West Liberty Running Contest to Entice Upper End Restaurant

By Dave Franzman, Reporter


By Dave Franzman

WEST LIBERTY, Iowa- The Muscatine County community of West Liberty is making an unusual offer to would-be chefs or current restaurant owners. Convince us you have the best plan to succeed with a new, fancier restaurant in a small town and we’ll provide more than $100,000 in cash and start up assistance to make your culinary dream come true.

West Liberty was recently selected by Iowa’s Best Bite Restaurant Challenge—a marketing group based in Grinnell that seeks to connect chefs with rural communities. The communities of Oskaloosa and Grinnell ran similar restaurant competitions in past years. The restaurants started there are still operating.

Shannon McNaul, executive director of the We Lead economic development group in West Liberty, said the community has an empty restaurant building in nearly “turnkey” readiness to open as an upscale restaurant. A restaurant called the New Century Grill operated out of a century-old bank building in downtown West Liberty for only a year. It went out of business in 2010. But all of the tables, chairs and restaurant equipment remain and would be offered as part of the prize package to attract a new operator.

“I think we’ll have some people with a burning desire to open up their own business—an entrepreneur. But it could be a chef from another town who wants a quieter life, a different environment to cook in,” McNaul said.

McNaul said the community is prepared to offer the winning entry $2,500 in startup capital, the use of more than $70,000 in commercial grade restaurant equipment as well as six months free rent and reduced rent for another 30 months. Economic developers would assist with marketing and other promotion. Organizers estimate the value of the community donations to get the restaurant up at running at $117,000.

Bob and Karel Cline, long time West Liberty residents, said they both enjoyed going to New Century Grill, the former restaurant that operated in the old bank building for just a year. They believe the community would support a new upper end restaurant.

Karel Cline said the idea of a contest, with a big payoff, could draw interest from a wider area.

“I think they’ll first be surprised it’s a contest. Then they’re going to love it, I just think they will,” she said.

In addition to a contest application, judge are also going to be looking for would-be operators to submit a business plan explaining what kind of an upscale restaurant would succeed in the community of 4,000 people. The deadline for entries is June 16th with a semifinals and finals competition set for July 8th and 9th. The two finalists will come to West Liberty for a “cook off” for the judges and community to help determine a winner.

Organizers said potential restaurant operators can learn more about the competition at either www.iowasbestbite.com or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/iowasbestbite.

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