Word of Mouth

America's Next Great Restaurant contestant Eric Powell has a Colorado-based backup plan

Last night on America's Next Great Restaurant, fast-casual restaurateur hopefuls designed their logos, hired chefs and cooked for a crowd of 1,000, competing against each other in a challenge that mimicked a fast-casual lunch rush. And hometown investor Steve Ells, along with cohorts Lorena Garcia, Curtis Stone and Bobby Flay, dished out some tough advice, railing on either the logo or food created by each of the competition's contestants.

The loser this round was Fran, the former WNBA star who'd designed a wrap-based concept. She was sent home for mediocre food coupled with inflexibility in working with the investors.

And the winner was Eric Powell, who's touting a grilled-cheese restaurant called Meltworks. He was the crowd favorite, immune from elimination because those 1,000 diners voted his concept best. But should he get eliminated during the course of the show, he has a backup plan: to open Meltworks here in Colorado.

During last night's show, Eric got a little grief over his logo, which Ells thought should be more food-oriented (it currently boasts a gear in the middle of it, emphasizing the "works" part of the name rather than the "melt"). The judges loved his food, though, and so did the crowd.

But then, Powell had come into the game with more than five years of planning under his belt. "I was sitting at a bar with a friend of mine from high school in late 2005, and we looked at a handful of potential options," Powell says over the phone. "We landed on this grilled-cheese concept called Meltworks."

Powell had a traditional business background -- he currently works in the consulting industry -- and his friend had culinary experience. So they put together a business plan and started looking for investors. They'd gone so far as to sign a lease on a space in Columbus, Ohio, when the 2008 financial crisis hit and derailed the whole process. "We didn't stop working on it," Powell says. "We recognized, though, that we were in a difficult place to find capital."

Then he heard about a reality-TV show for fast-casual concepts, and kept an ear out for more news. After he heard that Ells, the founder of Chipotle, was involved, he decided to go for it.

Once he landed on the show, which has been taped save for the very last episode, in which the winner will be unveiled, Powell took every opportunity to work with Ells. "I really looked at Chipotle as a role model," he says. "I take inspiration from what Chipotle does, and having access to Ells and his advice, I took every opportunity I could to learn from him."

That mentorship supplemented what he and his partner, who remains involved but didn't put in on-screen face time, will continue to work on, whether Powell wins or loses. And if he doesn't land the three restaurants promised as the show's prize, he'll be coming west from his current home town of Memphis.

"I'm still moving forward," he says, "and I'm moving to Denver."

To open Meltworks in the city where Chipotle began.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk