CNBC’s ‘Restaurant Startup’ Puts the Reality Back into Reality TV

With $350,000 on the line, a lot is at stake for the contestants on CNBC’s Restaurant Startup.

“I think that the crazy thing about the show is the fact that it’s kind of putting reality back into reality TV,” says Tim Love, chef and cohost of Restaurant Startup. “It’s real money and real opportunities. And sometimes not so good opportunities. So, it’s this real vetting process that happens to occur on TV.”

Restaurant Startup, season two of which premieres on Jan. 13, features contestants vying for investments from Love and Joe Bastianich.

“A lot of reality is reality but it’s all fake,” says Bastianich. “This is real. The money’s real. The stakes are real and I think that kind of pierces through the TV set and you feel that. And that’s why it’s really having a resounding impact.

Both Love and Bastianich are not strangers to reality television with Love having appeared on Food Network’s Iron Chef America and Top Chef Masters and Bastianich serving as a judge on Fox’s MasterChef and MasterChef Junior. But Love says Restaurant Startup is different.

“I think the good thing about this show is that it’s not necessarily a food show,” he says. “It’s a very interesting business show. The look of it. The feel of it. The context of it. It’s really the one side of restaurants that nobody’s ever seen.”

Show contestants go through a whirlwind process, pitching and then setting up and running a mock restaurant in a matter of days. Antonia Lofaso came on board this season to shepherd them from the start of the restaurant building process.

“I try to make my role into something that is more helpful,” says Lofaso. “I want to help them through the process not throw more obstacles in front of them.”

One of the most important obstacles for contestants to jump over is the menu.

“The menu is the first thing that I always ask for because it just says so much about who they are and just based on their wording for food or their menu design or anything,” says Lofaso. “It’s so much in how it reads.”

Love and Bastianich echoed Lofaso.

“The menu is the document of our business,” says Bastianich. “It is the contract between you and the consumer. I can’t stress always to the contestants on whatever show that the menu is your contract. It’s the document that establishes the relationship between the restaurant and the food provider and the customer.”

Concept is also a key part of a restaurant, and something Love, Bastianich and Lofaso look closely at.

“People need to understand why they’re there [at the restaurant],” says Lofaso. “People need to understand. From the second you walk into a restaurant you start to build an idea of your concept, whether or not you think you are doing it as a diner.”

On Restaurant Startup, a contestant’s concept potentially goes beyond TV with viewers having the chance to visit restaurants built from Love and Bastianich’s investments. 

“It’s that complete circle aspect of the show that it doesn’t just live on the screen it lives on brick and mortar in restaurants and products that will go on and live,” says Bastianich. “And then you as a viewer can have the experience yourself and then either decide Joe’s and idiot or Joe’s a genius.”