Ballston’s Restaurant Challenge Isn’t Exactly What It Seems
More than 35,000 people showed up in Ballston for the Taste of Arlington last week to drink beer, listen to live music, and sample food from some 40 area restaurants. But for eight of the chefs and restaurateurs serving the sunburned masses, the stakes were high. As contestants in Ballston’s Restaurant Challenge, they were competing, Top Chef–style, for the chance to win a fully equipped restaurant in the neighborhood.
The prize is serious: Brookfield Office Properties teamed up with the Ballston BID to offer an 11-year lease—with 12 months of free rent—at 1110 N. Glebe Road, a $245,000 interest-free loan, and free legal services and financial advising. Chef Mike Isabella, who will open Kapnos Taverna in Ballston this year, was brought in to headline.
By all appearances, it seemed this part of the competition would be left up to democracy. A press release from the Ballston BID leading up to the event implied as much: “Taste of Arlington attendees will vote for their favorite contestant using the BallstonConnect mobile app. Two winners will then be selected to move on to the June 4 cook-off finale in the restaurant space.” No other judging criteria or judges were mentioned.
In reality, though, the public vote was completely meaningless. The 263 votes yielded one decisive victor: Kristen Robinson, an instructor for the Art Institute of Washington and alum of Westend Bistro. Her market, bar, and tasting room concept, Laurel, won more than a third of the total votes.
But Robinson will not move on to the next round of the Restaurant Challenge. Instead, Del Campo and Taco Bamba chef/owner Victor Albisu was named one finalist for his casual Mexican restaurant concept Bombazo. Christiana Campos, who hopes to open a Spanish tavern called Casita, is the other.
It turns out there was another panel of 10 judges who also evaluated the contestants. The judges were featured on the Taste of Arlington website, but not as part of the Restaurant Challenge; the site said the judges would pick best appetizer, entree, and dessert from the 40 or so other restaurants in attendance that day.
But even the judges weren’t the ultimate arbiters of who would move to the next round, although they did give Campos and Albisu the highest scores on food. For all the spectacle and guise of community involvement, there was really only one judge that mattered: Brookfield Office Properties.
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The Restaurant Challenge began as a spinoff of the LaunchPad Challenge, a similar competition for startups launched by the Ballston BID last year. After it concluded in December, Ballston BID CEO Tina Leone says one of her board members, Brookfield Office Properties VP and Regional Counsel Simon Carney, approached her about a property where he was hoping to attract a unique restaurant operator. “It just dawned on us, ‘Why not make this a challenge?’” Leone says.
Carney saw it as a triple win: The competitors would get exposure, Ballston could bolster its image as a dining destination, and Brookfield would get a strong new tenant. “The Ballston Restaurant Challenge is aimed at bringing a signature restaurant to Ballston and enabling an aspiring restaurateur to achieve their goals here,” Leone said in a press release calling for applications in February.
But the contest actually wasn’t just for “aspiring” restaurateurs who might not otherwise have the resources to open a place. A couple of the semifinalists already own restaurants, including the owners of The Daily Dish—and, of course, Albisu. Albisu told Washingtonian he plans to open a restaurant in Ballston, win or lose. Albisu’s publicist told me the chef wouldn’t be able to comment on the competition this week because he is in “the midst of working out some things related to the Restaurant Challenge.” She wouldn’t elaborate on what that meant.
Competing against established restaurateurs surprised semifinalist David Ivey-Soto. The culinary educator and caterer says he wouldn't be able to open a restaurant without the help: “I definitely saw it as an opportunity for someone to start their own restaurant, as opposed to open up store No. 2 or 3.”
But Brookfield’s Carney says that wasn’t what he had in mind: “We wanted to make sure we had an open competition, so that people who had experience or didn’t have experience felt that they could compete.”
The real goal was to bring in a strong operator who’d be able to attract foot traffic to a less buzzy corner of Ballston. Leone says one of the reasons Brookfield offered such an attractive incentive is because of the tricky location: It’s a little further from the Metro than the main cluster of restaurants in Ballston. Until the redevelopment construction for Marymount University’s Ballston campus is complete, “getting people to cross that street is a challenge,” Leone says of North Glebe Road. The space’s previous tenant, Red Parrot Asian Bistro, closed in December after only nine months. “Whoever goes into that space has got to be a destination restaurant,” Leone says.
The Ballston BID received about 25 applications, which a panel including Leone, Carney, Isabella, and other Ballston BID board members cut to eight semifinalists based on their business plans, financial projections, concepts, and fit with the neighborhood. Some attendees voted at the Taste of Arlington with the belief that they were helping to further narrow the field. “A lot of my friends and family were like, ‘Well, I thought since you were winning fan favorite, that that meant you were going on to the next round,’” Robinson says.
Contestants were more in the loop: In a conference call for semifinalists a week before the event, the organizers made clear that the fan favorite wasn’t necessarily the winner. Zena Polin of The Daily Dish, another semifinalist, says she personally thought the majority of the process was transparent.
But there was still plenty of frustration among contestants about the way the Taste of Arlington competition was run. “Oh, you don’t want me to go there…I don’t want to say exactly what I think,” says semifinalist chef Jacques Imperato. “The whole thing was very weird.” He says it wasn't clear what the judges were looking for, and that they picked up their dishes late—during the busiest part of the afternoon—when the food wasn’t at its freshest. Plus, he says, “I saw one of the judges tasting my soup with a fork.”
Ivey-Soto says organizers told him that the judges would be stopping by the booths, but they never did. Instead, he brought food to them. He had designed a logo for his proposed Cuban and Caribbean restaurant, had uniforms made, and created a banner for the menu. “The judges never saw that,” he says. Ivey-Soto says he was aware that the Taste of Arlington was only one factor in who would make the finals, but he wasn’t sure how the different criteria were being assessed. He wasn’t aware that it was actually representatives from Brookfield who would make the final decision.
“The ultimate decision, really, is with Brookfield,” Leone says. “They are the property owner and manager, and they are the people that are doing this. However, Mike [Isabella]’s influence was very strong.” Leone says the decision on the finalists was based not just on food, but on the cumulative strength of the contestants’ business plans, experience, and more.
Asked if she thought the press release touting the public vote at Taste of Arlington was misleading, Leone says, “I thought our press release was clear, and I apologize if people were confused. You’re talking about a business that has to be sustainable and viable. The public can’t vote on that. That is a real heavy decision…I would think that people would understand that this is not like Top Chef Bravo.”
Except that the whole thing seemed to be promoted just like Top Chef, complete with one of the show’s own stars, Isabella. That’s the problem with applying a reality TV plot to real life: It’s great marketing, but not so practical. The Ballston BID and Brookfield Office Properties realized that picking a tenant is a serious decision that shouldn’t be left up to a couple dishes or a panel of judges, yet they put on the whole charade anyway.
The winner of the popular vote, Robinson says she wasn't sure who the judges were, or even how many judges there were. “They wouldn’t even tell us how we were judged either,” she says. “Since it was Taste of Arlington, I had assumed it was based on the food, so I put all my effort into making really good food over the course of four days of preparation.” She also put in nearly $2,000 of her own money in food and supplies.
Carney says the public vote “was an aspect of the general Taste of Arlington, and it wasn’t part of this specific part of the program.” Asked if he personally took the fan favorites into consideration, Carney demurs: “I’m not going to go into the details of what our decision-making process is because this is an ongoing competition.”
Robinson received no prize for winning the popular vote, although Leone says she’s looking into honoring her at the Ballston BID’s annual meeting on June 23, when the winner will be announced. “I don’t understand why they had people vote if it wasn’t considered,” Robinson says.
In the final round of the competition on June 4, the two finalists will go head-to-head in a cook-off at the restaurant space. Both will serve samples of their signature appetizers, entrees, desserts, and drinks. Sponsors and VIPs will be in attendance, along with anyone who buys a ticket for $50. Again, the crowd will vote for their favorite restaurant. And again, none of their votes will necessarily matter.
“Probably the simplest way to put it is: It’s down to the wire, and there’s really a final judge to this at this point,” Leone says.
So one restaurateur could win the cook-off, and Brookfield could give the other one the lease?
“That is entirely possible,” Leone says. “Yes.”
Photo by Laura Hayes