We Have a Winner!

03 Jan 2024

Colorado chef comes out on top during Own Your Own competition for Burgaw restaurant 

By Judy Royal  »  Photos by Daria Amato

Karoline Schwartz had a stellar 2023, and 2024 is already poised to be yet another monumental year in her life.

The Colorado resident and New York native will be making Burgaw her home in the new year after being named the winner of the Own Your Own (OYO) nationwide restaurant competition in October. Since then, she’s kicked off the preliminary design process for her yet-to-be-named eatery that will open in the heart of the Pender County town next winter.

“I’m still very excited,” Schwartz says. “I think this is an opportunity that every chef hopes for. I have worked very hard in my career for this chance to have ownership of my own concept, and I’m excited about that possibility.”

Schwartz, who had never been to Burgaw before competing in OYO, says she is looking forward to creating a gathering place that is approachable for everyone. 

“We’re trying to be farm to table, but that’s a very broad term,” she says. “I cook like my mom used to cook for me – things that are comforting but also interesting and creative. I’m hoping we can be a place anyone can come to, whether casual or upscale.”

At the Town Square Cook-off portion of the competition, Schwartz served miso pork belly with crispy Carolina Gold rice and muscadine grape gelee. 

“I think that represents what I’m trying to do,” she says. “I’m trying to showcase as much local product as possible and kind of be a platform for local purveyors and creators.”

While she plans to continue tweaking her final menu in the coming months, Schwartz says people can expect to see her main dish from the finale dinner: tomato-braised short ribs and bacon with goat cheese, Marsh Hen Mill grits and carrot chips.

OYO is the creation of Wilmington resident Richard Johnson, who since 2018 has been investing in Burgaw, population 3,071, located about 25 miles north of the Port City. Launched in December 2022, OYO was formulated with the purpose of finding the best person to receive a $1 million budget to design and build the restaurant of their dreams in downtown Burgaw. There were 500 applicants from 29 states and Canada vying for the opportunity, and a panel of judges – local restaurant industry experts – gave input along the way.

After the online application period closed last spring, the pool was eventually narrowed to 190 people, all of whom were interviewed virtually by OYO staff. This took about five months, Johnson says. Soon 64 and then 24 contestants remained. The 24 finalists came to Burgaw on October 21 for the Town Square Cook-off, where each chef prepared a signature dish for community members and expert judges to sample and evaluate. 

“The Town Square Cook-off is something I’ll forever be proud of,” Johnson says. “I think we did a really good job of pulling it off. I think the process worked. We got to 12 strong people.”

Expert judge input played an integral part in whittling the competition down to six, and those finalists spent a week participating in various challenges at the judges’ restaurants. At the end of the week, Schwartz, of Tabernash, CO, and Vincent Mangual, of Brooklyn, NY, remained to compete in an October 29 finale dinner during which each chef prepared three courses for judges and other invited guests. At the end of the evening, Schwartz was announced as the winner. Her boyfriend also proposed to her during the event, and she said “yes.”

Johnson – an entrepreneur known for founding HotJobs.com in 1996, making it go viral with a 30-second Super Bowl commercial, taking it public and selling it to Yahoo in 2002 – first became interested in Burgaw in 2016, when he purchased nearby Penderlea Farms. This led to him going downtown and noticing empty buildings and a faltering central business district. Johnson soon began purchasing commercial real estate there, but he realized the value of the aging buildings was directly tied to the amount of foot traffic in the area.

He created Burgaw Now in 2018 to focus on the preservation and development of the town, which has been featured in nearly 40 well-known Hollywood films and TV series. Since the organization’s launch, Johnson has built two new businesses – Fat Daddy’s pizzeria and Burgaw Brewing Company – and passed the torch to others to keep them going.

OYO originated because Johnson was having trouble coming up with another theme he thought would be ideal for downtown Burgaw. That’s when the idea of opening it up to a competition came to him. 

The goal is to elevate the restaurant scene in Burgaw and eventually transform it into a dining destination, Johnson says. “I’m sure Karoline will have a concept that’s going to work here.”

For more information about Schwartz, visit ownyourown.com.

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