?
That was the task that faced the contenders this week. It was a tough time for the Grill ‘Billies (that would be Greg and Krystal, at right), who couldn’t figure out who was in charge – the chef or one of them. (The judges couldn’t figure it out, either.) The guys ignored Krystal’s suggestions, which in the end did them in as they went with beef and chicken skewers with fruits and vegetables. (Skewers for kids? Especially beef? Mushrooms on the kebabs? What were they thinking?)
And there was drama – or at least what passes for drama on the reality show – when the cart of food tips and spills out on the floor, shortly before it is to be presented to the judges and 200 families. The 6-foot-plus kid in the room – that would be Brandon, who must have watched too much Gordon Ramsay – threw a hissy-fit, with bleeped-out words and food kicked across the floor. Hope the kids weren’t watching. Goodbye Grill ‘Billies.
Now there are four contenders: Jamawn of Soul Daddy, Sudhir of Spice Coast, Stephenie of Harvest Sol and Joey of Brooklyn Meatball Co.
This competition vied for the kids’ attention and tastebuds. The challenge for the contenders was to create a meal that would interest kids, as well as a toy that fit the restaurant’s concept (check out the toys yourself and vote for the "best" one. I rest my case.).
As a mother of three, let me say that there’s no room for toys at mealtime with kids. My eldest was a preschooler when McDonald’s first came out with the Happy Meal, a sorry excuse for parents who lacked control over dinner. At the time, I thought no parents in their right minds would agree to offer toys in exchange for eating a meal. Well, clearly I overestimated the logic of parents on that issue. (But let me say that I have never bought a Happy Meal for any child.)
The toys the contenders came up with were, generally, as silly and useless as all such toys tend to be – guaranteed to end up in an overcrowded landfill someday. Curiously, though, Steve Ells was ecstatic over the Pita Pete bag (a purselike half pita with a zipper) that Stephenie created with the help of the best named design company I’ve heard of: Hot Buttered Elves.
But the toy section was really just to fill up time in the show, since cooking a kids meal doesn’t really take a whole hour to present.
Props went to Joey, at left, whose smashed turkey meatball slider (would that be a smashball?) won 52 percent of the kids' votes. He was safe.
Stephenie kept the judges and kids happy with her grilled chicken and dessert of nectarine pies.
But Sudhir and Jamawn were in trouble, along with Grill ‘Billies (and we know what happened to them). Sudhir struggled with the notion of his modern Indian cuisine being served to kids. He admitted he never intended his restaurant to be geared toward them or families. And the kids (and judges) weren’t happy with his Indian-potato-curried veggie burger. One of the funniest comments came from Sophie Flay, Bobby’s 14-year-old daughter, who clearly has a finely tuned palate and poise beyond most teenagers. When asked how she liked the “burger,” she said, “For lack of a better word, it’s …. [pause] mushy.”
Jamawn ran into trouble, too, with his presentation of a healthier version of a waffle sandwich (made with whole wheat) with turkey bacon and chicken (think of a variation on the McGriddle), served with homemade applesauce and grapes. Sounds like a good try to me but the judges weren’t feeling it, especially Curtis Stone, who marked this episode as the most annoying and out-of-touch judge. (He has done the impossible: making Steve Ells seem friendly and personable.)
So what does this episode tell us about the judges’ criteria for greatness?
For the first time, their interest in appealing to families and kids has become evident. (Kids make the decisions on where the family eats, the judges repeated over and over.)
And the judges harped on the need to be “healthy” – as though Steve Ells, at right with Bobby Flay, has forgotten (remember that he’s the founder of Chipotle, as he tells TV viewers weekly!) that a burrito from his counter clocks in at about 1,500 calories.
Updates in Chipotle: It’s interesting to note that Chipotle has introduced a kids’ menu to its format, though it's taken 18 years to realize the need. And the company is opening an Asian chain called ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen, to open in Washington, D.C., this summer. (Note to Steve: ShopHouse, we’re told by Chipotle, is the usual name for such a restaurant in Asia. However, to Americans, it’s about as clear as Tiffin Box, Sudhir’s first name for his restaurant.)
Back to the predictions: Are Jamawn and Sudhir family friendly and healthy and worthy of the emphasis on fresh food? That would be a big "no" for family friendly for either of them. But when it comes to healthful and fresh food, Sudhir shines.
That leaves Stephenie, at left with judges Bobby Flay, Sophie Flay and Curtis Stone (healthy food), and Joey (meatballs) as the only ones that fit all three of the criteria. Curiously, at the Mall of America, where the restaurant is likely to open, there are at least two Healthy Express restaurants (with smoothies and sandwiches and more at a fast-food counter) and two Viva Italian Fresh Kitchens (which have pizza and meatballs in a sort-of fast-casual counter). So any new restaurant that features healthy or meatballs is not going to stand out from the crowd.
Ash King, at right, general manager of the Twin Cities restaurant that can’t be named, says that the final episode of America’s Next Great Restaurant was shot with three different endings – so even the contestants don’t know yet who won. He claims they’ll be ready to open after the May 1 last episode. He was busy interviewing staff candidates on April 20 at a hotel across from the MOA. (Burbank, Calif., and the financial district in NYC were conducting interviews for their locations on Thursday, so ANGR is indeed moving forward on all three locations.)
For the record, Sunday’s episode was #74 in the Nielsen ratings and had 2.62 million households watching (up from #84 the week earlier). What changed? (Could it be the drama ramping up?) More likely it's due to fewer TV specials to compete against, such as the NCAA championships.