Ashlea Knight and Paige Akins smiling for the cameras at the 2013 World Food Championships.

Good Golly, Miss Molly!  Did I read that email right?  The World Food Championships?!

I stared at the screen again.  I could hardly believe my eyes.  KirbyG’s® Diner, our small fifties diner, had just received an exclusive invitation to compete in the World Burger Championship in Las Vegas.  I quickly phoned my wife Erica, who started the family diner.  I can still hear the shock when I said, “Honey, you are not going to believe this! We’ve just received an exclusive invitation to the World Food Championships in Las Vegas!”  The stunned silence on the other end of the phone was deafening.

Marilyn Monroe once said, “This life is what you make it. No matter what, you’re going to mess up sometimes, it’s a universal truth. But the good part is, you get to decide how you’re going to mess it up.”  Marilyn really wasn’t kidding!  We were staring at the opportunity of a lifetime, yet it came with the potential to be a huge mess.

 

Once you receive an invitation, you literally play The Clash’s song over and over in your head — “Should I stay or should I go?” There are lots of considerations. The competition comes with extra planning and unexpected costs that can squeeze your budgets.  You face extra payroll expenses for your team and, of course, the travel costs to Sin City. You have to ensure that you have the right equipment on hand: answering the important questions on shipping goods and securing the ingredients needed for your recipe.  Finally and most importantly, you have to face the elephant of all fears: falling flat on your face.

Erica and I certainly were familiar with facing big challenges.  We had been swimming in the deep end ever since we opened in April 2008.  Our little fifties diner miraculously survived the 2008 financial crash thanks to family, friends, and fans.  I’d like to think that “Lady Luck” played a role as well.  When we built the diner, we dug up the 1922 floors to make room for new plumbing. During the process, we found several horseshoes buried beneath the floors.  Not wanting to buck tradition, we took those horseshoes and hung them up inside one of the kitchen walls.  Now, thinking back, I have to wonder if Lady Luck wasn’t looking out for us.  Not only did we survive the second-worst financial collapse in U.S. history, but we garnered a Top Five Burger nomination and won two Best Burger Awards for metro Atlanta.

Then, we were blessed with another titanic challenge — the World Food Championships.

Participating at the World Food Championships is an honor that comes with huge rewards.  You must win somewhere, be it a publication award or a live-event contest, in order to receive an invitation.  Besides the $10,000 purse for winning your category, you get the chance to compete for big bucks against each category winner at the Chef’s Table.  Winning this round delivers the heavyweight title of World Food Champion and the sweet accolades of knowing you beat some of the world’s best cooks.  If you are going to mess up in life, the World Food Championships is one event that is worth the risk.  The real question is not, “Should I go?”  It’s really, “What am I hoping to achieve?”

 

Like the rest of the burger champs from across America, our most coveted goal was winning the “Hunka Burnin’ Love” award.  So, with the decision made to attend, we began to identify and conquer all the obstacles that can prevent you from winning the World Burger Championship.  But, we were also pragmatic.  We are a small diner with no professional chefs, no competitions under our belt, and little knowledge of cooking outside the confines of our tiny kitchen.  So, Erica and I felt that our secondary goal was to become a better diner.  We wanted to become sponges and soak up as much knowledge as possible.  We felt it was important to include our staff and for everyone to have fun.  It had been a long and arduous process of opening and creating a successful restaurant.

Looking back at our goals, the fun part was really easy to measure.  It’s Sin City. You are literally thrust into the Fremont Street Experience when you participate in the World Food Championships.  If you can’t have fun in Las Vegas, something is wrong.  There is literally something to do at all hours of the day and every day of the week.

Our other goals were a different matter.  Dr. Seuss once said, “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”   We did not win the World Burger Championship when we competed in Vegas, but we most certainly are smiling.  The World Food Championships absolutely drove our desire to become a better diner.  We began to pay more attention to the quality of our products and how they were put on a plate.  We learned to step out of our comfort zone and think outside the box.  We started Taste Test Tuesday to stir up creativity in our staff.  Each Tuesday, everyone is involved in creating new recipes and burger ideas.  We also ask fans to taste test our creations and give us feedback.  Six months later, Taste Test Tuesday is a permanent part of our culture.  Suddenly, we have gone from chasing the perfection of a World Burger Championship to pursuing excellence every day, with every customer, and with every burger … just as the legendary Vince Lombardi pushed his players achieve perfection every snap, in every quarter of every game played.

To read our guest blog for the World Food Championships, please click here:

http://worldfoodchampionships.com/blog/wfc/2014/05/should-i-stay-or-should-i-go