FOOD- THE DISH- Sweet deal: One essay and you're a restaurateur!

How much does it cost to open a restaurant? If you have a way with words... er, ah... it could cost you only $199!

Instead of putting her two-year old Palmyra restaurant, Sweet Peas Bistro, up for sale this year, owner Joanna Yoakam has decided to "give" the 75-seat Lake Monticello-area eatery to one lucky essay writer. Starting March 1, Yoakam and her employees began accepting entries for their "Win a Bistro" contest.

Along with a $199 entry fee, contestants must submit a creative 500-word essay that demonstrates a genuine interest in owning a restaurant.

"I don't have an 'ideal' candidate in mind, but I'm certainly looking for someone who has a true passion for the industry," says Yoakam. "We want to hear something other than a sad story." 

Ironically, when Dish caught wind of the contest, it appeared to be just that– a sad story. Here was a restaurant owner trying desperately to get out of debt. Either that or it was a scam. Yoakam says it's no scam, that all entry money will be held in escrow account at her local branch of Union Bank and Trust. She's hoping to get more than 2,000 entries to pay off her exiting debt, and perhaps make a profit.

According to a realtor we spoke to, Sweet Peas would probably go on the market for around $250,000 if Yoakam were to sell it. (Keep in mind, Yoakam is selling only the business, not the real estate. Anyone who "wins" the contest inherits the lease and all the bills.) If you do the math, 2,000 entries adds up to $398,000. That's some sweet peas!

Still, Yoakam's straight-forward enthusiasm is persuasive. 

"Why not do it this way?" she says. "I love the idea that we're going to change the course of someone's life. I love that my employees will have a say in who comes on board. Mathematically, it makes sense. We will pay off our remaining business debt, and someone else will be able to start off without that monkey on their back."

The decision had nothing to do with the health of her business, says Yoakam. It's been generating approximately $650,000 a year, she says. But she and her husband want to be closer to their daughter when she starts college in Florida this fall. Still, Yoakam admits to having considerable debt, which she estimates at "several hundred thousand dollars."

"Going in with no debt is a huge help for anyone interested in owning a restaurant," Yoakam says. "As a rule, a gift like this should not be taken lightly."

However, she admits it's not going to be like winning the lottery. 

"This is not a 'get out of work' free card," she says. "It will take an enormous amount of dedication from the winner."

Indeed, Nook owner Stu Rifkin, who as a realtor also negotiates the sale of restaurants (he handled the sale to Yoakam two years ago), says winning the contest will be no free lunch. 

"I think it's an interesting idea," he says, "but an owner could still lose his shirt. It doesn't matter what you pay for a restaurant; it's how you operate it."

On that note, Yoakam imagines the lucky winner will be someone who shares her passion for the biz, who thrives on the high stress, crazy hours, and the adrenaline rush that comes from making it through a busy night. 

"Ninety-nine percent of people who step foot in a restaurant are only there to eat," she says. "They wouldn't dream of working there, but for that one percent... we live for it." 

Think you have what it takes? Put on your thinking cap and visit for more information on the contest, which ends May 30.

Get a clue about Que

If you've ever wanted to know how great BBQ is made, now's your chance.

On April 14, BBQ Connection owner John Atkins will be sharing a few secrets in a cooking class sponsored by the Fluvanna Parks and Recreation Department.

 "The main focus will cover the basics of BBQ and techniques used in barbecuing chicken and ribs," says Atkins. 

As you may recall, Atkins' Fluvanna troupe of touring BBQ mavens, Pigs on Run, placed 5th in the BBQ Nationals in Kansas City last October, and before that, they took home the Grand Prize in the BBQ State Championship of Virginia in Chesapeake. Still, all that spicey attention hasn't gone to his BBQ-makin' brain, as the pitmaster has become a veritable ambassador of local BBQ via his Pigs on the Run blog. In fact, Atkins serves up high praise for newly opened Belmont BBQ on Hinton Avenue. 

"After an hour of chatting, I could not wait to try his Que," writes Atkins of owner Wes Wright. "I was not disappointed. It was truly the best BBQ in Charlottesville."

For more information about Atkins' cooking class, call 434-842-3150.

End notes

The Hong Kong Buffet (now reduced by a damaged sign to "Hon") on Emmet Street is no more. 

As another sign out front indicates, it's being replaced by Savour, a variant of savor, which one dictionary defines as "the sensation that results when taste buds in the tongue and throat convey information about the chemical composition of a soluble stimulus." A rather unimaginative choice, if you ask us... like naming a clothing store "Wear" or a gas station "Fuel."

Just kidding! Good "soluble stimulus" has a way of justifying any name. According to the landlord, the new owner is doing extensive interior renovation, as Savour intends to be an upscale establishment. Stay tuned. 

"I love the idea that we're going to change the course of someone's life," says Joanna Yoakam, who plans on giving her restaurant, Sweet Peas, away to a lucky essayist.