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."