It was a most unusual thing. A $1 million contest to open, own and operate your own restaurant in the Pender County town of Burgaw.
But, however unusual, it was real, and in October, Karoline Schwartz of Tabernash, Colorado, was announced as the winner of the Own Your Own Million Dollar Nationwide Restaurant Challenge.
“I’ve been a chef, an operator and a manager and just worked in the restaurant industry the entire time I’ve been alive,” Schwartz said. “I’ve always wanted to have my own restaurant, as everyone does in this industry. We all dream of it.”
The contest was the vision of entrepreneur Richard Johnson, the one-time founder and CEO of the ’90s dot-com-boom era darling HotJobs.com. Johnson turned out to be the investor Schwartz dreamed of finding. (Read more about Johnson in the WilmingtonBiz 100 list here.
Schwartz first learned about the Own Your Own challenge when it was mentioned in her culinary school newsletter.
“I thought, ‘Oh, that looks fun. I’ll apply,’” Schwartz said. “And I just kept making it to the next stage. I kept answering the questions honestly whether they were regarding my business plan or myself or video interview. I just kept being myself.”
Schwartz currently serves as executive chef and general manager of food and beverage operations at a historic lodge in Grand Lake, Colorado. Prior to that, she served in leadership roles in Boston, Washington, D.C., and New York, and credits her leadership experiences with her success in the challenge.
“There’s more than just food that goes into operating a restaurant,” Schwartz said. “It’s your ability to manage people and lead people, understand how business works, how you represent yourself and build relationships. Even the best food can’t save poor service. So it has to be very well balanced, so who you are as a person matters just as much as what you put on your menu.”
The challenge began with more than 500 entries. Johnson and his handpicked team of chefs and restaurateurs then whittled down the field to just fewer than 200 before the real process began.
“We Zoomed with 190 people,” Johnson said. “It took three months.”
In October, Schwartz and 23 other finalists descended on Burgaw to present themselves, their plans and their culinary creations at a Town Square Cook-Off. More than 200 area residents were selected by lottery to serve as community judges ranking each entrant on people skills, presentation, taste of their signature dish and their concept. Their votes, along with the say-so of Johnson’s enlisted group narrowed the field to 12.
Then, Johnson met for 30 minutes with each of the remaining 12 finalists.
“I was just trying to decide on their character and was it somebody that I want to work with,” Johnson said. “I wanted to look them all in the eye and try to determine that they could do it.”
At the same time, Johnson’s team of area restaurateurs scrutinized entrants’ business plans, deliberated and trimmed the field to six who would participate in a series of challenges.
The challenges for six finalists included planning menus, cooking and interacting with customers using the kitchens at Pine Valley Market, Cape Fear Seafood Company and Stoked Restaurant. After the challenges, Schwartz and fellow finalist Vincent Mangual, of Brooklyn, New York’s Empire BBQ, were selected for the grand finale event during which they both prepared three-course dinners for a roomful of guests on Oct. 29. (Mangual and Schwartz are shown on the opposite page from the finale event.)
At the end of the evening, Schwartz was named the winner.
She now will have $1 million dollars from Johnson to design, outfit and open her restaurant at 106-108 W. Courthouse Ave. in Burgaw, a space owned by Johnson.
After purchasing farmland near Burgaw in 2016, Johnson saw the potential in the town and went on to purchase seven vacant buildings while devising plans to help rejuvenate its downtown.
By 2020, Johnson and retired teacher Jay Kranchalk had opened Fat Daddy’s Pizza, which Johnson notes was the first new business to open in downtown Burgaw in 10 years. Since then, seven new businesses have opened in the Pender County seat, including another Johnson-backed venture in early 2023, Burgaw Brewing.
“I realized that you can own the building, but, unless there is foot traffic and you make some improvements, you’re not going to rent them,” Johnson said. “That’s what kind of sent me on the whole journey.”
Construction on Schwartz’s restaurant is slated to take place through 2024 with a target of opening in early 2025.
Schwartz will continue working and living in Colorado during the early phases of the project but plans to relocate to the area next year as the project moves forward.
“I need to work until this opens, thus, why someone else is bankrolling my restaurant,” Schwartz said with a laugh. “I like where I work and I love Colorado, and I will do what I can do from afar. When I no longer can do it from afar, that’s when I will move.”