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Chip-n-Wich meets Middle East in food court

| Friday, July 26, 2013, 7:48 p.m.
Food Network
Craig Jones during a challenge at a minor league baseball park in Michigan during 'Food Court Wars'

Nobody really expects great — or even good — food from a mall food court. The goal of such places always seems to be to feed you as quickly as possible, to get you back to spending money at the stores.

But just as food trucks are now mobile purveyors of exciting new food concepts, mall food courts are being affected by Americans' rapidly evolving tastes.

Food Network's show “Food Court Wars” tries to explore this idea — in the tried-and-true form of a reality TV competition, of course.

Two teams must test their concept, market it and run it for a full day. The team that makes the most profit wins space for their eatery, a prize estimated by Food Network at $100,000.

“I don't want anybody to think I have some grandiose opinion about food courts and what they serve,” says the show's host, culinary superstar Tyler Florence, in an online interview. “I see it just like everybody sees it — it needs to be fixed — and that's why I love the show.”

Craig Jones, 29, originally from Johnstown (with a bachelor's degree in culinary management from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh), is one of the competitors. His episode, “Oasis vs. Chip-n-Wich,” will premiere at 8 p.m. July 28 on Food Network. He and business partner Jonathan Neely are up against a pair of women with a Middle Eastern food-court concept. The winner gets $10,000 in start-up capital and a year rent-free at a mall in Midland, Mich.

“There are a lot of advantages — especially at a high-traffic mall,” Jones says. “Lots of people are coming in and out. In this case, the winner would get free rent for a year. That's a high value. Rent can be $3,000 to $5,000, depending on where you're at.

“Most restaurants, if you're good, you just break even the first year. This way, you can immediately be profitable.”

Plus, the visibility for his business, Chip-n-Wich, is pretty much unparalleled when it's on a Food Network show. Especially one hosted by Florence.

Jones' concept for Chip-n-Wich is “sandwiches, chips and floats.” In a Pittsburgh-style twist, the unique, homemade potato chips are placed in the sandwich.

One typical sandwich features pulled chicken in Jones' signature BBQ sauce (which is also sold online, and at Market Basket grocery in Johnstown), smoked gouda cheese, bacon, caramelized onions, cilantro and handmade chipotle ranch-flavored chips.

“Yeah, Primanti Brothers (influence is) all over it,” he says. “This is something I've been doing since I was a kid, and this is a way to elevate it.

“With the floats, we only use local pop,” Jones says. “We only use Faygo (based in Michigan). We do it all-natural. We use fresh fruit and soak it in water, then use the soda stream to carbonate the water. So it's fruit-flavored soda with half the sugar of a regular soda. That's something different.”

Jones isn't supposed to go into details about the specific challenges that Florence gives them, but there is one that takes place at a minor-league baseball game (the Great Lakes Loons).

“That was a marketing challenge,” Jones says. “We were supposed to go to the game, and you set up a booth, and have to draw customers to the booth. Everything was timed. You just have to draw the most customers in.”

Regardless of the outcome of the show, Jones sees a future for his Chip-n-Wich concept.

“This is going to be a franchise,” he says. “It was from inception designed to be a multiunit restaurant. (‘Food Court Wars') could be the platform that would take us there.”

For more information about Jones and his BBQ sauce (Jones'en Barbecue Sauce), see www.jonesenbarbecue.com.

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at mmachosky@tribweb.com or 412-320-7901.

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