WEST LIBERTY, Iowa — A nationwide contest to open a restaurant somewhere in small-town Iowa has selected West Liberty as the site for that restaurant.
"We were basically in a competition to host a competition," said Shannon McNaul, executive director of West Liberty Economic Area Development, or WeLEAD, the city's economic development organization.
Iowa’s Best Bite Restaurant Challenge is giving away more than $117,000 in cash and incentives to help someone interested in setting up a restaurant at the former Iowa State Bank Building, 100 E. 3rd St., which also was the former home of the New Century Grill. No restaurant has operated there since the Grill closed in 2011, but the building did temporarily house the West Liberty Library while its regular building underwent major repairs, which have since been concluded.
Opposable Thumbs, a marketing agency in State Center, has been sponsoring the Best Bite contest for the past two years and is on track for a third round this year. Angie Schultz, an organizer for the contest and owner of Opposable Thumbs, said West Liberty got the nod over several other, larger communities because of the unique nature of the restaurant space and what they say is tremendous potential.
In a news release, Schultz said, “West Liberty’s cool, historic downtown, location near major metros and very diverse population make it a hidden gem for the right restaurateur. Add in the fact that the location is a spectacular historic bank building that has all of the equipment and inventory ready to go — this is a really rare opportunity.”
The challenge encourages would-be restaurateurs to study the town of nearly 4,000 people and submit their vision of the ideal restaurant, along with a business plan. The contestants are narrowed to a group of four who visit the city for in-person interviews. The final two contestants will present their vision and cook for a group of community judges, with the winner becoming the city’s newest restaurant owner.
“West Liberty is very vibrant and progressive," said Shannon McNaul, executive director of WeLEAD. “This contest is just one way to showcase why we’re a great place in which to live and open a business.”
The prize package includes $2,500 in startup capital, more than $70,000 in restaurant inventory, six months free rent and reduced rent for another 30 months, website design and hosting, free marketing, as well as food inventory from a local meat locker and fresh produce donations from local farmers, as well as other items designed to make starting a new restaurant easier.
In previous years, the competition was held in Oskaloosa and in Grinnell. The winning concepts in both communities are open and doing very well, Schultz said.
"We realized that this could be a model for the rest of the state," she said.
Several community organizations and groups in West Liberty are helping to sponsor the prizes for the competition. Iowa's Best Bite will accept entries for prospective restaurant operators thorugh Monday, June 16, according to Schultz. After rounds of voting that will include community judges, a final selection will be made Wednesday, July 9, and the new operators are expected to set up operations in West Liberty this fall.