Call “America’s Next Great Restaurant” fusion-reality TV cuisine: a test of business savvy from “The Apprentice,” the culinary throwdowns of “Top Chef” and a set of judge-moguls investing their own money from “Shark Tank.” With ratings in a low-expectations Sunday timeslot likely to hover somewhere between feast and famine, the amiable nine-week series nonetheless provides quite a promotional platform for its winning contestant.
The brains behind 10 original “fast casual” restaurant concepts duke it out for the grand prize: a franchise of their own, with three locations simultaneously opening in New York, Los Angeles and Minneapolis, plus name recognition and support from the well-connected investor-judges: Food Network mainstay Bobby Flay, “Biggest Loser” regular Curtis Stone, Chipotle chairman/co-CEO Steve Ells and Miami restaurateur Lorena Garcia. Those are big stakes, and the bonus of free publicity on network television surely can’t hurt an upstart eatery.
Premiere episode focuses on whittling down a pool of 21 concepts to the top 10 and provides a slickly packaged overview of the contestants’ pitches and personalities. From a boisterous Italian-American who hawks meatballs under the name Saucy Balls to an unemployed Detroit autoworker looking to launch a chicken-and-waffles franchise to support his family, the contenders are a TV-friendly bunch with genuinely promising franchise ideas.
Series also smartly ties into the health-conscious zeitgeist, appealing to NBC’s “Biggest Loser” reality base with a mandate to find a winner with “quality ingredients and good food that everyone can afford.” Hardcore foodie fans may object that not every contestant is skilled in the culinary arts, but concept is king here. Each competitor is promised mentoring to hone whatever weak spots they possess in the areas of food, management or marketing.
Based on the two episodes available for preview, “Restaurant” is admirably low on trash-TV antics, lending it additional family-friendly appeal in the 8 p.m. hour leading into another competition, “Celebrity Apprentice.”