America's Next Great Restaurant, the new reality series premiering next month on NBC, will potentially give one lucky aspiring restaurateur the chance of a lifetime – the chance to turn that dream into reality. The series will begin with 21 contestants who will present their restaurant ideas to a panel of four judges, each of whom has achieved success in the food/cooking industries. These judges are Bobby Flay (Iron Chef America: The Series), Steve Ells (founder, chairman, and co-CEO of Chipotle restaurants), Curtis Stone (The Biggest Loser), and Lorena Garcia, executive chef and restaurateur. They will quickly eliminate 11 of the 21 contestants, and the remaining 10 will battle it out over the course of the season in various cooking and business challenges. The prize? The launching of his or her very own three-restaurant chain in New York City, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis. The four judges will not only be there to critique the contestants and pick the winner, but they will also be investors in the resulting restaurant enterprise.
USTOWNHALL SPEAKS TO BOBBY FLAY & STEVE ELLS OF AMERICA'S NEXT GREAT RESTAURANT:
USTH: For each of you, In your opinion what makes a really great restaurant?
BOBBY FLAY: That's a short question with a very long answer, but I'll keep it as brief as possible. Basically,there are certain ingredients to make the perfect restaurant. Obviously, terrific food, which is more important than ever. Great service, of course, because service can actually deter people even more than the food sometimes. And then, of course an environment that people are going to enjoy. And there's different environments for every price point.
And then I think fourth, but certainly not last, is value. People want good food. They want good service. They want a good environment. And they want it to cost the right amount of money in their own minds.
STEVE ELLS: We're looking for America's next great restaurant in a fast-casual format. And when we think about fast-casual restaurants, we think about a restaurant that's accessible to people like fast food, but a price point that's not much more than fast food, and service that's very quick.
But we're looking for a concept that elevates the typical fast food experience. And if I look at my experience with Chipotle, we've elevated our offering in a couple of ways.
First of all we seek out the very best quality, sustainably raised ingredients, ingredients that are normally found in high-end restaurants or high-end groceries and making these kinds of ingredients available for everybody in a very convenient format.
And secondly, we want to hire a crew or a staff that is empowered – one that will help develop a culture of high performance so that we can again elevate our restaurant experience from the typical fast food experience.
And so, I think we were looking in our contestants for qualities that would enable them to duplicate this kind of experience, to create an environment and food that's relevant to people, something that people will enjoy eating, but that is elevated above the typical fast food offering.
USTH: Now we've heard that this series will allow contestants to compete in both business and cooking challenges. Can you just give us an idea of some of the specific challenges that the contestants will face over the weeks?
BOBBY FLAY: The challenges are specific to things that you'd have to go through to open a restaurant. I think one of the key elements here that should not be overlooked is that we're not just a panel of judges deciding people's fate week to week, but we're investors. We're putting our money up to open this next great restaurant.
We created challenges to put people through actual skills that they're going to have to utilize when opening a restaurant. So, it could be anything from food and menu development to skill challenges that have to do with slogans and logos, creating a uniform, creating a design for the restaurant. So, they're all basically geared to real life issues that come up when opening a restaurant.
USTH: How did you work it out amongst yourselves – the four judges – when there was disagreement among you? Obviously, there's objective criteria of what is good food and what is a good presentation, but then, there's also subjective criteria. So, when there is some disagreement how do you all negotiate that amongst yourselves?
STEVE ELLS: Well, I think that's a really interesting question. I think that we had debates early on about the different kinds of cuisines and what we thought would be popular and accepted from the public.
But I think what these challenges did along the way was help [us to] understand the character of the contestants. So, not only are we looking at how well they competed with each other accomplishing specific tasks, but you really got an understanding of their passion for the restaurant business, their ability to use judgment and think on their feet.
These concepts that they presented to us in the very first episode evolved. In fact, the better contestants actually evolved their concept. And we watched them learn about the restaurant business from us. I mean, the really good ones asked us a lot of questions. They were curious. They were adaptable.
And so, not only did we look at how well they performed in the particular tasks, but we looked at their ability to demonstrate passion for the business and to use good judgment in how they were presenting themselves during the challenges.
USTH: Among the four judges, who would you say was the hardest on the contestants, and why?
STEVE ELLS: You know, I think it's fascinating because I think that we all showed a level of compassion. And we all got very attached to various contestants. And I think through the episodes we all had the opportunity to be very critical.
And so, I don't think one person stood out as the bad guy, if you will. I think we all had instances where we were quite critical of a particular dish, a particular business decision, things like this.
BOBBY FLAY: I think Steve hit it. We all come from different places. We've all garnered success over sort of a slow period of time. And so, I think that depending on what a contestant or somebody who was trying to pitch us a restaurant was trying to achieve struck each one of us differently. And so I think that we basically took turns being tough – being sort of the tough guy at the table.
(l-r) Steve Ells, Bobby Flay, Lorena Garcia, Curtis Stone, judges/investors on
AMERICA'S NEXT GREAT RESTAURANT [Photo Credit: NBC]
USTH: Since you all are investors in this potential restaurant, did you feel that at the end of the contest you could have said, "There is no winner. None of you is good enough to really open your restaurant," or would the format of the TV series require you to have picked a winner anyway?
BOBBY FLAY: Well, it's an interesting question. I have to say that at the beginning we were a little bit concerned because, first of all, people will try anything to garner attention.
And unfortunately, for this show that doesn't cut it because we need quality. And we need something that's going to work. And we need something that when we put our money together, we need a concept that's actually going to be viable.
And so, what I think had happened – I think that early on, we were pretty nervous that we weren't going to find something that was really going to be worthwhile. But the stronger pitches, and the stronger people just get stronger as time goes on. And they start developing their concept more based on the skills that we gave them.
And they also started getting more comfortable talking in front of us. So, that's how, in my opinion, the cream rose to the top. And then, ultimately we had a handful of very, very viable possibilities. And so, we felt a lot better after a few weeks, that's for sure.
STEVE ELLS: I'll just add that I don't know how to answer your question specifically if there were no concepts that we really believed in what would we do. We didn't have to face that.
And Bobby is right. It was tough. We were quite concerned at the beginning, but as the stronger contestants evolved, we came to a place where we had to make very tough calls because each of the finalists had certain qualities and certain aspects of their restaurants that were quite appealing.
So, it was not an easy decision to eliminate towards the end because of the various strengths that we saw in these people and in these concepts.
USTH: Thanks to Bobby Flay and Steve Ells for speaking with us today. America's Next Great Restaurant premieres on Sunday, March 6, 2011 on NBC.