What TV Competitions Are Really Like for Restaurateurs

What TV Competitions Are Really Like for Restaurateurs

Thomas Nguyen has received rave reviews for Peli Peli, the Houston restaurant he owns with partners Michael Tran and Paul Friedman (just check out those OpenTable ratings). But ultimately he realized the fine-dining South African concept wasn’t reaching as many people as he’d like. That’s why the group came up with the idea for Peli Peli Kitchen, a fast-casual counterpart that will allow them to introduce people to their cuisine in a more casual environment.

“We’re hoping that Peli Peli Kitchen will enable us to grow and reach more people with the cuisine we have,” says Thomas. “The idea is to give people the same flavors but in a different experience – to allow them to get the food in a faster setting at a lower price point. Every restaurateur’s dream is to reach as many people as possible.”

When it came time to raise money for Peli Peli Kitchen, Thomas and his team decided to think outside the box. They responded to a casting call for Restaurant Startup, the CNBC reality show in which high-profile industry investors — Joe Bastianich, Tim Love and Elizabeth Blau — decide whether to help fund a new concept. After an interview, the team was selected to be on the show.

We asked Thomas all about his experience on Restaurant Startup and some of the biggest surprises and takeaways from competitive television. Here are seven things he learned.


What TV Competitions Are Really Like for Restaurateurs

It’s about the people, not just the prize package.

Yes, a $300,000+ investment is the end goal of a show like Restaurant Startup, but the other key benefit is the expertise of the investor.

“I knew we needed capital, but the other part is finding a strategic partner that can help you grow and minimize the mistakes you make,” says Thomas.

Thomas and his team had never scaled a restaurant to multiple locations or expanded to a new city. He was excited about the prospect of partnering with an investor at the level of Joe Bastianich and benefit from his business savvy and advice.

You may be nudged into a  mold.

Restaurant Startup wasn’t scripted, but Thomas did feel like the show pushed certain themes onto his team. Since what viewers see on screen exists for entertainment value, he sometimes felt like they wanted the Peli Peli Kitchen group to mess up.

“They’re always trying to throw you curve balls. Be aware that things could change at the drop of a hat and you’ll be required to do things you might not ever face in your own kitchen.”

At the end of the the day, the producers need to create drama to make the show successful. Be ready for it, and you’ll avoid being the one who fails. Still, Thomas says the experience was valuable. “It was one of the best things I’ve ever done.”

The end result isn’t always what it seems.

The biggest disappointment of Thomas’ Restaurant Startup experience was that it didn’t actually result in a real investment. His team received the largest offer in the show’s history from restaurateur Elizabeth Blau, but after some back and forth, the deal didn’t go through. She requested some changes to the business that the Peli Peli Kitchen owners weren’t comfortable with, and the partnership fizzled from there.
What TV Competitions Are Really Like for Restaurateurs

It’s a great opportunity to introduce your team and brand to the world.

One of the best results from being on the show, Thomas says, is that the public really got to know the people behind Peli Peli and Peli Peli Kitchen.

“People in Houston that have already been to the restaurant — I love that they got a better sense of who the three of us are. I feel like a lot of people don’t know who we are as people. I’m glad it exposed us.”

TV is good practice for the real thing.

As part of their appearance on Restaurant Startup, Thomas, Michael, and Paul had to go through the motions of designing Peli Peli Kitchen — the space, the menu, and the service. They had to serve real guests and troubleshoot any issues that came up along the way.

“It was a nice practice run. It was good to have professionals critique our menu and food and make us answer some of the tough questions that come with creating a new concept.”

In the end, the response was encouraging: they sat over 120 people in the final test, and around 95% said they would come back again.

You need to be an expert on your brand.

One of Peli Peli Kitchen’s strengths is the clarity of the concept: bringing South African cuisine to the masses. The challenge was proving it out. Would people really like South African food? And would Thomas’ team be able to execute on it? His advice for others considering TV is to become an expert on their concept — preparation is key.

“Really understand the ins and outs of your business, especially from a financial standpoint. You have to understand how profitable your business is. You have to understand your numbers and projections. No matter what show you get on, they’re going to ask you about that.”

Never underestimate the competition.

“Don’t take your opponents lightly,” advises Thomas.

As he explains, producers of these shows understand the contestant base they are trying to build and want to make the experience as competitive as possible. That means participants will be paired with players who are just as good — if not better — than they are.

The first Peli Peli Kitchen is currently in progress in Houston, and Thomas anticipates a September opening. Congrats!