On the CNBC reality TV show “Restaurant Startup,” Elizabeth Blau, MPH ’14, literally puts her money where her mouth is. A foodie twist on the popular “Shark Tank”–in which entrepreneurs pitch ideas to potential funders–the show, now in its third season, features a rotating panel of investors who field proposals from aspiring restaurateurs. “There’s a breadth of diversity,” says Blau, who came on board as an investor this season. “Some of the contestants are caterers; some are restaurateurs looking to expand their business; some are food truck owners who want to open a restaurant.” Hopefuls have floated business plans built around a wide variety of concepts and cuisines, from liqueur-filled cupcakes to hempseed comfort food, Dorito-breaded egg rolls to a twist on the Caprese salad.
The show is set up like a three-course meal. First, the investors choose between two competing pitches. That winning team is then given $7,500 and thirty-six hours to transform a bare restaurant space and serve its cuisine to customers; the investors attend the opening to monitor the chefs and get feedback from patrons. “We take viewers on a journey through a mini-version of opening a restaurant and the pitfalls that could happen,” says Blau, who has also served as a judge on Food Network’s “Iron Chef America.” As on “Shark Tank,” each episode culminates in the investors deciding whether to put their own money into the venture, which sometimes sparks a bidding war.
Blau has been in the restaurant industry for nearly three decades, earning a James Beard Award nomination and a seat on the Culinary Institute of America’s board of trustees. (While her master’s degree was officially conferred in 2014 due to what she calls “a little snafu with my thesis,” she actually studied on the Hill in the mid-Nineties.) A pioneer in Las Vegas’ high-end culinary scene, she now owns a restaurant planning, development, and consulting company whose client list includes such august establishments as Le Cirque, New York’s Rainbow Room, and Ritz Carlton Hotels and Resorts–not to mention TLC’s “Cake Boss,” Buddy Valastro. “You’re never going to find a restaurateur who’s a great financier, a brilliant real estate negotiator, a great chef, and a great marketing person,” Blau observes. “If they don’t have that business acumen, that’s fine. We can do that. If it’s a great idea but they maybe need some more culinary skills, I have somebody that can help with that. That’s the beauty of partnering.”
Aside from the pleasures of sampling the fare on “Restaurant Startup” and finding new investment opportunities, Blau says she takes particular delight in mentoring the contestants. Take Ralphie Grotto–a hopeful purveyor of giant, stuffed Italian rice balls–whose mom came on the show to help him cook for his customers. “He’s just so genuine, and he’s hilarious,” Blau says with a laugh. “At one point on the show, he told his mother, “ÜIf things start going downhill, hit the floor and fake a heart attack.’ “ She notes that the deals between the investors and contestants don’t necessarily lead to the opening of a brick-and-mortar restaurant. At the end of Grotto’s episode, he and Blau came to an agreement that she would front the costs of launching a wholesale line of the rice balls, and the two continue to collaborate. Says Blau: “It’s heartwarming that you can make a business deal, but also really help someone.”