Amid making plans for ShopHouse, a new fast-casual Asian concept, and running the ever-expanding Denver-based Chipotle empire, Steve Ells has also been busy picking another restaurant concept in which to invest, working alongside Bobby Flay, Curtis Stone and Lorena Garcia to grant a would-be restaurateur the opportunity to run America's next great restaurant. And the battle to become the winning restaurateur has been unfolding on a new food TV show, coincidentally named America's Next Great Restaurant.
After weeks of challenges, the verdict is in: Ells and company plunked down cash to erect the first three Soul Daddy restaurants, owned by Jamawn Woods from Detroit.
In the beginning, Woods was calling his fried chicken and waffles concept "Wings and Waffles." Over the course of the show, however, that morphed into a healthy soul food theme, complete with baked chicken, ribs and side dishes that included black-eyed pea salad and cheese grits.
Woods hinted at that transition when we talked to him after the first episode aired, saying he'd been chosen because he had something the investors could work with that would become more marketable as the show continued. He also said he'd be heading back to culinary school if he won.
"They were trying to set us up to see what it would take to run a restaurant," he explained of his time on the program. "We go through a lot of things business-wise. But none of us are going to culinary school. I would like to do that if I won."
He also spoke highly of working with Ells. "Steve inspired me a lot -- how he started off small and got a loan from his dad. Look at him now. That was a lot of motivation for me."
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Last night, during the finale, when the panel revealed that Woods was the winner, he was genuinely surprised, too. "No one knows who won," he'd said in that earlier conversation. "We don't know how it plays out." He'd also said he would be moving forward with his restaurant no matter what.
Joey Galluzzi, proprietor of Brooklyn Meatball Company -- and one of the final three -- also noted he'd be establishing his own restaurant whatever the outcome. And he, too, was inspired to check out some culinary classes after working with the four chefs.
While we'll have to wait for Soul Daddy to make its debut in the Denver market, we'll get to sample another competitor's concepts here: Eric Powell, who planned to offer grilled cheese in a fast-casual format called Meltworks, said he would move to Denver if he didn't win, making his idea happen here in the Mile High City.