On a recent Saturday, in a deserted corner of Bayfair Center’s second floor, dreams were in the balance. And as often happens when so much could be riding on a good impression, speeches were bumbled, equipment failed and emotional tears were shed.
It was the final round of Bayfair’s Retail*Star challenge, where one lucky entrepreneur will win a year’s worth of free rent in the mall’s food court, plus $25,000 in start-up money.
The contest, held jointly by Madison Marquette, which manages Bayfair, and Guggenheim Entertainment, Inc., is designed to bring promising businesses into the mall — thereby attracting shoppers — and to help would-be entrepreneurs gain business planning skills.
In this third year of the contest, the winner will follow in the steps of Ben Wanzo, who won the first Retail*Star contest with his Teachbar tutoring shop, and Miracle Wanzo, who won last year’s competition with her high-end Zara Wigs retail store and hair design studio. (The two Wanzos are distant cousins, but didn’t know it at the time of the contest, Retail*Star organizer Scott Guggenheim said.)
Specifically, Madison Marquette is looking for the perfect candidate to rejuvenate Bayfair’s limited food court, which currently consists of Subway, Panda Express and a churro stand.
The contestants have been whittled down from over 150 initial applicants — for both the Bayfair competition and a similar contest at Bay Street Emeryville — to 15 semi-finalists, to five finalists.
Along the way, the contestants received training on how to create a business plan and were given access to mentors from SCORE, a nonprofit business mentoring group.
On July 16, a panel of five judges, including representatives from the mall and the city’s business development department, heard pitches from the finalists and tasted samples of their proposed fare, which ranges from soul food to high-end cakes.
The winner will be announced this coming Saturday, July 30.
Here’s a look at the contestants:
Get Jerked!, Amira Jackmon
Jackmon’s jerk chicken tacos and jerk fish sandwiches served with tropical salsas are her way of “reformatting Caribbean food to please American taste buds,” she said after presenting her business plan to the judges at Bayfair.
Jackmon served her Caribbean-gone-American menu on the gourmet food truck circuit for about a year before deciding she really needed a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
“People don’t think food trucks are a lot of work, but they are,” said Jackmon, who lives in Berkeley. Plus, she said, a lot of food waste occurs when you’re forced into a tiny, mobile kitchen.
Jackmon hopes having a home in the Bayfair mall would help her cut down on waste and please the fan base she’s grown by parking at high-profile foodie events like the Eat Real Festival in Oakland.
“Customers always ask, ‘Where are you? Where can we find you every day?’” she told the judges during her presentation. “So we could bridge people to the mall.”
Jackmon served the judges a jerk fish taco with mango chutney, garlic aioli and shredded cabbage.
She said she planned to have an app for iPhones and Androids, allowing customers to order food from anywhere inside or outside the mall — an important convenience, for example, for students from the Bayfair-based Carrington College on their lunch break, Jackmon said.
Other plans include sponsoring a reggae or Caribbean-themed carnival at the mall to bring in customers, and parking her food truck near Bayfair to increase brand recognition.
She hopes to grow her business to other locations in the Bay Area and throughout the country.
Carolyn’s Creole Kitchen, Carolyn Silas-Sams
Silas-Sams learned to make gumbo in her mother’s kitchen “at the tender age of 9,” she said in a video played for judges at Bayfair.
Silas-Sams has run a part-time catering business out of Oakland since 2005, serving up jambalaya, shrimp ettouffee, macaroni and cheese, and various Creole classics. Now the Louisiana native wants to share her family’s recipes with a wider community, she told judges.
Plus, she simply loves cooking.
“I can be tired as two dogs one day, and then the next morning I’m thinking, ‘What am I going to cook today?'” said Silas-Sams, who works as a paralegal by day. “I love it.”
Silas-Sams is going with a Mardi Gras theme for her Creole Kitchen, and said she wants to offer Fat Tuesday specials every Tuesday to help attract mall customers on what’s typically a slow day.
She plans to have a rotating menu of specialties, which customers could order in advance and pick up, or have delivered through a food take-out service.
Nava’s Kitchen, Ramiro Nava
A family-run business with simple, deep-rooted Mexican food: that’s the theme Ramiro Nava, his wife and five children pitched to the Bayfair judges.
Birria, a spicy meat stew, and bionicos, fruit salad topped with sweet cream, are at the heart of the Nava’s Kitchen concept.
Nava’s birria recipe was passed down to him from his grandmother, who got it from her mother, who brought it over to Mexico from Galicia, Spain.
Urged on by his children’s love for his home cooking, Nava entered the Retail*Star competition in hopes of rekindling an old dream of opening his own restaurant.
Nava is a native of Jalisco, Mexico ,and a long-time San Leandro resident. Along with the now-standard social media marketing schemes, the Nava family would attract customers to its restaurant the old-fashioned way — through word of mouth and by hooking people on free samples.
Eventually, Nava hopes to build a small restaurant industry that will sustain his children.
“My dream is to leave a restaurant for each of them,” he said.
When the Navas’ video presentation conked out on them before the judging event, the family divvied up a verbal presentation, each person telling the judges about his or her role in the future business.
“With the Nava family, you won’t just get one retail star,” Ramiro’s wife, Kathy, told the judges. “You’ll get a whole family of retail stars,” she said, Ramiro’s five children chiming in on the words “whole family.”
Flo’s Friendly Food, Florence Eriksson
In Florence Eriksson’s world, food is not just food. Caring for a 4-year-old with severe food allergies has made Eriksson hyper-conscious of what goes into the things we eat.
With Flo’s Friendly Food, Eriksson is setting out to remake old American standards, like hot dogs, cupcakes and casseroles, into healthier versions of themselves. Along the way, she hopes to educate consumers about diet and special dietary needs.
“If I can educate people about how much diet affects you, my kid has a chance of not being a weirdo,” a choked-up Eriksson told the Retail*Star judges.
At her food court locale, Eriksson would sell nutritious snacks, ready-to-eat meals and baked treats for people with special dietary needs, such as gluten intolerance and diabetes.
She passed out gluten-free, dairy-free, reduced sugar chocolate cupcakes to the judges at Bayfair, saying, “You’ve heard of ‘Ho-Hos,’ well these are ‘Flo-Flos.’”
Eriksson said she would sell kids' meals with prizes like a jump rope or ball, “something to get them outside,” instead of a sugary dessert.
She also hopes to have screens above her shop broadcasting messages about nutrition, health and diet to customers, especially children. And she said she’d like to have iPods and iPads attached to the counter, equipped with educational apps and games about nutrition and health.
“I don’t think I’m the answer to obesity, diabetes or heart disease,” she told the judges. “But I want to do my part. I want to make a dent.”
Sweet Abundance, Donna Davis
With her internationally influenced cakes and specialty cookies, Donna Davis wants to bring a high-class touch to Bayfair Center.
“I’m going for a chic, urban feel,” Davis told the judges, “a different and unique bakery experience.”
That means dark brown boxes holding exotic versions of classic cakes, like Caribbean key lime with coconut and Greek yogurt sauce. (She’s served this to the judges.)
Davis has been baking and selling her gourmet cakes out of her Castro Valley kitchen for seven years. She also works as an independent marketing consultant, splitting her time between the two jobs.
At her Bayfair food court shop, Davis would sell whole cakes as well as cupcakes and cookies. Customers could order specialty cakes online or by phone, and Davis would also ship cakes around the country.
Davis has a social mission, as well. She says she wants to employ low-to-moderate income locals and eventually help them start up their own businesses, if they so choose.
Her model is Greyston Bakery, a highly successful New York bakery whose mission is to be “a force for personal transformation and community economic renewal.”
Davis says her ultimate goal is to have a nationally recognized cake brand built on a socially responsible business model. And, she says, she can’t wait to quit her day job.
“I want to take off my suit. I want to wear my chef jacket every day,” Davis told the judges.
The next Retail*Star will be announced at 4 p.m. on Saturday, July 30, at Bayfair Center.