The former owner of the restaurant replaced by Big Bubba's Bad-to-the-Bone BBQ is back — and this time, he's bringing television cameras.
Jason Vogel, who owned the Firehouse Brewpub before selling to the Paso Robles-based barbecue chain in 2006, bought the restaurant back this week. And he aims to out-trump The Donald.
He's using his television background to produce a reality show about the downtown Merced restaurant and its staff. Vogel says workers will get 50 percent of the profits they earn — but they could be fired, a la "The Apprentice," if they don't produce.
"The idea is to take this great environment, this world-class restaurant, and make it a world-class financial performer also," Vogel said.
About a dozen employees heard the news from Vogel and Big Bubba's chain owner Roger Sharp on Wednesday morning, as video cameras filmed their reactions.
"I was really shocked," said Whitney Amos, a Big Bubba's waitress for three years. "It's something new for Merced. We don't know where it's going, so it'll be a new adventure for everyone."
Amos, who admits to watching her share of reality TV, was on board right away. She was already asking about such details as whether the cameras would follow her outside the restaurant (yes, with her permission) and if the show would be partially scripted (no).
"We do have outside lives," she said. "Television can change people. Everyone is like a family here and we work well as a team. We'll see how this changes us. Hopefully, it doesn't."
The show will use the Big Bubba's name but Vogel will oversee all operations of the restaurant at 18th and M streets. But while the name remains in Merced, the mechanical bull won't be sticking around, according to Sharp. The area could be turned into a dance floor, Vogel said.
Vogel, a Laguna Beach resident who has produced and directed episodes of television series such as The Discovery Channel's "World Class Cuisine" and "Low Cholesterol Cuisine," said he plans to shoot the reality-show equivalent of a television pilot and market it to networks.
He said he's already had some interest in the show. "Most reality shows aren't reality — they're a construct. They're all made up. They're unreality. This is people's lives, this is the life of a town where they come to eat and these are the lives of the people who work here. In that sense, it's more of a documentary than a reality show."
As an incentive, Vogel says employees will earn 50 percent of the profits made by the restaurant. They'll also have a say in who gets hired — and fired.
Of course, profits might not come so easy, considering the hard times being endured by the restaurant's would-be customers — nearly 20 percent of Merced residents are unemployed and the area has led the nation in foreclosures. In fact, says Sharp, the chain's owner, the economy is the main reason why the chain chose not to renew its lease on the Merced property.
Sharp told Vogel in an on-camera interview that he lost "a fortune" on the Merced restaurant and he regrets opening it. He also warned Vogel that he didn't believe the reality TV concept would work in Merced.
"You need a bigger market with some out-of-the-box thinking," he said. "I don't think you have that here. The clientele is extremely strapped for money, so the dining-out experience is few and far between. It makes for a challenge. When you have a world-class restaurant of this size, it needs volumes of people to come through."
Vogel acknowledges that he's facing an uphill battle. "Restaurants thriving in any environment, anywhere, is a challenge right now. These are difficult times and obviously restaurant spending is discretionary spending and nowhere is that more apparent than in Merced. But people still go out to celebrate, they still go out for birthdays. People have to eat."
And for a while, at least part of it will be on video.
Online Editor Brandon Bowers can be reached at (209) 385-2464 or firstname.lastname@example.org.