Food Court Wars Recap: Scars Before Stars

“Owning a food court restaurant could make you a multi-millionaire”. With that surprising statement, Food Network’s latest challenge competition show, Food Court Wars is off and running. Hosted by Tyler Florence, formerly of The Great Food Truck Race, each week two teams of “aspiring food court entrepreneurs” compete against one another with the winner earning a food court restaurant rent free for one year.Like the Great Food Truck Race, the two teams compete in both concept and marketing plan to make the most money over a single day.

It should be noted that this isn’t actually the first episode, despite the “series premiere” label. A pilot episode aired in August 2012, with the winning team – Kettle N’ Sprouts – earning a rent free spot for the whole year. However, as of late February 2013, the storefront had mysteriously closed.

The show moves around the country, and for this premiere episode we’re at the Bonita Lakes Mall in Meridian Mississippi.

We’re introduced to the two teams, who both have a lot riding on the chance to launch their own food court restaurant. Po’ Boy Station is run by Erica and Stevo, two best friends (from the age of 3) looking to serve authentic New Orleans inspired sandwiches. Erica formerly spent time in New Orleans, but lost everything and was forced to move home to Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina.

The other team, Suck the Shuck, is run by Thomas and Mary Jordan, former restaurant owners in Chicago in the 1980s who now serve Tamales and wings out of a gas station, in exchange for cleaning the bathrooms. They’ve been working on their tamale recipe for 45 years and are still holding onto the dream of getting another shot at running a restaurant.

After what seems like an awful lot of exposition for a two team challenge, Tyler assembles the teams and lays out the contest. The teams will compete in three phases testing their: concept, marketing plan, and ability to make money. The first step is for each team to make 50 samples of a main dish and a side, and hand them out in the mall. The team that scores the highest, based on feedback, will gain an advantage during the next phase of the competition.

At this point, Tyler drops an interesting factoid. Only 7% of mall visitors seek out the food court, 93% don’t, leaving an awful lot of potential customers walking around. Not sure if this is specific to the Bonita Lakes mall or some sort of national average. Either way, between this quip and the note about becoming a millionaire food court restaurant operator, I’m gonna need Tyler to submit a Works Cited.

Po’ Boy Station makes a green tomato BLT with pimento cheese and basil mayonnaise. And as a side dish crawfish Mac & Cheese. The mac and cheese is a hit, but some people complain that the bread on the sandwich is too hard. Suck the Shuck serves hot tamales stuffed with beef and “Cheesy Corn Supreme”, which is a tomato based sauce with corn, veggies and other spices. They make sweet and spicy chicken wings as a side dish.

Making and boiling 50 tamales in an hour, by hand, isn’t really feasible and so Thomas makes the decision to cut the tamales in half. They get knocked for poor presentation, but the taste is spot on. However, some customers are confused by the name Suck the Shuck. As one lady points out, “no one is going to know what it is about.”

Tyler consults with each team to improve their concepts.

During the sample challenge the two teams just appear to wander the mall with their trays. Tyler jumps in a few times to provide pointers about engaging with customers, or how ingredients hold up during service.

Because they are just walking around the mall, it feels a little awkward when he interrupts them to drop some wisdom or point something out. You can also see some strange looks from all employees when it’s clear that the teams have crowded around a random kiosk or are causing a bit of a ruckus.

After the scores are tallied Suck the Shuck wins, gaining the advantage of doing a live radio interview to help promote the opening. Next Tyler breaks down each team and consults on possible brand improvements, including a name change for Suck the Shuck to Mary Jo’s Hot Tamales. Tyler also steps in and shows the Jordans how to steam tamales instead of boiling them, allowing them to prep more food faster.For Po’ Boy Station the major suggestion comes down to not toasting their sandwiches, to help retain the integrity of the brand.

After the pow-wows with Tyler, the teams have a day to create and execute a marketing plan to entice people to come to the opening of the food court kiosk the day after. The Jordans call Meridian’s director of tourism to cater an event to help raise awareness, even wrangling an appearance from the mayor at a historic landmark. Meanwhile Po’ Boy Station finds a local concert – featuring Aaron Neville – and plans to catch the pre-dinner concert crowd.

Po’ Boy Station does great work at the concert, with a full room of people lining up for their sandwiches, which Tyler calls improved but still needing a bit of work. The events go well for both teams, but the Jordans only invited 25 people to their event, which Tyler calls “a waste of your time.” It should be noted that those 25 people included an adorable southern lady who places a tamale and chicken drumstick in her purse to take home, wrapped in elegant pink napkins of course. Class on top of class right there.

The teams retire for the night, but not before Tyler has Po’ Boy Station sample some sandwiches to help improve their menu and the Jordans place flyers on cars in the mall parking lot to improve visibility.

After some prep the next day, the challenge begins and Mary is quickly overwhelmed by the number of people, while Stevo builds Po Boys as fast as he can. Both teams have lines that look endless, which makes you wonder how the rest of the food court purveyors feel. Po’ Boy Station begins to feel the heat as their service slows down, but Mary Jo’s Hot Tamales run out of tamales, which seems like a problem given that their name has “tamales” in it. Yet, they play it off and vow to sell every last chicken wing they have.

Rather anti-climatically, the challenge day ends with Tyler announcing to no one in particular that they’re going to tally the sales for both stores. Seriously, it looked like he was just placed randomly in the middle of the food court with the camera a mile away.

Erika and Stevo won, but couldn't open their food court kiosk

After the money is tallied, the difference between the teams is just $29, with Po’ Boy Station eeking out a victory. The celebration seems a bit muted by the outpouring of emotion for both teams. In a surprising moment, we jump to “two months later” where Tyler reports that Erica and Stevo haven’t been able to open Po’ Boy Station, due to what Tyler calls “personal reasons.” So Tyler surprises the Jordans at home and gives them the restaurant space. It’s an amazing and emotion ending to the show’s premiere.

So the pilot winners mysteriously close roughly six months after winning free rent for a year, and in the premiere the winning team can’t open their shop. Sounds like the show is off to a great start! Next week two new teams compete in a brand new mall. Maybe this time we’ll get some villains, because both of these teams were way too like-able to pick a side. Also Tyler, make sure you cite your sources next time.

Editor’s Update: Erika Lipe, via her Facebook account, revealed that she and Stevo declined the prize because they did “NOT [want] to move to Meridian for a food court restaurant, and also upon the fact that we would like to open one closer to home”