Opening a restaurant takes a lot of work: picking the location, remodeling the building, meeting codes, signing contracts, designing a menu and taking a big hit to the bank account. It’s no wonder that so many businesses struggle and fail, while others never even get started. Iowa’s Best Bite Challenge offers winners a chance to skip all of these headaches.
“Opening a restaurant from scratch is one of the toughest things you can do — and statistics bear that out,” said Bryan Schultz, one of the contest organizers. “Failure rates in the first few years can be quite high, so we try to reduce that risk for both the restaurateur and the landlord by offering financial advantages, generating publicity and offering solid business advice.”
The Best Bite Challenge offers one winner more than $120,000 in kitchen inventory, equipment, operating capital, rent, marketing, signage and more. The prize also includes mentorship by Chef Helene from West Liberty Foods, menu printing and a website.
Schultz and his wife Angie run the contest through their marketing agency, Opposable Thumbs. The challenge functions as a nationwide talent search and has had great success in its first two years in the communities of Grinnell and Oskaloosa.
The winner of the first year was Carly Groben Ross, the former owner of James Beard-nominated restaurant, Proof, in Des Moines. With her winnings, she opened Prairie Canary in 2012, which has received many accolades.
Grinnell Chamber of Commerce CEO Angela Harrington said of the winning restaurant, “It was fantastic in that we really zeroed in on where the opportunity was instead of replicating what we already had. Prairie Canary is doing well and is a very unique destination restaurant.”
The second year’s winner, On The Green in Oskalossa, is also happy with the crowds they are seeing.
This year the contest will be held in West Liberty. The space up for grabs is the historic Iowa State Bank building on the corner of Third St. and N. Calhoun. The building was originally remodeled to house The Century Grill, which closed in 2010. The kitchen and main dining room are on the first floor, and the second floor has a “speakeasy” bar.
“We are thrilled that contestants are excited to move to a dynamic small town,” said Schultz. “That’s really what drives our passion for this contest — proving small town Iowa can be an awesome place to start a business.”
The contestants are still putting together their packages to submit by the contest deadline of June 16. Schultz explained that community support is vital to the winning restaurant’s success, so the public is invited to visit the contest’s website to view the videos submitted by contestants and vote for which restaurant they think will fit their town best.
According to Angie, who serves as Opposable Thumbs’ art and business director, contestants who have already expressed interest in the contest range from familiar Eastern Iowa chefs, to those looking to break into the industry, to investors who are looking for a chef to team with.
“It’s interesting that experienced business professionals are seeing there really is opportunity in more rural areas — especially the idea that rural towns can host destination restaurants.” said Bryan Schultz. “One of West Liberty’s goals is to have a restaurant that will encourage folks from the Iowa City metro area to take the short drive for a nice meal.”