Restaurant Startup: Can’t take the heat – you’re out!

Sounds of pounding drums and rich, dominant violins create a dramatic musical score befitting an epic futuristic film where the good guys are in pursuit of their ultimate mission to save the world.

Instead of fighting alien domination, the overture sets the backdrop for weekly episodes of “Restaurant Startup,” a reality show where viewers enjoy a fast-paced journey in search of the next culinary visionary. In the midst of competition, pressure, and intense scrutiny, two teams vie for the attention, approval, and money of two outspoken and prolific restaurateurs. Only one team will have the opportunity to show what they are made of in their pursuit of the ultimate triumph—a business deal with one or both of the epicurean pros.

In a nod to everyday people who are brave enough to step into their entrepreneurial dreams, “Restaurant Startup” is proving to be another successful reality show for CNBC Prime – the network’s evening programming. Launched in 2013, CNBC Prime was a bold move to disrupt an elite, white-collar daytime persona, yet stay true to the network’s core ideology of bringing business news into people’s homes.

Joe Bastianich, who owns 30 restaurants, is an executive producer of “Restaurant Startup” and is also one of the show’s hosts, along with Chef Tim Love, who built his culinary empire on Texan turf out of his self-created urban western cuisine.

Just what is a food visionary according to Bastianich? “On this show, we’re looking for people who have the unique combined talent of being able to execute culinary concepts that are appreciated and valued by the market, but also culinary concepts that have the potential of making a profit,” he explained.

Eager competitors appearing on the show who believe that they have created “the next best thing,” are already aware that Bastianich knows his stuff. Growing up in the restaurant business, he worked at his parents’ Italian restaurant in Queens, and through the years the family business grew. His mother is Lidia Bastianich, who is known today as a television host, a best-selling cookbook author and a respected restaurateur. In 1993, an invitation to tape an episode of “Julia Child: Cooking With Master Chefs,” was a major step in lifting Lidia into the national spotlight. That same year, Bastianich convinced his mother to join him in a new restaurant venture, and together they opened Becco, located on Restaurant Row in the heart of the New York City theater district. Bastianich later teamed with Mario Batali to open the award-winning Babbo Ristorante Enoteca in Greenwich Village. In addition to his restaurant portfolio, Bastianich is co-owner of an upscale Italian market – aptly named, Eataly.

In its Tuesday evening, 10:00 pm time slot, “Restaurant Startup” is in its second season. Each episode begins with two teams presenting their culinary concepts to Bastianich and Love. The two taste-test the creations and grill each team on the nuances of their recipes, the status of their businesses and their backgrounds as chefs and as restauranteurs. Love, owner of four restaurants – along with the White Elephant Saloon, which made Esquire magazine’s “100 Best Bars in America” list – is a bit gentler than Bastianich in his approach. But make no mistake, both are serious businessmen carefully weighing whether they will invest their own money in one of the teams.

“Initially, people really don’t know their numbers and don’t understand the business behind their food idea. What we are basically trying to decipher is who is just faking it, or who really understands what it is to make it in this business,” explained Bastianich – adding that he has invested in three or four teams over two seasons of the show.

One culinary team featured this season stood out to Bastianich and Love. Lloyd Taco Truck from Buffalo, New York came to the show with an already booming business, offering great food and creative marketing. The owners, childhood friends Peter Cimino and Chris Dorsaneo, explained how they fought City Hall and succeeded in having legislation passed to be the first food truck in Buffalo. Their business then grew to three trucks, with one more in production. Continuing to prove their worth throughout the episode culminated in a joint offer from both Bastianich and Love. Tense negotiations ensued, which included Love advising the Lloyd team that “greed gets nothing,” and Bastianich flatly stating, “If you don’t realize the offer being had here, then you are stupider than I thought, because this is big time.” A final deal was struck when the Lloyd Taco Truck owners agreed to a $250,000 investment for 25 percent of their business.

“Those guys are great examples of this show because are both savvy young culinary guys, but also have a real head for business to come up with ideas that have scalability to them,” explained Bastianich. “We have signed a lease and we are two months away from opening a brick and mortar restaurant in Buffalo.”

This emerging Buffalo business and many others appearing on “Restaurant Startup” exemplify a current trend in the industry. Fast casual restaurants – a hybrid of a fast food and casual dining – are popping up across the country. Typically, they do not offer full table service, but deliver higher quality, freshly made food, unlike fast-food fare. “It is the most scalable market segment. If you’re looking for big food ideas you can take nationwide, you do fast casual. At least in the world we live in now, it is the segment of the restaurant world that has the most growth potential,” Bastianich explained.

While an up-and-coming restauranteur or culinary creative with a Harvard MBA would certainly attract his attention, Bastianich, who studied finance in college, believes that a degree is not necessary for success. “The fact of the matter is that most people who come to the food service industry are people who do not pursue an education. It is usually people who are more street smart or who have worked their way into this positon,” he said. “The great thing about our businesses is that they are multi-faceted. In the restaurant business, you’ve got to be a little bit of everything. You’ve got to be a manufacturer, a marketer … you use multiple skill levels.”

“Restaurant Startup” airs its Season Two finale on March 17th, and Bastianich shared his opinion on the program’s popularity. “The show resonates with people because it is all very real. In a lot of reality television, it’s staged, or there are no real stakes. Here, the deals have been made. Real money transactions and real partnerships are made – so it’s like the real world is coming to the screen. Everything they see is real, and everything that they don’t see is also real. You can imagine that before you write someone a check for $100,000 or a half-a-million dollars, there is a lot of due diligence that happens. The way that plays out is fascinating. You walk away from your hour of ‘Restaurant Startup’ being entertained and educated. I think that’s the value-added that people are looking for these days.”

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