- Age: 31
- New York, New York
- Director of PR/Marketing
- Restaurant Concept: Wok
Marisa Zafran was raised in a suburban neighborhood with a tight-knit family and has always been independent. Zafran attended Boston University and considers herself an expert in public relations and marketing. She's a total foodie, and believes she's obsessed with food and restaurants. Her Chipotle-inspired restaurant is called Wok - stir fry for the healthy heart. It's an Asian version of Chipotle, based around stir-fry and healthy eating.
- Exit Interview:
What inspired your fast casual restaurant concept?
I've always been extremely passionate about food and restaurants, and I noticed that there was a big gap in the fast casual market, one that exists even in New York City, where you can generally find almost any type of food, day or night. I read food blogs voraciously, keep lists and Excel spreadsheets, and am constantly checking out all types of restaurants, from high-end to street carts and everything in between. What I realized though, is that while I craved healthy stir-fry dishes for both lunch and dinner, there was no easy way to get this. In order to eat this type of food, I would have to go to my local Chinese or Thai restaurant and order off the menu. There are a multitude of create-your-own salad and sandwich places (which gets boring after a while), but there's nothing of this nature - something that's healthy, tasty, affordable, quick and reliable, but goes beyond typical lunch fare and offers Asian fare instead.
One night last year, I literally awoke from my sleep with the concept, menu and name. I quickly typed all the ideas on the Blackberry next to my bed and fell back asleep. Over the next few weeks, I continued to develop the concept and think about how I could start a chain of restaurants. I also told my family about my idea, and sure enough, on a food blog a few weeks later, my brother saw the casting call for the show. I auditioned on a whim, figuring I had nothing to lose, and the rest is history. I have experience with many facets of the restaurant business, starting as a "sandwich artist" at Subway when I was in high school, as a waitress throughout college, and now on the public relations, marketing, and development side of the industry in my most recent job. I've always dreamed of owning a restaurant and was just waiting for the right idea. Now I have it!
What was it like to make it to the Top 10 and compete on the show?
It was intense and exciting. I believed in myself and my concept 100%, but of course you have your moments of doubt when you're surrounded by others who feel the same and want it just as much as you do. The fact that I wasn't a chef made me a bit nervous when it came time to cook on the show, but I knew it was mostly about the idea, and to make it to the Top 10 just reinforced that. To get even as far as I did knowing how many people wanted this, and to be in direct contact with individuals such as Steve, Bobby, Curtis and Lorena was an unbelievable experience.
What moment or moments on the show were most surprising to you?
When it all fell apart at Chipotle for me... I was so proud of myself that I was manning a station where you had to do everything from start to finish. Originally two people were supposed to manage the station and the fact that I was rocking and rolling on my own felt good. I don't think I was given enough credit for the job I did.
What was the best part of your experience? Did it change you?
Up until the show it was just a pipe dream. I think what the show did is make me realize this is all doable... with a lot of hard work. It gave me insight into some amazing minds (the judges/investors) in the industry and the steps that it takes. Even though I didn't make it all the way, I made it farther than most, so it gave me confidence to get out there and do it.
Did you make any lasting friendships and/or business relationships on the show? With whom?
I have to say, it truly was a great group of people and it was so nice to be around individuals with the same love and passion as I have. Of course, I wish I stayed longer to grow the friendships more... Suds and I have become quite close since we're both New Yorkers. We run around the city checking out restaurants and pondering an Indian stir-fry place. I've also seen Joey and Stephanie since and messaged with Crystal. Additionally, the time I spent with Fran was great. I think I got to know her in a different light than the others did. I think and hope I'll keep in touch with everyone in some capacity or another. When you've been through such a unique experience with others, there are just some things only this group of people know and understand, and I think it really helped us bond as a group.
Do you think you should have been eliminated? Did you agree with the investors' decision?
Obviously I would have loved to win, but I'm not going to claim that I should have. I do feel strongly that I should have been kept on for longer. I don't think I had the time to truly show what I'm made of, or how far I can take my concept with the right mentoring and guidance. I think the downfall was my chef and the dishes that were turned out. Any good restaurateur knows that it takes a lot of tests and trial runs to get it right. I think my concept was solid, and I would argue more so than the concept of some other contestants. I think that with just a little more time to prove myself, I would have made it much further.
Are you going to continue to pursue your restaurant concept?
Absolutely. I have already begun my business plan and still feel 100% confident in my concept. I have been meeting with a lot of people from the restaurant industry and picking their brains. I also have taken a more active role in my company's restaurants (we own The Burger Joint, Norma's, Knave and others) to not only continue on the marketing/PR side, but really to get into more of the development and brand side. I am fortunate to be exposed on a daily basis to a wonderful team and to gain even more insight. Additionally, I am thinking of enrolling in some cooking classes (potentially Asian-themed) to get more experience on that end.
Which one of your competitors' restaurants would you eat at regularly?
Well of course I'd eat at Wok the most... but after that I'd definitely hit up Meltworks (although too much and my waistline will grow!) and Saucy Balls, because my favorite cuisine is Italian, hands down (I actually lived in Italy and studied cooking and wine there). The other two would be The Tiffin Box, because I'm a big fan of Indian cuisine, and Stephanie's idea, Compleat, because of the healthy factor. After all, when you live in New York City with a horrible kitchen and exorbitantly priced groceries, you eat out A LOT.
What have you been doing since being on the show?
I still work as the Director of Public Relations and Marketing for my company, the Jack Parker Corporation/Le Parker Meridien hotels. We own hotels, real estate, and restaurants (The Burger Joint and Norma's to name a few). In addition I got promoted and am responsible for brand and business development for the company. Other than that, traveling a lot, spending time with family and friends, and dating (searching for Mr. Right is the other dream).
What has the experience of being on the show taught you?
I think the show reinforced a lot I already believed. By going through the tasks and listening to Bobby, Steve, Curtis and Lorena I realized that:
- I can do anything I put my mind to...
- The restaurant industry is one of the hardest businesses with many, many components.
- I LOVE restaurants and the industry just as much as I did coming into this.
- Without risk (and a lot of hard work) there is no reward.
And that I want to continue down this path!