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Jamawn J. Woods: Winner of America's Next Great Restaurant Serves Up a Taste of Success

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Growing up with soul food dishes on the dinner table, nourishes the love many people have for such traditional dishes as fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, greens with ham hocks, candied sweet potatoes and buttery biscuits.

Unfortunately, the levels of fat and sugar content in traditional recipes has inspired many a soul food cook to think about healthier ways to make southern cuisine. A former Detroit autoworker and self-taught cook now has the chance to turn his ideas for lighter soul food into America’s Next Great Restaurant.

From the moment Jamawn J. Woods stepped into the limelight on the NBC series, "America's Next Great Restaurant," his determination to succeed in the food business radiated sincerity and commitment.

“My passion to own my own business and to provide for my family inspired my concept, which is why I started selling wings and waffles out of my house,” Woods says in an exit interview·he did for the NBC show.

On the May 1 finale, Woods won the reality competition and received the backing and the bucks to open three Soul Daddy restaurant·simultaneously -- in New York City, Minneapolis and Los Angeles.

“The experience of being on the show has taught me that one small idea or concept can turn out to be a grand plan, depending on who’s looking at it,” Woods tells NBC.

When “America’s Next Great Restaurant” premiered on March 6, Woods and 20 other top competitors presented their concepts to four investors with serious credentials in the food industry: Bobby Flay, a Food Network chef and acclaimed restaurateur; Curtis Stone, an internationally recognized chef and contributor to “The Biggest Loser;” Steve Ells, founder, chairman and co-CEO of Chipotle restaurants; and Lorena Garcia, executive chef and restaurateur.

The four investors acted as mentors and judges during a series of challenges designed to test the competitors on their knowledge of food, cooking and business. Woods used critiques of his presentations to fine-tune his original concept of serving fried chicken and waffles.

By the time he made it to the final challenge, Woods planned a mini-version of his restaurant, with healthier choices and no fried entrees. He beat out the two other finalists with by serving up good food and efficient service during the final challenge of operating a mini-version of their restaurants.

Flay, the host of “America’s Next Great Restaurant,” says this about Woods in an NBC news release: “A passion for food, a solid work ethic, good business sense and delicious meals are what the investors were searching for on this series, and Jamawn embodies all of those traits and more. He is truly the heart and soul of Soul Daddy.

Woods, who started learning to cook at age 15 while making candy with his Dad, became teary-eyed during the competition when he talked about his desire to never again have to tell his children he had been laid off from his job. The former Detroit autoworker receives a percentage of the business as the assistant manager and founder. He is putting his hopes and dreams into making Soul Daddy an American success story with the help of his four investors.

Woods tells NBC that the trip to Las Vegas, meeting the judges and eating at Flay’s Mesa Grill are among the best experiences he had during the show – experiences he says have not changed him. “I’m still the same person, just with more drive, passion toward food, and self-confidence to succeed.”

He will need confidence and guidance to meet the demands and risks of operating a fast-casual restaurant business. Some reviews are mixed, but a food blogger in Minneapolis thinks Soul Daddy is worth the trip.

“I’m not going to try and say it was the best food ever, but for the price and the casual environment it was very good food. I’d definitely recommend stopping in if not at least for the waffle corn bread (which was a reference to his original idea on the show Wings n’ Waffles), says Dez in a May 10 blog post.

Another reviewer describes the baked chicken, ribs, pulled pork, and sides on the Soul Daddy menu as good, but not spectacular.· Soul food with a healthy slant might take some getting used to for traditionalists. A couple of reviewers say the new restaurant resembles a “soul” version of Chipotle.

Woods seems ready to do the hard work necessary to succeed. He has to be a good manager and make timely adjustments to keep the long lines coming after the buzz from the TV show fades.

The level of commitment from the investors, who are guiding the novice entrepreneur, could make all the difference. Some fans of “America’s Next Great Restaurant" will stay tuned to see if Flay’s influence puts fried chicken back on the Soul Daddy menu.


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