A restaurant in downtown Burgaw with $1 million for renovations is on the table for the winner of a competition taking place in Burgaw next year.
The restaurant resulting from the Own Your Own (OYO) competition will be the third brought to downtown Burgaw by Wilmington-based entrepreneur Richard Johnson as part of his campaign to revitalize the small town in Pender County.
Following a series of challenges judged by a panel of local chefs and restaurant owners – among them James Beard Award semifinalists Dean Neff of Seabird and Keith Rhodes of Catch – Johnson expects to name a winner in June and spend a year bringing that person’s vision to life in two storefronts he already owns at 106 and 108 Courthouse Ave.
If this premise sounds like the basis for a reality TV show, that’s because it could be. Johnson and his team are currently meeting with TV and streaming networks to determine whether the competition will be picked up as a show. Barring that option, Johnson plans to work with a local production company to create an unscripted documentary about the process.
Johnson hopes this untraditional method of securing a tenant for his commercial real estate will help him land a successful restaurant to anchor a renaissance for downtown Burgaw, which he envisions coming to life through a selection of vibrant eateries and drinkeries to draw people into the town.
“The key to any successful town is a vibrant restaurant scene, as hard as the restaurant business is,” Johnson said. “People gather around food. It brings communities together.”
Applications for the competition opened last week, and OYO will collect entries through March. The only requirement for entry is age, with anyone ages 18 or older qualified to apply. While previous experience running a business, particularly a restaurant, could boost someone’s chances of being selected to participate, Johnson didn’t want to rule out candidates who might have the necessary skills without the expected credentials.
“You don’t know where you’re going to find a star,” said Johnson. “It’s probably likely the winner would come from deep restaurant experience, but the judges don’t really feel that not having restaurant experience is a reason to eliminate somebody.”
In addition to Neff and Rhodes, Christi Ferretti of Pine Valley Market and Myra McDuffie of MeMa’s Chick’n & Ribs will round out the panel of judges tapped to help Johnson find the winner.
Once applications close on March 31, the OYO team will sift through entries, and with feedback from the judges, winnow the list of participants down to a few dozen people who will come to Burgaw for the first challenge of the competition. Tentatively scheduled for June, the first task will set finalists up in tents in downtown Burgaw, where they will prepare a signature dish for local residents and judges to sample. The top-performing 10 or 12 participants will move on to an intensive three-week challenge with a “series of eliminations” to test the culinary expertise, leadership, people skills and problem-solving abilities of the finalists.
Johnson intends to rely on the prowess of his judges to design tasks that will replicate the complex demands inherent in running a restaurant, from the granular logistical tasks to the big-picture creativity needed to chart the business’s successful course.
“We’ll work with the judges to figure out what that looks like,” Johnson said.
While the final details for the competition are being ironed out, Johnson is completing “foundational” work on the spaces at 106 and 108 Courthouse Ave., including updated plumbing and installation of a grease trap and other commercial kitchen necessities. This will allow the winner to immediately get to work designing their dream restaurant, with up to $1 million available for renovations, in time for a June 2024 opening.
On top of that, Johnson is offering a personal loan to the winner to cover other opening expenses like stocking food and paying employees.
To recoup his investment, which Johnson estimates will hover around $1.5 million, the winner will sign a leasing agreement for the space with monthly figures dependent upon Johnson’s total investment. After 10 years, the winner will have the option to buy the building outright.
In addition to the winner of the OYO competition, Johnson has also spearheaded efforts to bring two other restaurants to Burgaw through his organization Burgaw Now
: Fat Daddy’s Pizza, a New York-style pizzeria that opened in 2020, and Burgaw Brewing, which is eyeing a January 2023 opening date.
Johnson sees his efforts in Burgaw as replicable for other communities in need of revival. The OYO website includes a page where small towns can be nominated to undergo a similar transformation.
"There seems to be a lot of interest in how something like this could be used to revitalize small towns that need a spark," Johnson said.
Recognizing that "not every town that needs to be saved, can be saved," Johnson said his team would be strategic about the kind of towns they take on. For example, he sees Burgaw as a solid choice because of its historic charm, proximity to the beach, and the trend of economic and demographic growth in nearby Wilmington, which he expects to eventually spread into Burgaw.
"Burgaw has great bones," said Johnson. "We're giving it a little bit of a spark, but even if I weren't here, I think this town was destined for a rebound."
More information about the OYO competition, including how to apply, is available on the OYO website
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