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On Food Network’s new series, Food Court Wars, two teams of aspiring food entrepreneurs face-off for a chance to win their own food court restaurant entirely rent-free for one year. On each episode, the teams have an opportunity to open a brand-new eatery in their local mall, test their concept, market their brand and run the outlet for a full day for hungry shoppers. The team whose restaurant makes the most profit wins the space. Host Tyler Florence helps the teams through their challenges, offering up his advice on how to make their concept a success. FN Dish recently caught up with Tyler to chat about the new show.
Catch the season premiere of Food Court Wars on Sunday, July 7 at 10pm/9c to see who wins their dream prize.
What do you think makes mall food courts so appealing or unappealing? Do you think they’re due for an update?
TF: I don’t want anybody to think I have some grandiose opinion about food courts and what they serve. I see it just like everybody sees it — it needs to be fixed — and that’s why I love the show. What we did with The Great Food Truck Race is we actually spawned an entire new genre of restaurants. I’m not saying we invented food trucks, but we created two epic fires in the country. We’ve shown it’s doable. We’ve shown there’s a new restaurant business model that can be profitable. Young, independent entrepreneurs are adding such a new level of colorful diversity in restaurants — coast to coast, from Miami to Alaska — with wonderful mobile restaurant operations, and they’re doing it at a very, very high level. It’s so impressive to watch.
This show is not just a competition, it’s more of a vetting process of taking two independent teams that have a local point of view with local stories, and we’re going to test them to see who has the merit, the brand, the food quality and the backbone to actually succeed. It’s a three-day competition. The first day is a branding competition where we really dive into who they are as a company. The second day is a marketing event where they go out into the community and get the word out about who they are; they get a chance to interact with people. We’ve taken an empty food court kiosk and given it to them for the weekend, and they turn it into a pop-up. So they get two days to grow and expand their brand and refine their concepts, and on day 3 they open their pop-up. Whoever makes the most money wins their space rent-free for one year, plus $10,000 of operating capital, so it’s an investment. We want to make food in food courts accessible and sexy.
Could the food court be the new food truck, so to speak?
TF: It’s really hard to compete in a really traditional restaurant model. You have to raise somewhere between $2,500,000 and $4,000,000 to open up a restaurant, and then the death rate is real. Nine out of 10 restaurants close within the first 18 months, so it’s an enormous risk for people and very difficult to raise that kind of money if they don’t have a solid success rate behind them, or if they’ve never done it before. That’s what makes food trucks so interesting — the idea that a person could raise $10,000 for a truck, pass a health inspection, write a menu and buy some food, and be in business next weekend — it’s very exciting. Yet food trucks would never see the kind of foot traffic that malls get. That’s what’s so exciting about this particular genre. We did it with food trucks and now we’re taking on the American mall.
Is the mall food court an area that you could see noteworthy chefs taking over in the near future? Is it something you would consider?
TF: I absolutely do. I have a fast, casual concept at the San Francisco airport called Tyler Florence Fresh that we did $2.8 million out of last year. I have done exactly what these people are trying to do.
What helpful advice would you give the contestants on Food Court Wars?
TF: I would say to really get feedback from people. If you have a concept, you want to make sure you get enough feedback from people that you have a real brand and clarity, and you have self-awareness of what you’re doing. How good is your food? Could it be better? What exactly is your brand? Is it being communicated effectively? That’s the best advice I could ever give somebody: have self-awareness about what you’re doing.