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Detroit chef dishes up quality on ‘Restaurant Startup’

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

When Detroit chef Nikita Sanches appeared on business reality show “Restaurant Startup” on Tuesday night, he proved his food was appealing and satisfying, but his refusal to sacrifice quality and lack of scalability made investors shy away from a partnership.

The restaurateur and his fiancee and front-of-house manager Jessica Imbronone breezed past the first hurdle of the reality show that stars restaurant moguls Joe Bastianich and Tim Love. Sanches and Imbronone had to convince the pair to give them a chance to come up with an example of the business concept they would like Bastianich and Love to invest in.

The Detroiters were up against Six Pence Pie Co. from New Haven, Connecticut. Both companies make sweet and savory pies, but Bastianich and Love decided to place their bets on Sanches and Imbronone’s Rock City Pies concept in the first half of the show.

They had $7,500 and 36 hours to decorate a space from scratch, design a new logo (the investors didn’t like Rock City Pies’ original logo), and plan and execute a menu.

“The biggest challenge is to have enough time to get it all done,” said Sanches, who asked the investors for $350,000 in exchange for 30 percent of Rock City Pies, which would be his third restaurant in the Detroit area. (He owns two eateries in Hamtramck.)

The execution of their mock business succeeded in terms of staying within the budget and pleasing customers. A majority of guests had positive things to say about the taste and value, and said they would return to the restaurant.

The faults came with managing other employees and being organized.

“There were several glitches in today’s service” said Bastianich, who is in the food business with his mother, Lidia Bastianich, and celebrity chef Mario Batali. Issues included incomplete orders and a long wait for a table. Given that Sanches and Imbronone were only given a short time to open a restaurant in surroundings they weren’t familiar with, it was a high-stress situation.

“You are not capable of executing this concept,” said Bastianich during the review of their performance before he and Love would announce if they were going to invest. “You do not have the ability to make this food product in a scalable way.”

Both investors expressed interest in wanting to invest in a business in Detroit, but decided Sanches needed to do a little “soul searching” to figure out if he really wanted to be the guy who was part of a production that makes 1,000 pies a day like they’d want him to.

“I maybe think it’s a little premature,” said Love, owner of several Texas restaurants. “As much as I like you and as much as I really want to invest in you both, and I really want to be in Detroit and I really want to see this American dream happen and I really want to be apart of it, I have to say I can’t do it today.”

Sanches agreed that being in charge of a food assembly line may not be his calling.

“I don’t want to sacrifice quality and taste for a larger amount of money, because I feel like that’s not something that’s going to make me happy,” he said on the show.

Sanches (who recently changed the spelling of his last name from Santches) currently sells his pies at his Hamtramck restaurant Rock City Eatery, which he opened in the fall of 2013. Before that he sold his pastries at the Rust Belt Market in Ferndale.

Last summer, Sanches, who immigrated from Russia with his parents when he was 12, took over operations at the Hamtramck greasy spoon Campau Tower. He and his staff scrubbed it clean, added a flat screen television and revamped the menu to include vegetarian options in addition to burgers, fries and hot dogs.