Six months of free rent, thousands of dollars in food inventory, television and other marketing materials, and $40,000 each in operating capital and kitchen equipment—all at no cost.
Sounds like a dream, right? Well, for one concept, it’s going to become a reality.
Iowa’s Best Bite Restaurant Challenge  is kicking off for the second year and searching for one winning concept to award its very own 250-plus-seat restaurant in Oskaloosa, Iowa, along with a prize package worth more than $150,000.
The unit, which is nestled in the middle of destination golf courses, includes everything from an outdoor patio and two full bars to a meeting and party room.
It also includes a move-in-ready kitchen, says Barry Schultz, contest manager, spokesman, and one of the judges of the Best Bite competition.
“If you didn’t want to, you wouldn’t have to touch a single thing,” he says. “You could open a restaurant there tomorrow, which is a pretty rare circumstance.”
Schultz says the prize package—which also includes perks like branding services, uniforms, and flatware and glassware—creates an unparalleled opportunity for the winning concept.
“Between the free and reduced rent for a couple of years and $40,000 in operating capital, you get such a huge cash-flow advantage,” he says. “We all know how expensive it is to run a restaurant, particularly to get one off the ground. So the idea of someone being able to start a restaurant with little or no debt is a pretty unique and kind of once-in-a-lifetime situation.”
Another perk is the location's proven profitability in the past, Schultz says, with sales at the previous restaurant consistently ringing in at more than $650,000 each year.
“The location is pretty fabulous,” Schultz says. “It’s large and it just has so many opportunities for events and catering. We knew right away that this was going to be a great spot to do another contest.”
Schultz says a fast-casual concept would likely make a good candidate for the competition, largely due to the clientele in the area.
“Because this is on a destination golf course, the location is very nice, but a lot of the business is golfers coming in halfway through their 18 holes or they come in for a bite to eat afterward,” he says.
“Oskaloosa is also the type of town where … people aren’t used to [spending] an hour on dinner on a typical night,” he adds. “Most people are very familiar and comfortable with that fast-casual idea.”
Schultz says getting the Oskaloosa community involved in and excited about the competition helps set up the winning restaurant for success.
“It kind of takes some of the risk out for everybody because you get an idea through the contest and the judges what the community really wants,” he says. “Because the community chose it themselves, they’re going to tend to support it more.”
He adds that the excitement around the competition also bodes well for traffic counts. Last year’s competition, which awarded the winner a restaurant in the college town of Grinnell, Iowa, was covered by the state’s largest newspapers and multiple TV channels.
“The community gets insanely excited by the idea, which of course helps the restaurateur even more because of the buzz,” Schultz says.
But he admits the buzz and excitement can also be a double-edged sword for the winning concept.
“Nobody’s really interested in seeing the same old thing, and I think the community is very open to a lot of ideas,” he says. “But because there’s so much publicity generated around the entire state through this, expectations are going to be very, very high for something that’s quality and something that isn’t competing with an existing restaurant.”
For those concepts willing to take on the challenge, submissions are due by May 6, and the winning concept must be ready and willing to open the unit within 60 days, just in time for golf season.
“Somebody that has those resources and that ability, they’re probably going to have an advantage,” Schultz says.
The judging panel, which is made up of community volunteers and experts in fields ranging from restaurant management to marketing, will select three finalists to visit the Oskaloosa location on May 15. In addition, a fourth finalist will be chosen by fans in the community.
Two concepts will be selected to move on to the final round on May 16, where they will cook for a community panel and present their overall vision.
Schultz says judges are looking for savvy operators who can not only run a restaurant, but also handle events and make the most of every dollar that comes in the store.
“They’re really looking for somebody who understands controlling costs,” he says. “Quality food and great service is important, but the savvy of somebody understanding that it takes more than that to be successful and actually make money is probably very important.”
By Mary Avant