Grand County chef to compete in North Carolina for a chance to win her own restaurant and $1M

Karoline Schwartz is the executive chef and general manager of food and beverage operations at the historic Grand Lake Lodge.
Emily Gutierrez/Sky-Hi News

Karoline Schwartz, executive chef at the historic Grand Lake Lodge, was checking her email in February and saw a life-changing opportunity. 

“They advertised an own-your-own restaurant competition that you could apply for and I was like, why not? Sounds like something that I could apply for just for fun,” Schwartz said.

Initially, she was not expecting much when applying for this contest. However, Schwartz went from being one out of 500 applicants preparing for a cook-off in North Carolina to one of the final 24 contestants competing for their own restaurant and a $1 million.

The final 24 contestants will have a pop-up kitchen where they will serve a sample dish that represents their restaurant concept. Residents of Burgaw, North Carolina, and judges will cast their votes for the entrepreneurs and the concepts they believe are the best fit for the small town.

The town square cook-off is scheduled to take place Oct. 21.

After the cook-off, 12 people will be eliminated and then the remaining 12 will be asked to present business plans. From these 12, eight contestants will be chosen to work shifts at the restaurants of the judges.

Then on Oct. 29, two finalists will be given a list of local, seasonal ingredients from which they will prepare a three-course meal for the judges, and the Own Your Own team along with 50 guests.

Schwartz’s restaurant concept is called Outland and the dish that she will be serving at the town square cook-off is a braised and seared pork belly served with crispy goat cheese and honeyed muscadine grapes. Every ingredient in the dish is sourced locally in North Carolina.

Her concept menu includes an appetizer goat cheese tart which features caramelized onion and beets inside a flaky pastry. For entrees, Outland is serving winter squash spiced with jerk seasonings alongside cauliflower and crispy zucchini. It will also offer a dish called the cowgirl ribeye, which includes a bone-in 16-ounce local ribeye steak served with black garlic butter and mashed potatoes.

Schwartz’s concept is clear – she wants to make great food centered around the act of community-making.

“I’m very big on supporting local and sustainable, really showcasing what the area has to offer,” Schwartz said.

The concept is modest, focusing on food made from scratch, supporting sustainable agricultural practices and local farmers and purveyors. Schwartz wants to create a place for the Burgaw community to gather while also showcasing local farms and their products.

For Schwartz, the opportunity to own her own restaurant is life-changing.

It is no secret that owning one’s own business is a dream out of reach for many because of economic constraints. Richard Johnson lives in North Carolina and hopes to use his own personal funds to help people achieve their dream of owning a restaurant, while also revitalizing the historic downtown of Burgaw, North Carolina.

Johnson is the driving force behind the competition. He is an American entrepreneur who started in 1996. He took out a $1.6 million mortgage on his house in order to buy a single ad during the Superbowl in 1999. This move was incredibly risky, but it paid off for Johnson. was then purchased by Yahoo Inc. in 2002 for $436 million. Since then, he has been focused on family and social philanthropy.

In 2016, he fell in love with the small town of Burgaw after purchasing farmland nearby and learning about its rich history. He saw potential in the small town that sat only 30 miles from the coast.

In 2019, Johnson started a town revitalization project called Burgaw Now. Johnson purchased several downtown buildings with the aims of breathing life into the downtown scene once more. Before launching the competition, Johnson helped to open two restaurants downtown, Fat Daddy’s Pizza and Burgaw Brewing.

The reception of the two restaurants was overwhelmingly positive and Johnson’s team began to get more creative in their methods for conceptualizing a new restaurant. In December 2022, Own Your Own launched its first nationwide restaurant competition. In this search, they are not only looking for a successful entrepreneur, but also someone who wants to be a part of the Burgaw community.  

The idea that Johnson was working to revitalize this town appealed to Schwartz, who is no stranger to rejuvenating older spaces. She came to Grand Lake Lodge in 2020. Originally from New York City, she moved to Grand County from Boston.

“I thought it was going to be a short-term experience, working at the lodge, and I ended up never leaving because I love it here and I met the love of my life, and now I live in Tabernash,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz studied at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City.
Emily Gutierrez/Sky-Hi News

Since her arrival, she has added changes to the menu, food preparation and other back-of-house systems. The menu is more interesting, but remains approachable for guests. She’s even used her experience to help rebuild the drink menu as well.

The executive chef is currently finishing up her fourth season at the lodge.

During her time in Grand County, she fell in love with the scenery as well as the community.

“I love the community here. I love how everyone cares so much about our resources,” she explained.   

With more than a decade of dedicated restaurant experience, she has worked in many different roles in the kitchen and picked up a plethora of skills. She began her career in the kitchen as a barista, then steadily began progressing into other roles like bartender, chef and general manager. She has plans to continue working in food, saying she loves the industry.  

“It really feels like we’re a little family there. And that’s what’s always drawn me to the restaurant industry is having that family,” Schwartz said.

The team at Grand Lake Lodge are close. This familiarity could be attributed to the fact that many of the employees live in employee housing together.  

“I mean, this season, we’ve had the most returning team members as we ever have,” she said.

These returning team members are integral to running a restaurant. Restaurants are still trying to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. The State of the Restaurant Industry report of 2022, conducted by the National Restaurant Association, found that 70% of restaurants feel that they are lacking mission-critical staff. Skilled and experienced staff are worth their weight in gold and Schwartz knows that.  

“I think that’s the biggest challenge is that we’re basically opening a restaurant every single year, like a new restaurant with a new staff,” she says while describing challenges the industry faces.

A natural and humble leader, she gives credit to her coworkers whenever the chance arises. While walking through the kitchen and back of house, she makes sure to greet everyone she passes. Kitchens are obviously not a one-man show, but it’s also clear that Schwartz does her part in controlling the chaos.  

One of Schwartz’s favorite places to eat is the restaurant A-Frame Club in Winter Park where her boyfriend works as a chef.
Emily Gutierrez/Sky-Hi News

She shared that while winning her own restaurant would be a dream come true, she does feel anxiety around leaving the lodge.  But she’s no stranger to moving, relocating on average every two years for the past 10 years. However, the time that she’s put into working and improving the lodge is something she’s proud of.

“You know, definitely a little scary. I think we’ve had a lot of successes at the lodge this year so, it would also be difficult to leave that behind. I think I’ve worked really hard doing what I think is the best thing for the lodge,” she said. “It’s kind of turned into my baby over the last couple of years. I would miss my team and I would miss waking up to that view every day. But, you know, an opportunity has presented itself so we’ll see what happens.”

The winner of Own Your Own will be handed the keys a 2,250 square-foot restaurant space along with a million dollars to design and outfit the space however the winner wishes.  

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