Detroit restaurateur opens "Soul Daddy" in L.A.

in Detroit, Blog

Detroit's Jamawn (Jay) Woods won reality TV competition-"America's Next Great Restaurant"
Just a few floors above the famed Kodak Theatre, home to the Academy Awards telecast, a different kind of congratulatory ceremony was unfolding Monday.

Detroit native Jamawn (Jay) Woods was wedged in a group of tourists along with celebrity chef Curtis Stone, posing for pictures, shaking hands and most importantly, making sure this group of fans enjoyed the food at his new Soul Daddy restaurant on its first day of business.

Motown music was being looped through the casual restaurant -- a shout-out to his hometown, of course -- and the line of hungry customers was steady. Woods spent Monday posing for photos, signing autographs and being treated like a celebrity.

Woods, 34, a Cooley High graduate, said the moment was almost too difficult to put into words.

"It feels great. I started off selling wings and waffles in my home, and now I'm here. The ultimate goal is to open up in Detroit," he added.

Woods had been working for Chrysler as a forklift driver while also running a part-time catering business from home, before becoming a contestant on the NBC reality series, "America's Next Great Restaurant," with a grand prize of three locations of his dream restaurant.

He began the competition with a concept he called W3's, for Woods' Wings and Waffles. But he quickly improved it, developing a broader menu and taking the judges' advice to find a new name and make the food healthier to appeal to a broader audience.

The judges -- Food Network star Bobby Flay, Chipotle Mexican Grill founder Steve Ells, Australian chef Stone and Miami restaurateur Lorena Garcia -- are also the financial backers. Throughout the series, they consistently praised Woods' food, admired his determination to improve his life and were obviously moved by his story of growing up poor.

On Sunday night's finale, when the finalists got to cook for customers in small working versions of their restaurants, the judges were especially pleased. "Jamawn has come a long way," Flay said. "I'm really proud of him."

After Soul Daddy was named the winner, Woods gasped. "This is the biggest moment of my life," he said. "I'm a very blessed man. It's unbelievable."

Back in Detroit Monday, family, friends and even city officials celebrated his win.

City Council President Charles Pugh is inviting Woods to visit the council. "We want to let him know we're proud of him. ... One of the things that will help to turn around our national image (is) hard-working Detroiters being showcased," Pugh said.

Soul food lovers, meanwhile, were asking when they can taste some of Woods' healthier versions at a Soul Daddy in Detroit.

"It would be good to have a soul food restaurant with healthier food," said Charles Lee of Detroit. "It would go great. A lot of people would come, including myself."

Locations were selected before the program began. They're at South Street Seaport in New York City, the Mall of America near Minneapolis and the Hollywood & Highland Center in Los Angeles.

Woods' fiancée, Tyrah Robinson of Detroit, said she and Woods will have to move to one of the three cities where Soul Daddy opened, although "we haven't decided which one yet," she said.

She will have to resign her job as assistant payment supervisor for the state's food assistance program in Detroit, but it's a necessary move, she said. "This is his dream. This is his baby. He'll be working in the thick of the restaurant. It's not something that he just won and that's it."

Woods is the father of two daughters and a son who live with their mother in Detroit.

He played football at Cooley High and later for Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo. He also has played with the Detroit Ravens semipro team and for a season with a semipro team in Pori, Finland, Robinson said.

A group of fellow Cooley grads is organizing a bus trip next weekend to visit the New York restaurant, Robinson said. Business there Monday was "going extremely well," said general manager Nelson Salsa. "Customers are enjoying it. Staff and crew are doing well." Customers were ordering "a lot of chicken. The ribs are doing well, and also the sweet potato salad," he said.

Network officials did not release many financial details, but said all investors "are equally contributing a significant amount of their resources to the winning restaurant concept." The winner "will have the opportunity to see their restaurant concept come to life, plus a manager's salary and a percentage of the profits," the network said.

By Kelley L. Carter and Sylvia Rector

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