So how much did the investors of “America’s Next Great Restaurant” put up for three locations of Soul Daddy restaurant, including the Mall of America? Let’s add it up.
Steve Ells, one of the four judges in the NBC reality show and founder and co-CEO of Chipotle, put up $220,000, according to the Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. proxy statement at the Security and Exchange Commission, filed on April 6, 2011, and reported in Portfolio.com and reposted by Minnesota Business Journal this week. Chipotle put up $2.3 million. The other investors, who presumably matched Ells’ investment, would have brought in equal amounts, which would have made the judges’ investment $880,000, suggests Portfolio.com. Together with the Chipotle money, the total investment would have been almost $3.2 million.
Soul Daddy was run by ANGR Holdings, LLC (ANGR, the abbreviation for the TV show, was used on Twitter as a #hashtag for comments about the program). According to the SEC filing (see page 56), Chipotle contributed its $2.3 million to ANGR Holdings in exchange for an equity interest in the business. Chipotle also noted its intent in 2011 to purchase Steve Ells’ interest in ANGR Holdings and to pay him $220,000 for it (his earlier investment). Steve Ells, in other words, wasn’t expecting to be a personal investor in ANGR, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. This risk was one for Chipotle to bear. No details on if that was true for the other judges: Bobby Flay, Lorena Garcia or Curtis Stone, pictured here with Steve at the left.
The $3.2 million should have been sufficient money to keep three restaurants going for three to six months, according to restaurant experts interviewed by Portfolio.com. But ANGR Holdings kept two of the restaurants going for only six weeks and the Mall of America restaurant open for eight weeks. Today the MOA restaurant site has been boarded over and appears as one more anonymous wall (see at right).
So what was going on? While the business experts scratch their heads over the figures that don’t add up, we speculate that there was something else besides small crowds that prompted the closing of the restaurants.
Namely, that the NBC show on which the restaurants were based was not renewed for a second season, due to poor ratings. The show was dropped before the restaurants even opened. No second season meant no hype, no nine weeks or more of national advertisements under the guise of “programming.” Had there been a second season, the restaurants would have certainly stayed open – because otherwise the TV program would appear to be a failure.
Let's look at some other questions viewers had. Restaurant experts – and even the casual TV observer of the show – were surprised that the winner would open three successful restaurants simultaneously, in different cities across the country, no less. Few restaurateurs would try that unless they had a successful chain already behind them. So why three restaurants for NBC? Hello, this was a made-for-TV prize. With the scale of today’s reality TV programming, a single restaurant simply wouldn’t have been big enough, not only for the participant in the competition but for the TV viewer.
As for Jamawn Woods, at left, the winner of the TV competition, national reports seem befuddled by the amount of involvement he had with ANGR Holdings. Was he struggling alone, as some speculated, to keep three restaurants afloat? First, let’s keep in mind that Jamawn found out he won only two weeks before the restaurants opened. (NBC filmed alternate endings to the show. The final three contestants spent 10 months in limbo, unaware who had won.) Clearly, Jamawn was not a partner in setting up the restaurants, beyond some of his initial recipes and ideas expressed during the TV show. (A wild rice salad was on the Soul Daddy menu. What soul-food restaurant offers wild rice? That idea definitely did not come from Jamawn.) From start to finish, Jamawn's involvement spanned 10 weeks.
In a news story by National Restaurant News, which quoted the Star Tribune that Jamawn was taken by surprise by the closing of the first restaurant, a spokeswoman for ANGR Holdings “corrected” the report that questioned Jamawn’s involvement. “The decision to close the restaurant was made by the investor group as a whole, which Jamawn is a part of,” she said.
Well, definitely not a partner in decision making. In my early conversation with a clearly shaken Jamawn -- before he was silenced by ANGR Holdings -- he was stunned by Soul Daddy’s first closing in New York City. A few hours earlier he had put in an offer to buy a home in Lakeville (a suburb in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area), and I chatted with him then about the joys of living in Minnesota. When I called a bit later to ask about the rumors of the NYC closing, he had just received an email that announced the NYC restaurant was to close. Yes, an email. That’s not “partnering” in decision making, by any stretch of the imagination.
As for his role at Soul Daddy, Jamawn was in a management training program at the MOA restaurant. He was learning how to run a restaurant – because he did not know how. Jamawn did not indicate to any of the managers at the MOA store that their store was closing. In fact, Jamawn was creating new menu items for the store (hot yams among them, in response to criticism that there was too much cold food on the menu) and was in Detroit to receive recognition for the restaurant when the MOA closing was announced. For all practical purposes, Jamawn’s role with the restaurant was as its promoter and as a management trainee. Earlier interviews indicated he would be a minority owner in ANGR Holdings.
In an interview at his MOA restaurant, Jamawn told the Star Tribune that he had taken a year-long leave of absence from Chrysler in Detroit, where he had been a forklift operator. TMZ reports that a Chrysler spokesperson said Jamawn was welcome back. "He is still a part of our family."
Jamawn is not talking with the press these days, but judging from the comments from supporters on Twitter, Facebook and on blogs, NBC and the judge/investors (Steve Ells, Bobby Flay, Lorena Garcia and Curtis Stone) aren’t looking like innocent bystanders. Criticism trends toward the notion that Jamawn was used for the benefit of a TV show.
His back story may have softened the hearts of the judges (he was making wings and waffles from his Detroit home when he was unemployed) and he may have been the most amenable of the three finalists to dramatically adjust his restaurant concept. In the end, though, his dreams were dashed – and he came close to buying a house in a city where his business had closed. Would you do that to a business partner of yours?
As a blogger on FastCasual.com said, “The real story is how Jamawn Woods was, in essence, taken advantage of for the purpose of theater.”
It may be awhile until we hear from Jamawn. The contract that contestants had to sign left them little wiggle room for comments – or for that matter, even talking casually with the investors should they bump into them socially, e.g. no high-fives for contestants who bumped into Bobby Flay at a party.
Still, other contestants are biding their time until they can legally open their own restaurants, which appears to be post-July. More on that later.
For now, though, we’re missing the voices of Steve Ells, Bobby Flay, Lorena Garcia and Curtis Stone, who are suddenly silent, though they were eager to talk when the restaurants opened. These four – and the NBC/Magical Elves team that produced the show – forgot the most obvious investment of all: the investment in a person’s life. “America’s Next Great Restaurant” wasn’t an episode of “The Amazing Race” or “Wipeout,” or for that matter “The Bachelor.” This show dealt with the business hopes and dreams of real people, who we got to know over the course of nine weeks.
Jamawn Woods deserved better. Once the show was not renewed, nothing short of wild success would have saved the concept. Steve, Bobby, Lorena and Curtis should have the dignity to offer their condolences. For Jamawn, the collapse of Soul Daddy was a death in the family.
FOR COMPLETE COVERAGE OF "America's Next Great Restaurant," see www.startribune.com/nextgreat