Soul Daddy arrived on the American fast casual dining scene the same way the reality show responsible for its existence arrived on television: haltingly, half-heartedly, with no panache and no clear vision.
Soul Daddy, which in May “won” America's Next Great Restaurant (perhaps the most bloodless reality show since CSPAN's broadcast of the HUD confirmation hearings), went on to open three outposts (one each in LA, NY and Minneapolis). Last week, Soul Daddy suddenly and “unexpectedly” closed. Unexpected if you had never watched the show or eaten at the restaurant. Totally predictable if you had.
The fiasco wasn't cheap. Based on SEC filings, Portfolio estimates the failure cost about $3 million. For Chipotle founder Steve Ells and his fellow judges/investors Bobby Flay, Lorena Garcia and Curtis Stone (each of whom reportedly invested $220,000), that's a big bruise, both for their wallets and their egos. What went wrong?
Location, Location, Location: We can't speak for the New York or Minneapolis locations, but in LA they launched Soul Daddy in Hollywood & Highland, a tourist-driven mall with such a dearth of decent eateries that a strawberry-scented lip gloss at Sephora seems more appealing than than most of the food on offer. (Note: We love Beard Papa's and have yet to try Boho in its new incarnation.) It should have been an easy win. Instead, they buried Soul Daddy on the fourth floor in a back corner of the mall with little foot traffic. We had trouble finding it, and we were actually looking. We can't imagine anyone stumbling on it if they weren't.
Concept Drain: Detroit caterer Jamawn Woods came in with a good concept: fried chicken and waffles. Here in LA, home of Roscoe's Chicken N' Waffle's, that notion is hardly revolutionary, but in much of the country, that would be unique. It certainly could have been edible. Instead, over the course of the show, Woods' concept was hamfistedly reworked and “improved” by “experts,” until the original idea of fried chicken and waffles morphed into “healthy soul food.”
The TV Show: In the same way that American Idol is essentially an extended, episodic commercial for the winner's eventual album, America's Next Great Restaurant needed to be an exciting, catchy TV show that would generate interest in a new restaurant. If you watched the first episode of America's Next Great Restaurant, you know that many of the most intriguing and original concepts were weeded out before the final 10. Boring concepts, boring participants, boring challenges, boring judges. Everything about this TV show played it safe. The ratings were deservedly mediocre, and when Soul Daddy won, nobody cared.
Steve Ells: The guy is a bona fide whiz with burritos and has successfully steered Chipotle through its massive expansion and recent rebranding, but he has no Midas touch when it comes to the fast-casual dining sector. (Let's see how his ShopHouse Southeast Asian concept does.) It doesn't help that Ells is as untelegenic as a human can be. Onscreen, he has no personality. He's as dull as dry toast. Maybe it was hubris, maybe it was stupidity. Either way, Ells et. al killed everything that was good about Woods' original concept. It's like a Hollywood exec reading your screenplay, telling you the studio loves it and now, could you just change everything about it?
The Food: Whatever else you want to say about the strength of the restaurant industry in general or the fast-casual sector in specific, a restaurant's appeal ultimately comes down to its food (and its price-point). The food at Soul Daddy was awful.
The fried chicken of Woods' original vision was dull and dry, more expensive and much less flavorful than the chicken at El Pollo Loco (which is having its own struggles competing with other grilled chicken chains). The fluffy waffles Woods' had envisioned were hard, dry, tiny discs that tasted like cornmeal congealed with Elmer's glue. The side dishes all tasted bland and, inexplicably, they were often served cold or lukewarm. It's not that “healthy” and “soul food” are incompatible, it's just that the food at Soul Daddy was neither, demonstrating the adage: when you try too hard to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one.