Eat Your Words

Essay contests seem like a fun way to sell a business. But sometimes, everyone's a loser.

In 200 words or less, do you dream of owning a restaurant in the Colorado mountains?

Taking inspiration from The Spitfire Grill, a 1996 film in which an ex-con convinces an aging cafe owner to give away her small-town Maine restaurant to whoever sends in the most convincing essay and a $100 entry fee, business owners across the country have followed the movie's lead.

"We saw the movie and thought, 'Ha, ha, what a cute idea,'" says Kathie Kramer. She and her partner, Anne Goodfriend, had been trying to sell their Moffat Cafe in Winter Park for over a year. When no one offered them the $150,000 they were asking, they decided to give an essay contest a try.

The grills next door: Kathie Kramer and Anne Goodfriend at their Moffat Cafe.
Melanie Stephens
The grills next door: Kathie Kramer and Anne Goodfriend at their Moffat Cafe.

"Everybody wants to own their own restaurant, but when it comes down to it, most people don't have the finances," Goodfriend says. "That's what I think is so great about these contests: It enables people that may have the talent but not the money."

What's not so great about these contests is that the big bucks seldom materialize, and often the giveaways are canceled. But while Kramer and Goodfriend admit that entry fees didn't add up to what they were looking for, they still handed their cafe over to winner Kandiace Buchheister in October 2000.

"We fell quite a bit short of our goal," Kramer says.

"But we always said the fun factor was a lot higher than the financial factor," Goodfriend adds.

Buchheister had entered the contest three times at $100 a pop. Her winning essay was a recipe for how to run a successful cafe. Ingredients: 1 cup smiles, 2 sticks elbow grease, 1 teaspoon of patience, 1 sense of humor, and a pinch of the spice of life. "This can be served on a bed of cross-country skis (hey, you have to have fun, too!), and don't forget to garnish this with a toilet bowl brush (a clean restroom is also very important). Top each serving with the sugary smiles."

For Buchheister, who lived in Las Vegas and had ten years of restaurant experience, winning the contest was a dream come true. "We knew what day they were going to announce the winner," she remembers, "and when I heard the phone ring that morning, I was so nervous I just about peed my pants."

But winning wasn't everything, it turned out. A few weeks before her essay was selected, Buchheister had discovered that she and her husband, Timm, were expecting their first child. "We have a tendency to jump into stuff that we can't handle," she says, "but we always think we can."

The couple moved to a condo in Winter Park, took over ownership of the Moffat Cafe, invested $10,000 in the eatery and ran it for nine months. But after Buchheister gave birth during mud season, they sold the cafe to Ann Auchincloss, a local woman, for $70,000. (Auchincloss has since changed the eatery's name to the Base Camp Cafe.)

"There were times when I thought, 'Did I really win, or was I cursed with this?'" Buchheister remembers. "I didn't like the entire stress package. So when we got the offer to sell, it was the perfect fit."

She and Timm and baby Zade have moved back to Las Vegas.

While each contest has its own rules, most guidelines include a 200- to 300-word essay to be judged on creativity, originality and grammar. A panel of independent judges, such as the town librarian or a local English teacher, often picks the winner. While contestants' finances generally don't play into the decision, the winner is usually subject to landlord approval and must put down at least one month's rent and assume liability for all costs, fees and taxes required to own and operate the business or property. Most important, contest organizers reserve the right to cancel the contest at any time and refund all monies received -- often not fast enough for disappointed contestants, however.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, more than half of all American adults entered some kind of sweepstakes contest in the last year. In 1999, the FTC received more than 10,000 complaints from consumers about gifts, sweepstakes and prize promotions.

In Colorado, games of chance are carefully restricted by law, while games of skill are more difficult to regulate; only nonprofit organizations can offer sweepstakes like raffles or bingo. "You have to do something based on merit -- a juggling or spelling contest, whatever, but entrants have to do something to get the money," Goodfriend says.

According to Assistant Attorney General Garth Lucero, while Colorado law is vague on essay contests, disgruntled contestants do have a couple of options if they feel they've been wronged: They can sue under general fraud laws or under the Colorado Consumer Protection Act.

"The advice I would give is to approach this as you would any investment: Thoroughly research the promoters, ask as many questions as you can," Lucero says. "Would you send cash to some stranger 1,000 miles away without doing any research? I would shy away from paying anybody in advance for something that is promised in the future. To me, $100 or $200 is a lot of money, but everybody has to judge on their own how much they feel they can lose. There is no guarantee that you're going to win."

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