Interviews

Undercover Billionaire exclusive: Elaine Culotti dishes about Shepherd’s Inn, COVID-19 workarounds and loving the farmer

Elaine Culotti
Undercover Billionaire’s Elaine Culotti is one of the most effective change agents Fresno has seen to date. Pic credit: Discovery

Making a move from the mothership of Discovery to the new streaming arm, discovery+, this week’s latest episode of Undercover Billionaire, now in season two, features the progress of one of three billionaires the shows’ producers have taken into the fold.

The premise was established by last season’s Glenn Stearns and has since expanded to three moguls in three separate cities, each stripped of their resources and expected to make a viable business in short order.

Elaine Culotti is a petite force of nature who came up as a military kid, living in Europe and learning fast to get in with the in crowd and make friends fast. This is now her secret superpower as she has a vision to workaround the COVID-19 restrictions being exacted upon restaurants in California.

She has observed, and processed the fix to still be in the food game. And with the Shepherd’s Inn of Fresno, her big picture idea is nothing short of amazing, especially for struggling Fresno business owner Russell Stone, who has shuttered his restaurant and inn.

In an expanded format from season one, instead of just one man, these three billionaires are all undercover in three separate locations in this second season to see if the American dream is still alive and well and going to survive the COVID-19 financial fallout and all the political divisiveness.

With just $100 in their pockets, they will find out if they can start a business and grow it up to $1 million in just 90 days.

Make no mistake, Elaine Culotti is a dynamic player in this experiment to test the American entrepreneurial drive. The goals and gains are more than just an accountant’s bottom line but also the existential wealth that comes with providing good jobs, and dynamic energy to a depressed neighborhood that needs a jolt and fresh eyes.

Culotti’s path to becoming a billionaire is a testament to keeping true to your inner voice and vision. A military kid, she learned what was esthetically desirable in home goods and created a textile and import business stateside that blossomed into a design company, which then blew up into a real estate empire and eventually owning a working farm. Quality of life and beauty are two very important values Culotti holds dear.

Monsters & Critics spoke to Elaine Culotti ahead of this week’s episode and learned a lot about how to look at COVID-19, opportunity and deep down grit.

Monsters & Critics: The premise that Glenn Stearns set forth on this series was that the American dream is still alive. Can you expand on what that means to you given the state of the nation at this very moment?

Elaine Culotti: That’s a great question. Just recently I spoke about this very topic and please forgive me if it’s not palatable to everybody, but I was thinking, why was Donald Trump so successful on [TV series] The Apprentice? And then have had such a disaster in office.

It occurred to me that it was about being humble, and that when you have your own show or own business or own thing going…when you’re your own monster… there’s a part of you that is very empowered when you are able to do what you want and call the shots. ‘I’m in charge, my deal.’

When you become the President of the United States, if you officially take the biggest job in the world and you work for the most amount of people, and you’re now all of a sudden an employee…your position shifts tremendously.

Because now you’re working for everyone and humbleness is only the beginning of what you need to do…because it’s a job, right? It’s not your thing anymore. You’re not the monster anymore. You’re appeasing the masses and creating something amazing if you can do it.

I think that after doing this show [Undercover Billionaire] and having absolutely nothing and then …trying to get all of these people to rally and come to my aid to create something that they didn’t have a single inkling of what I was doing, it’s a faith maneuver.

Literally blind faith, like what’s going to happen? Just please trust in me. The only way you get there is by being humble. And then by following through.

When someone starts to stray or you lose someone or they’re running from you for whatever reason in their life, they need to go. The last thing you can possibly do is forcibly get them to follow you. You have to coax them like you would someone who can’t communicate.

I think that the American pride concept is so alive and well right now in our world, because what happened was that people didn’t feel like they were being led, right? They didn’t feel like they had a leader, it was oppositional all the time.

People starting to lash out and it caused so much strife… we’ve been fighting for nearly five years. I can honestly say that it’s been exhausting to turn the news on. I’m exasperated. it’s taking my energy to work.

Discovery, what an incredible company, said we’re not going to run Undercover Billionaire on Wednesday because of the inauguration, done out of respect. I really feel like little things happen all around us that we need to be grateful for. That’s a good example of determining what are the priorities here?

I think now to get on your way with this new regime—and it is a regime, make no bones about it—it is a group of people with a plan that we need to get underway. We need to get on with it now. I think that’s where I see the spirit of the American people.

M&C: You’re a vision quest kind of a salesperson. Tell me your impressions of Grant and Monique in relation to you and what your observations are.

Elaine Culotti: I’m still learning about Grant and Monique. First of all, I think it’s important to preface this answer with the fact I have very little contact with Grant and Monique. I did not meet them until after the show had completed filming. I did not know about them after the show.

So when I tell you, none of us knew anything. I’ve only been able to experience what I’ve been able to experience almost exactly the same way the viewer is experiencing it.

I have struck up a friendship with both of them because we’re in a very unique little spot, the three of us. Our relationship is just wonderful and for different reasons, right?

Grant fascinates me. He called me to do something with 10X and I was just a wee bit tardy getting back to him. Within an hour, he had already put together exactly what he wanted, circled the wagon behind me and sent me an email telling me what was going on.

I was like, “well-played!” Grant is not going to let grass grow under his feet and that’s why he’s successful. He’ll go to the mats for you. There is no question about that. He will take anyone down. He’ll have your back in a bar fight.

Monique is a completely different animal. Monique is not as interested in any financial aspect of this despite the fact that that’s the show. Monique is interested in community and she is interested in helping people that are somehow disenfranchised.

The most important thing is existential wealth to her that you feel good, that you’re secure in your life, that you are happy, are healthy. That is what matters to her. And that is so important to her whole vibe. When you’re friends with Monique, you have a real friend. She’s a very special person and, she’s really great.

M&C: You share an ethos with her though. If I’m not mistaken, you have an interest in local farming and making healthy foods available, that’s one of your things, right?

Elaine Culotti: It is so incredibly ironic that again… we didn’t know anything about it. When she found out, she’s like, ‘wait, you have a farm?’ I was like, yes, I have a farm. And we’re both farmers and we’re both all about food.

I could elaborate on food for hours. I have a lot to say about it. That’s my wheelhouse in terms of what we’re doing with food in this country, but that’s a whole other subject, my dear!

M&C: You grew up in Europe. You have a curated eye but that didn’t come from you growing up and staying in Kansas. Talk about that.

Elaine Culotti: Well, one of the most important things I can tell anybody about my childhood if I could say anything is that I did not truly understand how lucky I was to be a military child. I didn’t understand it. It’s an incredible gift to give a child and we do not talk about the families of our military.

We really should because there’s two big advantages to being a military child. First of all, seeing the world… number one, but number two is that you up and move a lot and you’re dropped into new environments and you need to learn how to make friends quickly and how to keep them at a long distance.

And that skillset is probably my best asset today, that I can go anywhere and talk to anyone and find some common ground and create a relationship. And that is the most important factor in traveling the world.

It’s so important that when you meet someone and you spend time with them and they tell you about their lives, and you tell them about yours, that you keep that relationship.

M&C: Talk about COVID and how the pandemic is affecting yoru business plans for Shepherd’s Inn in Fresno.

Elaine Culotti: For the purposes regarding the show… being able to have its surprise element and to let it unfurl. Yes. I cannot share everything about that because I want the world to see it happen in real time.

I want the world to see this concept that I have unfold. I also want to say setting my ego on the table much as I would love to take credit for it. I didn’t come up with the idea because I think this is how restaurants should operate.

I did not come up with the idea because of that. I don’t make any assumptions. I don’t know anything about the restaurant business, which it becomes very clear as you watch this show.

But what I do know is that in order to survive in a world where we have all the architecture of our world and infrastructure of our world is already set up. If we cannot use it because of COVID or because of fear of catching things, then we have to find a way to pivot that.

I feel like COVID is a fire drill. Ii is probably not the worst thing that could be floating around, even though it’s bad. Right? But if we don’t know how to operate when something like tuberculosis or polio comes back, something like that, we wouldn’t have done a fire drill.

You can’t get out of a burning building if you don’t know where the exit is. This was a very important thing to have happened to this country. And regardless of whether we will recover or not in the time that we should or want to, I’m just saying, it’s important to think about it as fire drill because it does soften the blow a little bit. Doesn’t it? Okay, maybe we did need to figure it out.

That being said, the restaurant industry, in my opinion, was unfairly annihilated.

And the reason I say that is because they were the one group of people that had to follow rules for food cleanliness by a grading system that was so stringent that they would hang the letter outside of their door, like a Scarlet letter on your arm.

I feel like we didn’t respect the restauranteurs of this country that have worked so hard to keep this environment safe for us, by relying on them to tell us what to do. Instead, we told them what to do and we shut them down.

I feel like it just was very unfair. We could have learned a lot more by listening to some of these people who have been in the restaurant business for 20 and 30 years. I mean, these are the people that we rely on to eat from.

I get angry when I think about it because it’s so important, and I miss restaurants and dining out and don’t tell me that driving up to curb and getting my burger in a bag is the same as sitting in there and having it handed to me and on my plate, it’s not the same thing.

M&C: Is Russell Stone of the Shepherd Inn still in your life?

Elaine Culotti: Oh! My Shepherd’s Inn is in my life daily. I just posted something with them. They just did trash cleanup yesterday and in Fresno…these people are my life. I love them. They’re amazing.

Russell Stone…they broke the mold with that guy. I’m just telling you what, and ladies he’s married, he’s got a beautiful wife and child and a wonderful family. He drives a cement truck all night long to feed his family. He is such a dear person. And those are the kinds of guys that— let’s not sugar coat it—he’s a real man. He’s the real deal.

And Fresno is full of them. Fresno is full of grit. Those guys work so hard and they have such heart and they’re farmers, a lot of them, lots of big farmers in Fresno.

We should be very proud and we’re so lucky to have Fresno. It’s America’s food basket. Every time you bite into a peach or eat a lovely piece of produce, thank Fresno. I don’t care where you’re at in the United States. That’s where it comes from.

We have got to really take care of them because we love them and we need them. And that’s where farmers sell their beautiful little fresh squash blossoms, and those baby mushrooms and all the things that you want to eat, or they go to these beautiful farm to table restaurants. And they’re closed. It’s really hard.

The new episode of Undercover Billionaire will stream on Wednesday, January 27 at 8 PM ET/PT on discovery+

April Neale
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