TRAVERSE CITY — Hot dogs or beignets: which would Traverse City residents rather tuck into at the Grand Traverse Mall?
Viewers finally will find out when restaurateurs Nick and Autumn McAllister square off against food entrepreneurs Matt Hunter and Matt Fitzsimons on the Sunday season premiere of “Food Court Wars.”
The episode features the McAllisters’ House of Doggs versus Hunter and Fitzsimons’ Matts’ Beignets as the Traverse City teams battle to win a mall food court space rent-free for a year.
“It was fun and very hard work — and challenging,” said Nick McAllister, 49, of the reality TV show that tests contestants’ product concept, menu offerings and marketability. “You were up very, very early in the morning planning for what you think you might have coming that day. I would go to bed at midnight, wake up at 4 in the morning. It kept you up all night.
“I’m glad we did it. I’m glad it’s over, too,” he said.
McAllister said he and his wife were approached to do the show after the network contacted the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce and checked out the website for the couple’s retro House of Doggs on Union Street. The couple debated at first but eventually decided the opportunity to win a new restaurant location was too good to pass up.
“It’s hard where we are, with no parking,” said McAllister, whose signature menu items include the Slaw Dog and the Fusion. “It’s been a struggle for all the years we’ve been open. We were looking for a location outside of town when this came up. It’s in a mall where there are a lot of different people, lots of parking, and the competition part of it sounded fun.”
The episode was taped during several days in early November at locations including Turtle Creek Casino, where the two teams worked side-by-side to serve up their samples to more than 50 high-rollers.
“You’re under a certain time limit to prep and serve your product. The time factor really drives you,” said Hunter, 48, who first created New Orleans-style beignets at his former downtown restaurant The Soul Hole. “There’s no doubt you’re under a certain amount of stress. I got there and found out at the fryer station that one of my utensils was missing, so I had to flip (the beignets) with my finger.”
He calls the show good national exposure for Traverse City and its food scene and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the restaurateurs.
“One of the great parts of the experience is not only are you doing the challenges of the show but with (chef and restaurant owner) Tyler Florence hosting it, you get a lot of great help,” said Hunter, owner of the Dockside Party Store on M-22 north of West Bay Shopping Center. “Sometimes you have an idea in your head but it’s wonderful to be able to put it in some kind of realized application and then get feedback.”
The teams hadn’t met before the show but bonded during the good-natured competition.
“We even traded samples with the Matts,” McAllister said. “We had a blast with those guys.”
Each of the teams refined three menu items over the course of the competition before facing the final challenge: feeding a hungry mob of more than 200 at the Grand Traverse Mall Food Court. Attendees received tickets to buy food from either or both restaurant spaces. The team with the most tickets won their space for a year, a prize worth up to $100,000.
“The final event was the most fun and the most stressful of the whole show,” said Hunter, whose every need — from mopping his brow to quenching his thirst — was catered to by the show’s crew as he and Fitzsimons raced the clock till opening time. Each team also got to bring in a friend as a helper.
The show’s winner won’t be publicly revealed until Sunday. But Hunter said his team’s Original, Banana Split and Black Forest Cake beignets were “flying out the door.”
He said the traditional yeast beignets made from scratch mimic the taste, texture and flavor of those at New Orleans’ Café du Monde but are served with special sauces and dips.
“A French doughnut and a great dip is a different product compared to pizza or sesame chicken at the mall,” he said. “It’s that savory-sweet, I’ve-got-to-have, it-makes-me-feel-good treat.”
The episode airs at 8 p.m. Sunday and at 3 p.m. Monday on the Food Network, but Hunter won’t host a viewing party.
“No way, unless I can prescreen it,” he said.