Peli Peli on TV

Reality TV win hasn't translated into dollars for Houston restaurant — yet

Reality TV win doesn't translate into dollars for Houston restaurant

Peli Peli Kitchen
Peli Peli partners chef Paul Friedman, Michael Tran and Thomas Nguyen appeared on Restaurant Startup Wednesday night. Peli Peli Kitchen/Facebook

Upscale South African restaurant Peli Peli had a moment of reality show triumph Wednesday night when partners Thomas Nguyen, Mike Tran and chef Paul Friedman accepted a $1.25 million investment from celebrated restaurateur Elizabeth Blau during an episode of the CNBC series Restaurant Startup. The show featured the partners attempt to secure backing for their new fast casual concept Peli Peli Kitchen

Blau's investment, the largest in the show's two season history, came after the Peli Peli team overcame various challenges posed by both Blau and Dallas chef Tim Love. During the broadcast, the competitors in the Shark Tank-style show had first bested a proposal from Dallas restaurant Full Circle to create a fast casual slider restaurant, then overcome Blau and Love's concerns that average diners wouldn't understand South African food.

As with all reality shows, the partners faced plenty of drama when tasked with creating a one day only pop-up restaurant on a $7,500 budget. Those issues ranged from concerns that Nguyen's menu description for prawns as "the pimp of shrimp" would be too confusing to a crisis with food taking too long to emerge from the kitchen while Friedman was visiting with diners instead of working the line. Ultimately, 95-percent of the 120 diners who visited the pop-up said they would return for another visit.

But the "happily ever after" ending wasn't meant to be. Text during the final credits revealed that Blau and Peli Peli hadn't been able to come to terms. Speaking to the 100 people or so who attended a watch party Wednesday night, Nguyen explained that Blau had concerns about the amount of debt the restaurant had taken on to open its second location in The Galleria.

"She said, 'clean up your stuff,' and that's what we've been doing," Nguyen said. "We need to clean up a lot of our mess before we accept outside investors."

The timing of the episode proved to be the biggest hurdle. When the filming took place in April 2015, the new location had just opened and wasn't producing revenue. Now that it's earning at the same rate as the original location in Vintage Park (revenue of approximately $6 million per year, making $1 million in profit), the business has been able to pay down its debt. 

Nguyen tells CultureMap that the restaurant is still in contact with Blau, and he's optimistic they can get a deal done either with her company or another investment group. 

With or without Blau's backing, Peli Peli Kitchen is slated to open this summer in Spring Branch. How quickly it grows will depend on whether the business can continue to generate revenue. That's just reality.