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One Way to Create a Pipeline of Small Business Tenants: Host a Culinary Competition

April 28, 2023

Michael Joyner prides himself on knowing a good restaurant concept when he sees one. When the Jackson, Mississippi-based entrepreneur heard about The Stuffed Baked Potato Factory, a quick-service restaurant selling piping-hot spuds topped with smoked meats and other sides that his friend Michael Moore had started in Houston in 2015, Joyner knew it was something that should expand to other markets.

In the press and on social media, Houstonians were raving about the restaurant, which offered heaping servings, perfectly baked potatoes and an unforgettable spicy seasoning called Magic Dust, which Moore had refined at regional crawfish competitions. Impressed, Joyner asked his friend if he could be in charge of finding new locations for the business.

Joyner already knew a little about the food industry at that point: His family owned several McDonald’s franchises in the Jackson area, and he believed The Stuffed Baked Potato Factory would be successful in the area. People in his hometown, he said, appreciated a “dose of Southern comfort,” and there was nothing like The Stuffed Baked Potato Factory in the vicinity. In 2018, Joyner’s then-girlfriend learned on social media about a new culinary competition called Taste for the Space and sponsored by Pacific Retail Capital Partners’ Northpark, 12 miles north of Jackson in Ridgeland, Mississippi. To attract local and authentic food concepts, the mall was offering food entrepreneurs the chance to win six months of free rent and a $50,000 stipend for equipment or space updates. The public and a team of judges would decide the winners.

The prizes were exactly what an entrepreneur needed to get a concept off the ground, Joyner recalled, adding: “I knew we had a great product.” He turned his focus to the competition.  “I wanted to see just how far I could take the idea,” he said.

A Landlord Looking for a Match

Joyner was the exact sort of entrepreneur and the restaurant was just the kind of concept PRCP was hoping to attract when executive vice president of marketing Najla Kayyem came up with the idea for Taste for the Space in 2017.

Some of PRCP’s centers had been struggling to find food-and-beverage operators that were “sustainable and met the needs of the space,” she said. The idea for the competition came up in a meeting with the company’s institutional capital partners and leasing teams, a portfolio review on their Shops at South Town in Sandy, Utah. Despite budget that was set aside for tenant improvements to the food spaces, the leasing team was having issues. Kayyem piped in: Many local food entrepreneurs – “the mom and pop operators, the food truck operators, the guys who have one or two restaurants they’ve been bootstrapping — aren’t aware that these sorts of tenant improvement funds are available.” Without understanding the incentives that marketplaces can offer small businesses, they might think malls are out of their reach, she said.

One way to change this perspective and attract the sort of entrepreneurs they were looking for, Kayyem suggested, was “to repackage our tenant improvement dollars to create a competition.” After all, culinary competitions are something everyone understands, and The Shops at South Town already had money set aside for tenant improvements. All PRCP needed was a bit more of a cash incentive — Kayyem suggested $50,000 — to offer up to create cachet. And the local community, an audience that management hoped to attract to the center anyway, could help choose the winner.

The team loved the idea.

The Shops at South Town’s leasing and marketing teams got to work publicizing the competition, sending personal emails to their network, blasting it on social media and sending press releases. As Kayyem had intuited, local audiences and the media responded excitedly. Dozens sent in applications, each with a business plan and a video explaining why they wanted to be part of the competition. The judges whittled the competition to 12 finalists based on factors like the business plan, the entrepreneur’s digital presence, food reviews and cleanliness of current space. Finalists included a Japanese restaurant looking to expand and food truck operators specializing in Korean barbecue, sushi and burgers.

At the actual Taste for the Space event in May at The Shops at South Town, each finalist presented samples of one dish to members of the public who then voted on their favorite concepts. The winner was former Utah National Guard Staff Sgt. James Veylupek, the owner of a military-themed food truck called Special Courses that was known for burgers and fries with themes like the Hell Fire — made with chipotle slaw, Sriracha and jalapenos — and the Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot, served with cheddar, bacon and caramelized onions. Heather Nash, who then served as the marketing manager at the property, told The Salt Lake Tribune at the time that the judges were “impressed by Veylupek's food, his ability to serve a crowd and his military service,” adding: “We were looking for something unique for our dining terrace. I don't think we could have found James any other way.”

Though Special Courses didn’t last with PRCP — it attracted a sizable crowd for two-and-a-half years before going back to the food truck model in 2020 — the Taste for the Space concept has. Since that first year, six other PRCP properties have hosted the competition, and the company has trademarked the concept.

The details of each competition are a little different based on things like timing and the amount of space and tenant improvement dollars available. But “at the end of the day, what we’re doing is creating a pipeline of deal flow for our leasing team,” Kayyem said. And in the six years since Taste for the Space began, the competition has helped PRCP centers identify entrepreneurs and concepts that weren’t on its radar and helped activate second-generation spaces.

Of course, it’s a much better return on investment for all parties if a restaurant ends up signing a longer-term deal. Managers of PRCP properties work closely with the winners to keep the momentum going and help them succeed in the new space. In the past, they’ve helped with text message campaigns, free signage and visibility on the properties’ websites to keep customers informed and excited. “We’re trying to create as much return experience as possible,” Kayyem explained.

MORE WITH PRCP: 5 Specific Ways Landlords Can Make It Easier for New Small Business Tenants to Succeed

Joyner won the 2018 competition at PRCP’s Northpark with a stuffed baked potato called the “trash can” — seven types of meat, two types of cheese, onions, chives and the famous Magic Dust sauce — and is grateful for the property’s support. “In addition to the leasing agreement and stipend, they immediately enrolled me into a membership with the Mississippi Hospitality & Restaurant Association so I could benefit from trade knowledge in the area,” he said. “And as soon as I was ready to open, they also provided advertising to bring in foot traffic.”

The support didn’t stop at the restaurant’s opening, either. “The management staff routinely eats at my shop,” said Joyner, who runs the location, where he’s pictured at top. “They stop by to chat and connect. They market local events in the mall like the recent Galentine’s event and Super Bowl parties to ensure there’s foot traffic to the food court. I don’t believe I’d have that same support if I was operating at a standalone location elsewhere in the city.”

And as he believed from the start, locals love the restaurant. Google reviews are consistent in their positivity. “First time ever trying and it was hands down the best potato in my life,” one reviewer recently wrote. “I want to make another drive just to get me another potato.”

By Rebecca Meiser

Contributor, Commerce + Communities Today and Small Business Center

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