This fall, two dozen budding restaurateurs will converge in southeastern North Carolina in pursuit of an unprecedented prize: $1 million to open their dream restaurant in two historic storefronts in downtown Burgaw.
The opportunity is orchestrated by Own Your Own (OYO), a project of Wilmington-based entrepreneur Richard Johnson in his yearslong campaign to revitalize the Pender County community. Johnson began acquiring commercial real estate in downtown Burgaw in 2018 and brainstorming ways to revive the historic small town. Through his organization Burgaw Now
, he has worked with local entrepreneurs to open two new restaurants in buildings he owns: Fat Daddy’s Pizza, a New York-style pizzeria that opened in 2020, and Burgaw Brewing, which opened in March of this year.
Johnson sees a vibrant restaurant scene as key in his plans to initiate Burgaw’s renaissance.
“It was crystal clear to me that you have to build community. You have to build a gathering place, and restaurants do that,” Johnson said.
For his third eatery in Burgaw, to be located at historic storefronts he already owns at 106 and 108 Courthouse Ave., Johnson created OYO to find an entrepreneur with the vision and skills necessary to run a successful restaurant. Since opening applications in December
, Johnson has received applications from about 500 people from 26 states and Canada to enter the competition. The OYO team is still accepting applications through July 15, but in the meantime, they’ve started sifting through the applicants to winnow down the pool to about 180 people. Johnson described the applicants so far as “absolute superstars.”
The competition will begin on Oct. 21, when 24 finalists will gather in tents along Courthouse Avenue to prepare a signature dish designed to woo the local community. Dubbed the OYO Town Square Cook Off Competition, the event will occur alongside Burgaw’s inaugural Autumn Fest. The community’s 12 favorite contestants from the cook-off will progress to the next round of the process, where additional challenges will determine which person wins the keys to Johnson’s next restaurant.
Johnson has enlisted James Beard Award semifinalists Dean Neff of Seabird and Keith Rhodes of Catch, as well as Christi Ferretti of Pine Valley Market and Myra McDuffie of MeMa’s Chick’n & Ribs to serve as judges in the competition. He hopes to rely on their experience as successful restaurateurs to find someone up to the complex demands of running a restaurant.
“I want to see how they are in budgeting, ordering food, managing time [and] staff – all the components that go in,” Johnson said. “It’s not just whether you can cook a good blueberry muffin.”
Once the winner is named, they will get to work bringing their vision to life with up to $1 million provided by Johnson for the renovation of the Courthouse Avenue buildings. Johnson intends to devise a leasing agreement for the space that will allow him to recoup his investment over time.
The OYO team plans to chronicle the process with a documentary, tentatively titled “Burgaw Now.” A trailer for the documentary
was released along with the details of the Oct. 21 cook-off. The organization is also meeting with TV and streaming networks to explore whether the concept could be picked up as a TV show.
As the competition progresses, Johnson is interested in recording the experience and creating a replicable model that other small towns in need of revitalization could follow.
“There are a lot of small towns. There are a lot of empty buildings. There are a lot of landlords that want to fill those buildings,” Johnson said.