Ideas to stick a fork in - or not

Locals line up to pitch concepts for 'America's Next Great Restaurant'

Staff WriterMarch 23, 2010 

— Mike Stevenson arrived at the Chipotle restaurant in North Raleigh about midnight Sunday, almost 11 hours before he would pitch his idea for "America's Next Great Restaurant," a new NBC reality show.

Stevenson, 27, was one of hundreds who showed up at a casting call Monday, hoping to become a finalist. The winner of the show, which will star celebrity chef Bobby Flay, will have a chance to open a chain restaurant in three American cities.

Each week, Flay and a panel of judges will put the finalists through a series of unspecified challenges to determine whose concept wins. The judges will invest in the winning restaurant concept. Raleigh was the second of eight stops in a cross-country casting search for the show, which is scheduled to air next fall.

Stevenson, a cab driver who lives in Raleigh, said he did push-ups and meditation to stay awake until the second contestant in line showed up at 7:30 a.m.

Although Stevenson has never worked in a restaurant, he thought his concept for "a multicultural restaurant" was a winner. But like many others in line, Stevenson would say little else with his competitors standing so close.

The line of would-be restaurateurs, many armed with posters and a few with food samples, wrapped around the building. Some were in black business suits. Others wore sweatshirts and jeans. A few brought white chef's jackets. Their ideas ranged from Southern food and charm served up in historic homes to hot-stone cooking. The hopeful included a restaurant manager, a bar owner, a middle school science teacher, an accountant and a couple who owned an ice cream truck business.

Derrick Grubbs, 41, an unemployed welder now studying culinary arts at The Art Institute of Raleigh-Durham, was there with his wife, Aurora, an unemployed financial planner. They hope to open a restaurant after he finishes school, so when they heard about the casting call, they thought, "Why not?"

"She's Cuban. I grew up in South Carolina," Derrick Grubbs said. "We're a yin and yang. When you put those two things together, you always have fun."

Aurora Grubbs added, "When people get invited to our house, it's never a party of four; it's usually a party of 40."

Behind them in line were Dina Egen, 39, of Fuquay-Varina and Deanna Lovell, 39, of Sanford, co-workers at a nonprofit organization. Each morning at work, Egen said, the pair chat about the restaurant they are going to open one day.

When Lovell sent an e-mail message about how Egen should go to the casting call, Egen responded, "Not without you."

andrea.weigl@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4848

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