Soul Daddy himself was at the Mall of America Wednesday welcoming guests to the restaurant, many of whom were surprised -- and overjoyed -- to see him. When Paula Hubbard of Woodbury and her family visitors from Oklahoma walked into the restaurant and saw Jamawn Woods, she jumped up and down in excitement, before grabbing her cell phone and taking pictures. "I watched all the episodes," she said, beaming.
Paula wasn't the only one clicking away. Erin Vande Steeg of Minneapolis was lunching with friends and had her picture taken with him, as did her friends.
It's been like that in all three of the cities where Soul Daddy operates: Hollywood, New York and here.
Wearing khakis and a black short-sleeved polo shirt, looking trim and fit, Jamawn worked his way around the room, chatting with guests, greeting people at the door, handing out menus, before heading behind the counter where he talked with staff.
"I'm getting a lot of good feedback," Jamawn said. "They like me as a person."
Indeed, he is a likeable guy. Even on the NBC reality show, "America's Next Great Restaurant," Jamawn appeared to be a friendly sort, and in person that's even more apparent: very Midwestern in demeanor, personable and polite, humble and straight-forward, lacking (thankfully) the arrogance and over-the-top brashness seen on other reality shows. Let's hope he stays that way.
But make no mistake, he's making the most of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a really big change in his life, from a forklift operator in Detroit's Chrysler plant who made waffles and wings in his basement for friends to a businessman with three restaurants and a website. "I want to be bigger than Chipotle," he said with a smile.
For the next year he will be part of an apprenticeship program to show him the ropes of running the Soul Daddy chain. He expects he will move to California in June to work in the Hollywood outlet.
As for the judges, he's got their contact information when he needs advice or help. "It was a great experience working with Bobby Flay. I look up to him. I watched him all the time on TV." As for the other judges/investors: "Lorena is like a mother, Curtis is like a brother, and Steve is like the brains. It was a great experience to have a chance to work with these four people."
His winning concept for soul food with a twist -- a healthier version of the traditional fare -- hasn't won over die-hard fans who appreciate the flavor of ham hocks and bacon grease. "There are some haters out there," he acknowledged. "I can't please everyone. Soul Daddy isn't for everyone. But if you care about what you put in your body, this is the place to come." He says he is open to "constructive" suggestions. And that includes tweaking the menu to please those waiting in line. (He noted that the "collards" on the menu -- which right now are actually kale -- will be the real thing in the future. And he'd like to make the ribs with four, rather than three, bones in the future.) But for now, he's a manager in training in a real-life classroom.
His favorite sides on the menu? The cornbread waffles (mine, too) and the blackeyed pea salad.
Now that he's been at all three locations, he can see the difference among clientele. "In LA, people are laid back and watching their figures," he said. "In New York [South Street Seaport] they love the concept. They are crazy fanatics. In Minneapolis, it's more like a family feel."
Jamawn has no qualms about talking about how emotional he was on the show. "What people don't realize about reality TV is that it's stressful. You are away from your family and cut off from them. There's no outside world, no phone, no TV or computer. I was missing them," he said. "But I would do it all over again."
Jamawn has stayed in touch with other contestants, but especially Joey Galluzzi of the Brooklyn Meatball Co. concept. "I talk with him all the time. He visited me in Detroit on my birthday."
Where does Jamawn want to be in five years? With at least six Soul Daddy restaurants. "I want to be successful. I want the employees happy and making decent money," he said.
"And I want to find a way to add fried chicken to the menu. Everyone is asking for it, but there's no equipment to cook it now."
Update on Friday, May 13: NBC decides against renewing "America's Next Great Restaurant," making Soul Daddy the sole Next Great.