On the surface, Burgaw, North Carolina—a municipality with just over 3,000 people in the southeastern part of the state—appears as a sleepy, bedroom community. A desert for business investment.
That’s what it looked like to Richard Johnson, who purchased a 500-acre tree farm near Burgaw years ago. He, like many others, watched the economic decline. But Johnson is a different case. He’s a self-made millionaire who found success during the dot-com boom at the turn of the century. He developed Hotjobs.com and used his life savings for a 30-second Super Bowl commercial that went viral. Johnson took the company public and eventually sold it to Yahoo, and now he dedicates himself to philanthropy and revitalization.
He could look at the town from a different angle, peel back the layers, and find potential for prosperity.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, these buildings, this town, it’s got to come back,'” Johnson says. “I felt like it was at the bottom, and another year later it even seemed to go down a little more.”
To be fair, Burgaw has a history as a destination. Nearly 40 movies and TV series were filmed there like I Know What you Did Last Summer and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. It’s also the county seat of Pender County, meaning potential customers are driving into town every day for governmental services.
Burgaw just needed entrepreneurship, and Johnson was more than willing to light the match. He created the nationwide Own Your Own Competition, which will give one winner, 18 years and older, up to $1 million to design and build a turnkey restaurant in downtown Burgaw. The space is 2,250 square feet and features a large patio and exposed brick. Those interested can apply at https://www.ownyourown.com/the-competition. The deadline is March 31.
Johnson and his team are in the process of talking to television networks to bring greater publicity to the competition, but nothing has been solidified.
“We’ve had four or five meetings with some of these networks, but you don’t even get one meeting unless they love the idea,” he explains. “So again, we’re still in talks. But the reason I bring that up is if they do, if, if they’re involved, we might spend $500,000 on the competition. If they’re not involved, I’m gonna spend $50,000. That’s going to dramatically change what that competition looks like.”
As of March 10, roughly 430 have applied. Of that pool, 164 have more than 10 years of restaurant experience and 99 have between four to six years. Sixty-two either own or have owned a restaurant before; 22 currently own one. Two hundred of the applicants have started a business before.
“We’ve got excellent, excellent applicants,” Johnson says. “I don’t know how we’re going to get down to one.”
The plan is to whittle that number to 24 candidates who would be invited to participate in a cooking competition in downtown Burgaw. Johnson envisions several 10×10 tents where finalists would prepare a signature dish. The event could potentially enlist the help of U.S. Foods and Weber to supply food and equipment. The contest would occur in the town square so the people of Burgaw could play a role in deciding who moves forward.
“Because at the end of the day, if we’re going to have a restaurant in Burgaw, we need the Burgaw people to support it,” Johnson says. “So we want to give them some agency and ownership.”
From there, it would slim to 10-12 contestants who would go through another series of culinary tests and rigors.
Four official judges are part of the process as well. One is Myra McDuffie, co-owner of MeMa’s Chick’n & Ribs, located about 1 mile away from the contested restaurant space. Her concept was voted the eighth-best barbecue in North Carolina by USA Today. There’s also Dean Neff, a 2019 James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Chef Southeast and executive chef of Seabird, a restaurant based in downtown Wilmington, North Carolina.
Another one is Christi Ferretti, owner of Pine Valley Market, a local landmark in Wilmington. She’s cooked alongside some culinary greats, such as José Andrés and Emeril Lagasse. The fourth judge is Keith Rhodes, owner of Catch Modern Seafood, The Tackle Box, VOYCE catering, and Catch the Food Truck. In 2011, He became the first Black male chef to be nominated for the James Beard “Best Chef of the Southeast.”
“I’m good at headhunting. I’m good at recruiting. I’m good at team building. I can interview these people, but I didn’t even feel necessarily qualified,” says Johnson, explaining why he’s using the four experienced operators as judges.
Johnson’s venture has been years in the making. In 2018, he founded Burgaw Now, an initiative focusing on preserving, revitalizing, and developing the town. As part of his commitment, he purchased seven buildings downtown and oversaw the creation of two new food and beverage concepts.
The first was Fat Daddy’s Pizza, a New York-style pizzeria intended to lure customers away from the chains dotting the adjacent highway. The store is run by Jay Kranchalk, a retired teacher of 22 years. He was trained by Keith Norris, owner of Vito’s Pizza in nearby Wrightsville Beach. The second creation, Burgaw Brewing, is scheduled to open on St. Patrick’s Day. It will be run by Kevin and Emmaline Kozak, who have almost 30 years of combined brewing and restaurant experience.
Instead of Johnson scratching his head and racking his brain on what other restaurants could fit in Burgaw, the competition allows more experienced industry veterans to come to him with informed plans of action.
“It was about a year, I was trying to think of this idea and it took me about a year to solve the math problem,” Johnson recalls. “So the idea was I need a theme and I need an entrepreneur. How do you find both—run a competition.”
Johnson has spent time researching the peaks and troughs of towns and cities, and he discovered that cycles—whether good or bad—last for decades. Meaning, if Burgaw witnesses a turnaround, the return on investment will be there.
Ideally, Burgaw would serve as the first iteration of the Own Your Own Competition. Johnson is hoping it’s successful enough that long term, the same process could be replicated in similar towns across the country.
“I don’t know how many other towns fit the demographic, but every time I bring this up to people, they’re like, ‘Oh my God,’ there’s a town near Austin or in California,'” Johnson says. “There’s thousands and thousands of these towns. And so I would like to prove this model in Burgaw.”