Food Network star looks to open Camden restaurant

Aaron McCargo Jr., who grew up in Camden and lives in Cherry Hill, got his own Food Network show, "Big Daddy's House," after winning "The Next Food Network Star" in 2008.
Aaron McCargo Jr., who grew up in Camden and lives in Cherry Hill, got his own Food Network show, "Big Daddy's House," after winning "The Next Food Network Star" in 2008.
Posted: April 11, 2013

Food Network star "Big Daddy" is one step closer to opening an American bistro in downtown Camden, but with a long way to go still.

Chef Aaron McCargo Jr., a Camden High School graduate whose claim to fame comes from winning Season 4 of The Next Food Network Star and from his cooking show Big Daddy's House on the network, received a $100,000 Camden Urban Enterprise Zone grant on Tuesday for his planned restaurant.

McCargo wants to take over the former Market West Grill space at 3d and Market streets, along with an adjacent building. He plans to keep the exterior mostly unchanged but redo the inside by creating more open space.

The $100,000 grant, which the city council approved Tuesday evening, will go toward bringing "the spark that Camden needs," McCargo said in an interview before the meeting.

"If I can bring food, peace, and unity to the community, that's my goal," McCargo said, adding that he wants "not one, but multiple, restaurants in Camden."

But his goal for the first restaurant is still about $1 million short, and he said the opening date depends on how fast he can raise the money.

The office of the city's Urban Enterprise Zone program has a pool of money for grants and also helps entrepreneurs through the permitting process. Businesses registered in the zone also receive tax advantages.

McCargo needs about $700,000 for the reconstruction of the site, said Camden UEZ Director Vincent Basara, and he will have to find other sources of funding to complete the project.

The cost of equipment and other items besides construction is expected to push up the total price tag to seven figures.

McCargo previously co-owned a namesake restaurant at 4th and Cooper streets, but walked away from it several years ago and left it to his partner.

"Me and my partner didn't see eye-to-eye," he said of the restaurant he opened in 2003.

In 2008, McCargo was running the catering department at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital when he won the contest for The Next Food Network Star, the network's competition series. Following that win, the network gave McCargo his own cooking show, Big Daddy's House, filmed at a Chester County house.

McCargo, a 1989 graduate of Camden High, who was born and raised in the city, has since moved to the suburbs.

He has written a cookbook, Simply Done Well Done.

McCargo now mentors Camden youth through a program at Camden Academy Charter School and is also a spokesman for Fresenius Medical Care, a dialysis services provider.

Because of his exposure to patients with dialysis, McCargo is planning to have dialysis- and diabetes-friendly food items on his menu.

For those with no dietary restrictions, McCargo said, the menu will have burgers and wings and other items with "big, bold flavors."

"We haven't had a restaurant like this in Camden," McCargo said, adding that everything from the bread to the juices used at the bar for cocktails will be made in house.

Because of the steady customer base at his previous restaurant on Cooper Street, McCargo said, he knew he wanted his new restaurant to be downtown.

At Tuesday's city council meeting, residents were excited to hear that McCargo was coming back to their hometown.

"We Camden residents are proud of this man for coming back and remembering his roots," said Pamela Robb, who said she used to frequent his previous restaurant.


Contact Claudia Vargas at 856-779-3917, cvargas@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @InqCVargas. Read her blog, "Camden Flow," at www.philly.com/camden_flow.

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