Food court of appeals

By Allan I. Ross

Reality show contest will give new local eatery free space in Lansing Mall

It’s been a few years since Hugh Jackman and his boxing robot thrust mid-Michigan into the national spotlight — yes, that was Mason City Hall playing a bit part in “Real Steel.” Now it’s Lansing chance to get in the ring. This week the Food Network will tape an episode of its reality show contest “Food Court Wars” in two capital city locations: Lansing City Market and the Lansing Mall. The show will pit two local teams of aspiring restaurateurs, whose identities are being kept secret, against each other for a year of free rent for their fledgling business in the Lansing Mall’s food court.

Scott Keith, CEO for the Lansing Entertainment and Public Facilities Authority, helped facilitate the show’s mid-Michigan appearance along with Heather Hymes, Lansing City Market Manager. He said he’s excited for the Food Network’s visit.

“It’s an opportunity to expose the Lansing City Market to new potential shoppers, entrepreneurs and businesses,” Keith said. “Along with the ability to promote (Lansing as a) unique shopping destination.”

He told Food Network executives about the rise in locally produced and prepared food and the urban market experience in the area.

“This kind of interaction and positive experience could further develop a relationship with the network that could pay dividends in the future,” he said.

From 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. today, the two teams will engage in the first part of the challenge: A food sampling competition at the Lansing City Market. (Free tickets were offered to the community, but they were quickly claimed. There will be about 250 people in all.) Those in attendance will be given chits with which to “buy” samples of the competitors’ food, which will be counted as votes. Whoever has the most at the end of the day wins that part of the competition.

The second part will take place at the Lansing Mall between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. Thursday, where the competitors will vie for customers in the mall’s food court. This part is open to the general public. Both events will be taped for the episode, which is set to air in early June.

But this being a reality show with about $100,000 of free rent on the line, there’s a catch: Each team must have a solid business plan in place to be able to be open within three days of winning. In that time they have to test their concept, source their produce and develop a working marketing campaign. Celebrity chef Tyler Florence, who hosts the show as well as two other Food Network programs, will have final say over who moves in.

While we don’t know which Lansing-area culinary artists are in competition, the show helped one recent Midwest woman achieve a lifelong goal earlier this year. Because of the show, Sadaya Lewis was able to launch her soul food eatery, Modern Southern Table, in the Colony Square Mall in Zanesville, Ohio. Eyes were watering during that episode for a couple of reasons. During competition, she accidentally dished out too much heat as she was preparing a gumbo dish when one of the spice packets broke into the mixture.

“It was Murphy’s Law,” Lewis said. “I thought it was going to ruin it for us.”

Then when she was declared the winner, Lewis broke down in tears of joy.

“It was a blur really,” Lewis said. “I was too busy crying. I knew how important it was. It gave me a lot of new opportunities. It helped me accomplish a dream I’ve (had) all my life.”

And she didn’t even have to box a giant robot to win.

Additional reporting by Katy Barth.

“Food Court Wars” tapings

Lansing City Market (sold out) 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. today Lansing Mall food court 5-8 p.m. Thursday, March 20 For information on how to participate, email