A Toronto mom-and-pop fast casual concept focused on a Caribbean native's love for his culture, along with his new bride's love for him took home honors at this year's Perfect Pitch competition at the 2017 Fast Casual Executive Summit in Nashville.
The always-energizing and even inspiring event annually gives the leaders of three "baby brands" the opportunity to pitch their concept before a panel of restaurant advisers, as well as a room brimming with hundreds more fast casual leaders who will vote for their favorite brand at session's end.
And as always, the competition is as stiff as a chef's heavily starched coat, this year pitting a rapidly growing Alabama-based bacon-centric food truck brand called, I Love Bacon, against Capitol Melt, a grilled cheese-focused lunch spot in Albany, New York, as well as that aforementioned winning concept this year, Street Shak Caribbean Kitchen in Toronto.
After each brand presented a brisk but comprehensive overview of its concept, questions were lobbed at each presenter from panelists including Focus Brands CEO Steve DeSutter, Gala Holdings International founder and CEO Anand Gala and one of the presenters of last year's pitch-winning brand, Rockfire Grill's Neil Syal
"It's a craft. It's in our blood. We really just wanted the room to know that despite the ride, we never lose sight of the vision and passion we had before we opened the doors." — Perfect Pitch co-winner, Tony Bradshaw
Their responses likely took many of those in the audience that day back to their initial restaurant launches and the many struggles most owners face from Day One. For instance, when I Love Bacon founder, Keith Hill told Syal the brand's bestselling item was a steak-egg-and-bacon brioche known as the Carlos Santana, DeSutter followed up by asking Hill about a challenge he'd faced in the initial days of the brand's unfolding, which in this case, actually involved getting that now-favored sandwich off the ground.
"Something that we really had a problem with is that Carlos Santana (menu item)," Hill told the audience. "We had trouble getting that egg perfect in that (average serving time for the brand) of 2:30 time. … It took us three years to really get it right and ended up we used a very small Teflon pan and we're going with it."
Then there was a question field from Gala to Capitol Melts owner, Robert Haggerty, about the lifelong government worker's decision to get into the restaurant business, which triggered a wave of knowing laughter when Haggerty said simply, "Well, I spent 40 years in government and politics, and I was sitting at my desk one day and I thought, 'There's got to be a better way to make a living!'"
For the ultimate Pitch winners, Tony Bradshaw and his wife/partner, Karen, of Street Shak was clearly a brand all about the love of one man for his native culture and one woman for that man, as the couple relayed how Tony sprang the "restaurant idea" on Karen, a banker even before he had proposed marriage.
"I'll tell you a little story," Karen responded to DeSutter's question about the "noble mission" behind their brand. "Six months before we opened, Tony said he wanted to open a restaurant and he wanted to do Caribbean food." At that, Mrs. Bradshaw explained she lent her accounting prowess to the plan, then proclaimed to the crowd that "Now this is all Tony … and I am so proud of him."
After the event and the winning vote, the couple said they went for the opportunity initially because they thought it would be an ideal way to "meet and learn directly from the conference attendees, and most importantly, get feedback from the panel specific to our concept to help us grow." When contacted in the week following their win, Tony said that both he and Karen were delighted with the results and how their win has, and will continue to, yield exactly the kinds of contacts and guidance they were seeking.
"Wow! Everyone was so open, honest and provided us with feedback or support," Tony said. "Immediately after Street Shak was announced as the winner, the panelists talked to us about what they liked about our concept, and what made it fresh and different.
"The best part was the follow-up questions and advice Anand Gala … and Steve DeSutter … provided on some things we may want to consider to improve our revenue in our existing location and recommendations on what to look for before expansion."
The winners of last year's Perfect Pitch, father-and-son team, Raj and Neil Syal of Rockfire Grill watched this year's event and said they recalled great memories from that more nerve-racking day a year earlier outside Los Angeles. But Raj Sayal said all the nerves, preparation and hard work have paid off liberally in the year since winning the pitch and connecting with so many wise players in the industry.
"Rockfire Grill has re-branded and re-engineered itself since last year's Perfect Pitch win, and … the Perfect Pitch helped us move in the right direction for our growth strategy (as well as) streamlining our processes (and) setting up the supply chain.
"We have been able to partner with the right vendors, the leasing process for our new locations has become easier as (property owners) now consider us as a top fast casual brand, and we are being invited to new and better locations."
And surely the Syals would agree with Tony Bradshaw when he responded with this beautifully stated piece of advice to others hoping to present their brands at future summits.
"Be yourself and tell your story. … It's a room of people driven to deliver great experiences. There are long days and of course a roller coaster of emotions because there are constant demands and this business is so personal," he said. "It's a craft. It's in our blood. We really just wanted the room to know that despite the ride, we never lose sight of the vision and passion we had before we opened the doors: To celebrate Caribbean food, hospitality, and culture."
Topics: Fast Casual Executive Summit
Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of Pizzamarketplace.com and QSRweb.com after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.