0 comments on “Ratsanee Suksawas, Owner of Le Viet Cafe”

Ratsanee Suksawas, Owner of Le Viet Cafe

This is Ratsanee Suksawas, the owner of Le Viet Cafe, a restaurant on the Upper East Side that combines the best of Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. Ratsanee worked in the food industry in New York for 15 years before deciding to open her own place. Things had begun changing with the economy and working for someone else was too unpredictable for her. She wanted a change and to be in a position where she was responsible for her own security. Due to her experience in the food industry, she knew when opening the restaurant in September 2015, that being successful means standing out. So rather than making her menu strictly Thai cuisine, she asked her husband (the chef at Le Viet Cafe) to reach out to a friend that he used to work with that was Vietnamese to teach them how to make traditional Vietnamese dishes. She knew that offering banh mis and vermicelli noodles along with pad thai and green curry would differentiate them from other Thai restaurants in a very saturated market. Today, she says, the amount of competition has caused the landscape of the food industry to change even more. You can no longer wait for a customer to come to you, you have to go out and get them. So she continues to look for ways to grow her business by offering unique menu items and interactive meal experiences, while providing the same genuine customer service that her business has been known for since they opened.

Ratsanee started out in the food industry in 2000, when she emigrated to the U.S. from Thailand. She had no previous experience in food but was looking for a job and heard that you could make a lot of money working in a restaurant because people were spending a lot on food at that time and tipping well. Her plan was to work in the U.S. for a few years, save up some money and then move back to Thailand to open a small coffee shop. However, once she began working at SEA (a restaurant that’s now closed) and met her husband (she was a manager there, he was a sous chef), her plans started to change. She got married and had kids and it was important to her that her kids get a good education in the U.S. Now 8 and 11 years old, both of her children attend dual schools where they’re taught in English and Spanish, which she sees as a key requirement for success later in life. She’s raising her children to understand that just like in business, your unique assets and uncommon skills are what make you stand out.

Her children are also the reason why Ratsanee is so committed to her business and is always finding ways to survive among the competition. She recently began recipe testing for some new menu items while also planning out the logistics of operating a pop up experience for corporate catering. She feels that it’s not enough to wait for people to come to them, she wants to go directly to the customer by bringing their food into different offices and testing out various industries to see where customers are the most receptive. She sees this as the best way to introduce customers to the food currently on their menu and drive traffic to the restaurant as well as test some unique recipes that she thinks customers might like. Rather than only offering rice or rice noodles as bases, she is trying to incorporate spaghetti into the mix and create more opportunities with customer by offering these new items that come with a different sauce and a different consistency but a familiar item. She believes this is something that other Thai/Vietnamese restaurants aren’t doing yet and could interest customers that don’t like rice or rice noodles. So they’ve been testing recipes to include spaghetti as well as build your own options, which they’ve never done in the past. Right now it’s hard to know if clients will like the food or not so they’ll need to test it out before fully launching the menu and the pop up experience. But once they’ve found the dishes that they think customers will be receptive to, they’re planning to go to different businesses to see which markets would work for this new concept.

Team at Le Viet Cafe

Although finding unique ways to meet the customer and make her business grow is very exciting to Ratsanee, she recognizes that she’s still battling one factor that she can’t control: technology. Being on delivery apps like GrubHub, Seamless, MealPal and UberEats are a necessary evil for her, something that you need in order to gain access to more customers and more orders. But she gets particularly frustrated with Yelp because if someone has one bad experience, they can write a bad review, which other customers see as a fact rather than an opinion. People have more choices now so they don’t have to get to know you as a business owner or your food, which Ratsanee sees as unfair since 80% of her customers are recurring customers. “If people don’t like me”, she says, “they can just write a bad review”. She feels that Yelp removes the trust from the vendor/client relationship and is always painting the business owner in a negative light. Even when a customer is in the wrong and she has proof of it, they can still write a bad review and she can’t say her side of the story because it comes off as rude and customers get mad. If she does say her side, she says, no one really listens to it anyway, they listen to what they’re reading from others, so she’s stopped trying to defend herself. Ratsanee takes these negative reviews personally because she wants everyone to feel like part of their family when they eat her food, whether they’re visiting the restaurant or ordering delivery. She and her staff are friendly and genuinely care about the food that they create and the people that they serve. They don’t see them as customers who eat the food and that’s it, they see them as friends and family and try to make the restaurant as welcoming as possible. Which is why it’s so frustrating, because they have so many clients who they do have relationships with that will come to them directly if there’s an issue with the food. In these situations, she doesn’t have to worry about someone thinking that they’re good or bad, the customer knows that her team will fix it because they appreciate the feedback and are always trying to make their food better. If it is her fault, Ratsanee doesn’t mind giving a discount or free food because she knows she was wrong. However, when every negative review requires her to give a discount to make the customer happy, she doesn’t make any money, which makes it harder for her to take care of the people that work for her. Her employees are very important to her so making sure that they’re happy, getting paid enough and not getting frustrated with their job is even tougher when she has to factor in discounts, that are sometimes undeserved, on a limited budget.

Dealing with negative reviews and criticism on a regular basis is hard for Ratsanee but she has seen an increase in orders and new customers recently, which is very gratifying for her. A lot of the new customers are people that have tried them out through catering at their office and liked the food so much that they began ordering personally. Ratsanee loves that more customers are learning about her business and visiting the store, where she feels they really get a sense for the business and the positive atmosphere that she and her team create. On one of the walls in the store, “life is beautiful” is written out in books in both Vietnamese and English. Ratsanee hopes that that grateful, easy nature is what customers associate her business with, because she truly does create food from the heart. Moving forward, she’s eager to see how customers react to the new menu items and pop up experience and feels that these unique offerings will help the business immensely. Even if something doesn’t work, she says, they’ll continue testing out different ideas to make sure that they’re staying top of mind for customers. It’s a demanding industry, but she’s ready to fight for it.

 

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0 comments on “Stella Likitsakos, Owner of Mamagyro”

Stella Likitsakos, Owner of Mamagyro

This is Stella Likitsakos, the owner of Mamagyro. A Greek immigrant who moved to the U.S. with her parents and sister in 1974, food is a part of who she is and opening her own restaurant she says, “was always inside of her”. Stella’s parents owned a small store in Greece before moving to the U.S. so, like her granddaughters now, her life revolved around the store and watching her mother prepare food for their customers until she was a teenager. Once they moved to the U.S., Stella’s father worked as a dishwasher and her mother worked at a fur company making furs. Her father worked for a few years before retiring (there was a significant age gap between her mother and father) but her mother continued working, showing Stella that hard work is the key to success. “She’s the rock”, Stella says, referring to her mother, but this description can also be used when speaking about Stella. A woman who is at her restaurant every day helping to prepare the food and is so committed to providing her customers with an all-natural, clean meal that she doesn’t use butter in any of her recipes or stock in any of her soups, just like her mother. Stella now runs Mamagyro with her daughter, Vicki Giannopoulos, who manages all business operations and catering on top of raising her two young daughters and together they’ve made Mamagyro a staple in the NYC food community. However, more than carrying on their family’s tradition of creating all-natural, authentic and delicious food (which they do), this mother-daughter team is also an example for future generations of women of what hard work combined with passion can forge.

Since she was surrounded by food throughout her childhood, Stella was immediately drawn to the food industry once she started working. She met her husband working at a supermarket that he owned and once they were married, she began running the stores with him. They ran three supermarkets on the Upper East Side and every two years or so, Stella would add something new to the markets, expanding them and slowly turning them into gourmet markets offering everything from fruits and veggies to meat and cheese and prepared food. However, they were still small stores so once large chains like Whole Foods and Fairway started opening and delivery services and online ordering became popular, they started losing business. Their stores were unique with a lot of good quality products but consumers were looking for the “one stop” shopping experience that they couldn’t provide and they had to begin closing the stores. Also during this time, Stella’s husband got in an accident and hurt his neck and was unable to continue running the stores. Stella was in a difficult position and wasn’t sure what to do next. Then one day, as she was walking to Lenox Hill Hospital to visit her husband, she saw a storefront for sale on 77th street and thought, “why can’t I open a little homemade gyro shop here?” It had always been her dream to open her own restaurant and since the supermarkets weren’t doing well, she thought it was time to do something different in the food industry. So she bought the storefront and opened Mamagyro in 2011.

Stella was running Mamagyro for about a year and a half before Vicki joined the business. Vicki had been working at PR company but knew it wasn’t a place she could stay if she wanted to started a family, so she approached her mom and asked her if they could open another store together. So in 2013 they opened their second Mamagyro location on Broadway in Union Square. However, the clientele in Union Square was much different from what they were used to at their flagship store. It was mainly teenagers and young adults who didn’t know them and didn’t want to spend money on good quality food as opposed to the regular customers whose neighborhood they were a part of on 77th street. The lack of steady business combined with staffing issues forced them to close the Union Square store not long after it opened. Soon after closing their Union Square store, they started looking for a commissary kitchen to cook out of because they didn’t have enough space at the 77th street store. However, bad luck struck in 2017 when the building their restaurant on 77th street was in was sold to a new owner who decided to demolish the entire building and kicked out all of the tenants. They now operate solely out of their kitchen space on 106th street, which they were able to turn into another fast casual restaurant. Although they miss their location on 77th street, they’re working on improving the space they’re in now and believe that there is a lot of potential in their new community. The people in the area are very happy to have a new food option available to them and Stella and Vicki see it as an opportunity to expand their reach in a new environment.

If you ask Stella, their all-natural, homemade food is the most important part of their business. And if you ask Vicki, Stella and her hospitality are what customers associate the business with. But both are vital components of what makes this fast casual concept work. All of the recipes for their food are Stella’s mother’s recipes that were passed down to her and now Stella has passed them on to Vicki. It was very important to Stella when creating the menu that everything be high-quality and authentic. They don’t use any canned items in the restaurant. Everything is either made from scratch by them and their team or imported from Greece. They even have their own pita bread recipe, which they have a bakery mass produce for them. For Stella and Vicki, the most rewarding part of the business is knowing that they’re one of the few restaurant in NYC that actually serves good food with clean and fresh ingredients and it’s something that their customers appreciate. To them, it feels good knowing that they’re giving customers all-natural items rather than cheating them with bad ingredients just so they can make more money, which some restaurants do. It would be easy for them to cut corners but they wouldn’t feel right giving customers food with fake ingredients and it’s not the way they want to run their business. It’s this commitment to their food and their passion to keep their brand from becoming commercialized that customers are drawn to as well as Stella’s hospitality. Stella believes that when customers are making a conscious effort to come to their store and buy their food when there’s so many restaurants to choose from, she needs to make it the best experience possible for them and give them more than just food. Vicki says that the way Stella is at home is the way she is in the restaurant. She wants everyone to be comfortable and get the best dining experience possible, which is why they have loyal customers that come in every day and thank them for food that’s been the same great quality since they started.

Although this mother-daughter team is lucky in the fact that they have one another to lean on, they recognize that having a team of people who are dedicated to the business is key for success in the food industry. And it’s an issue that they’ve struggled with in the past. One of the most challenging parts of the business for them has been finding reliable staff that are as committed to the Mamagyro brand as they are. Even though they have each other, there are a lot of different areas to handle when running a business and you need to have team members that have different strengths so that you’re not doing it all on your own. You need to have people behind you that are willing to go through good and bad times with you and continue to push you to do better. That’s the only way your business will grow and it’s something that Stella and Vicki are still working on. However, for the time being they’re excited to see how their business increases in their new location and are considering taking some of the Mamagyro products wholesale (spanakopita, dips, yogurt). They see a need for preservative-free, all-natural food in grocery stores and they feel that taste is being lost with the artificial products that are on shelves now. Stella says she would also love to open a sit-down Greek restaurant in the coming years that focuses on traditional Greek food and seafood. But these are both ideas that they’d like to focus on down the line. Right now their main focus is improving Mamagyro and creating a successful business that Vicki can one day pass on to her daughters.

 

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0 comments on “Edward Song, Owner of Korilla BBQ”

Edward Song, Owner of Korilla BBQ

This is Edward (Eddie) Song, the owner of Korilla BBQ, a fast casual restaurant that strives to advance Korean cuisine through innovation. Eddie’s entrepreneurial aspirations began in 2008 when he was graduating from Columbia University in the midst of the Great Recession. There weren’t many job opportunities available so he thought it was a better time than ever to be your own boss. However, unlike many entrepreneurs in the food industry, Eddie’s interest in the hospitality/restaurant business didn’t come from a strong focus on food throughout his childhood. He, like many other people in 2008, was looking for the safety and comfort that was lacking in the midst of the financial crisis and started thinking a lot about what made him feel comfortable and safe. He immediately started reminiscing about going out to eat on the weekends with his family, which, because everyone was so busy, was the only time they had to get together and catch up. So he decided to open a food business that could fill the need for comfort in others as it did for him. He enrolled in a free four month culinary program offered by Kingsborough Community College in conjunction with The Restaurant Opportunities Center United but quickly realized that he wasn’t a good cook. So when everyone else in his program began thinking about specializing in baking vs. cooking and interviewing at restaurants, he started thinking about food concepts. After trying out a bun concept that never took off (the idea was to take the Chinese pork bun and make it more internationally appealing), he began realizing that there weren’t many restaurants focused on creating Korean food. Of course there were communities throughout New York where you could find amazing Korean food but it wasn’t as widely represented as he believed it should be. So he decided to take Korean food and make it more mainstream and readily accessible to the American public through the Korilla BBQ brand.

Korilla BBQ started as a food truck with a menu that Eddie says came through a “series of fortune events”. He wanted Korilla BBQ to represent the aspects of Korean food that he loved as well as the other foods that he and his siblings grew up eating. Growing up in Queens, there were many cultures on a single block so mixing Korean food with Mexican and hints of Southern BBQ and American fare seemed very natural to Eddie and he was able to find a chef who understood his concept. Although the chef was Japanese, he was also from Queens so he had grown up eating Korean food and was familiar with the flavors that Korean food is known for. They began pulling their favorite elements of dishes (proteins, flavors, textures) from Korean food as well as other cuisines, visiting Korean restaurants that Eddie liked and seeing how they could make their items better. Then Eddie got lucky and met a Korean restaurateur who owned a quintessential Korean restaurant in Flushing that was extremely popular. He liked the concept that Eddie was working on and allowed them to observe and work with his chef to learn how to make all of the best Korean foods that they had grown up eating. Through their own research and the help of this restaurateur, they were able to cobble together their first menu, mixing the recipes that they had been taught and the ones that they had reverse engineered.

Once the menu was created, Eddie was able to officially launch the first food truck in October 2010. He believed that the food truck would be the best way to bring their food directly to their customers and for the next three years, they were very successful. At one point they even had four different food trucks operating at the same time. However, in 2013 a lot of new food trucks began opening, increasing competition and aggravating restaurant owners with brick & mortar locations. They began complaining that food trucks were stealing their customers and blocking their store’s visibility and the police started getting involved to help resolve the issue. However, this meant that they would keep food trucks from parking in their usual spots on the street or they would make them move, typically during their lunch rush when it was impossible for them to shut down, move and find another parking spot to sell from. This started happening consistently enough that Eddie realized that he needed to accelerate their transition into a brick & mortar location. They opened their first location in the East Village in October 2014 and replicated the same “build your own” experience that they had on the truck inside the store. They also extended their trademark Korilla orange and tiger stripe motif from the truck to the store design. Eddie chose a tiger as the symbol for Korilla because it’s the national animal of Korea and it’s also very reflective of the food’s bold, fierce flavor. He kept the coloring of the trucks and stores bright and eye-catching to make sure that they stood out and enticed people to walk up to the truck or into the store and see what they were offering. Every location that they’ve opened since the flagship East Village store incorporates the same color palette and tiger motif but each one has it’s own layout. Eddie says that this was done on purpose because each store is an evolution of what he thought Korilla was at that moment in time, giving each location it’s own unique personality.

For Eddie, the most rewarding part of the business has been introducing others to Korean food. One of Korilla BBQ’s core mission statements is to advance Korean cuisine and to create more awareness of the 5,000 year old history of Korean food through the Korilla brand. So seeing customers come into the store who have never tried Korean food before and fall in love with the rich flavors and unique taste validates his mission. He believes that he is a part of a larger movement to take Korean food, which he saw as a relatively obscure cuisine in 2008, and bring it to the forefront of the food industry. Since the majority of Koreans started emigrating to the U.S. in the 70’s and 80’s, including his parents, Eddie sees the elevation of Korean food as his generation’s job. He recognized that no one was pushing Korean food into mainstream American culture not because it was a bad idea but because the only people who were able to do it were people like his parents who were working tirelessly to support their families. Therefore he’s trying to make Korilla BBQ a lifestyle brand that revolves around this movement and hopes that people can think of Korilla as a symbol for change, creating for them a sense of inner confidence and boldness, with which they can attack any situation. However, creating such a strong brand does have challenges, especially when it requires every person in the business having the same zeal and passion for the brand that he does. Eddie is constantly striving for perfection and always wants to provide an A+ experience to his customers every single time. But at the end of the day, he’s ultimately relying on other men and women to provide that experience, which due to so many external factors, may not always reach that expectation. So dealing with the variability of a food business can be very difficult as an owner.

Right now Eddie says he’s still in the process of creating the perfect blend of all four values that he believes are key to a successful business: quality, taste, speed and price. There are a lot of people that he sees in the restaurant industry that are willing to make value sacrifices and trade-offs to keep price low or sell food faster but he doesn’t believe in doing that. Which is why he advises other entrepreneurs to understand that what determines your success is what you’re willing to do or not do and as hard as it gets, you can’t give up, you have to keep on trying. In the food industry especially, you have to be passionate and determined enough that even if you keep getting the same results every single day, you can keep pushing to make it to the next day, the next chapter, the next year, because eventually you will get it. He also advises that every business owner has to be his or her own cheerleader and allow themselves to celebrate small victories. For Eddie, it’s the small victories that feed his passion and motivate him to keep moving forward.

 

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0 comments on “Giuseppe Viterale, Owner of Ornella Trattoria Italiana”

Giuseppe Viterale, Owner of Ornella Trattoria Italiana

This is Giuseppe Viterale (pictured left with his son Angelo, right), the owner of Ornella Trattoria Italiana, an Italian restaurant named after his wife, Ornella, who he met by chance one evening as he was walking down the street in Williamsburg and offered his hand to help when he saw her slip on some ice. Their unique encounter, which sounds like the beginning of a romance movie, is not uncommon for Giuseppe, who shapes his restaurant around just that principle: uniqueness. Giuseppe grew up on a farm in a small village in Salerno, Italy. His father owned a flour mill, which he and his siblings helped run, so his earliest memories are connected to food. At the time, Giuseppe says, he didn’t even realize that he was involved in the food industry because it was the only world he knew, one where everything went directly from the farm to their table. However, Giuseppe had no intention of getting into the food and restaurant business. He had bigger dreams for himself and began studying architecture. But after failing his certification test the first time, he decided to take a few months off and go to New York for a little adventure and fun. He wanted to see a different part of the world and be immersed in a new culture where he knew no one and didn’t speak the language. He was in New York for a few months when he met Ornella on the street that night and as soon as he could, he went back to Italy and passed his architecture test before returning to New York again and getting married. 30 years later, Giuseppe has created an Italian restaurant that’s known for it’s fresh ingredients, uncommon dishes and philosophical yet engrossing owner.

When he returned to New York, Giuseppe began working with a big construction company but got laid off during the recession in the early 90’s. He had to continue to work to support his family so he went to a staffing agency, which placed him at a job in a restaurant in Greenwich Village. Although he had grown up surrounded by food, he had never worked in the restaurant business before and it was much different than the food-related world that he knew. He decided that if he was going to work in this industry, he didn’t want to embarrass himself with his lack of experience so he started from scratch and began training at many different restaurants, learning as he went. Once he felt like he had a good understanding of different restaurants and how they operate, he spent a few months working at a restaurant in Brooklyn Heights. Things were going well there until one day, when he was standing outside the restaurant, a bum passed by and asked him what he was doing there. When Giuseppe responded that he was working, the bum laughed and told him that if he wanted to make real money, he had to work in Manhattan. So Giuseppe took his advice, left his job in Brooklyn Heights and asked the agency to find him a job in the city.

The staffing agency placed him at Cellini, an upscale Italian restaurant where he quickly excelled. He started out as a waiter and after a month, had become their head waiter. A year after that, he became the restaurant’s manager and maitre d. Giuseppe ended up working at Cellini for 15 years, during which time he used his background in architecture to study the real estate market and invest in Brooklyn, slowing purchasing about 50 residential rental properties. Eventually it got to the point that he was doing so well at Cellini and in his real estate ventures that he had to choose to focus on one and shockingly, decided to stay in the food industry. Over the years, his passion for the industry (specifically the restaurant operations, the workers and the customers) had started to grow and he couldn’t leave it. And then Giuseppe got the opportunity to open his own restaurant. Someone he had met during his time at Cellini was looking to open a new restaurant and wanted Giuseppe to run it. Giuseppe was excited for this new endeavor but unfortunately, the business didn’t make it more than a year before it closed. In order to pay the bills and make up for the money he had lost, Giuseppe was forced to sell some of his real estate properties, but instead of getting frustrated with the situation, he decided to start over and open a restaurant his way. He found a small restaurant in Astoria for sale in the paper, went to see it a few times, bought it and then put all of the experience he had learned in his childhood and throughout his life into action. He hired a bunch of cooks, rather than one chef, and started creating recipes based off of the food and flavors he knew from the dishes his mother had cooked on their farm. And in 2010, Ornella Trattoria Italiana officially opened. 

ornella trattoria

Over the years, Giuseppe says he’s found more passion for food, rather than just the restaurant business. Although he doesn’t cook, he loves to create dishes that customers can’t find other places. He says that his philosophy about food is different than other restaurant owners. Like an architect, he builds the foundation of the dishes that he dreams up, based on flavor and fresh ingredients rather than a recipe (something he learned to understand on the farm) and his cooks create the dish itself. He explains to them what he wants and tries it and if he doesn’t like it, they do it again until it’s right. And once they’ve perfected it, they add it to the menu. Although creating these unique dishes and keeping their menu items fresh as well as keeping up with customers’ expectations for new items is challenging after so many years, it also keeps him on his toes, which he loves. He likes that he can surprise even his regular customers with new menu items for them to taste and give feedback on. He never wants his customer to get bored so he’s always trying to re-invent their menu and incorporate food items as they become popular. And he’s proud that the customers he attracts are young, intellectual people that know about food and current food trends and want to learn more. Giuseppe believes that as a food business, you have to be on top of everything going on in the industry, which keeps him from getting complacent. His mind is constantly active and working on ways that he can make a recipe better or improve the restaurant’s operations. “Even if there’s a line out the door” he says, “I’m always thinking of ways how I can keep this line out the door. Because the moment you stop trying to re-invent yourself, someone will do it better than you.”

Giuseppe’s uniqueness extends from his recipes to the restaurant itself. One of his hobbies is carpentry so all of the tables and chairs in his restaurant were made by him as well as the sign outside the restaurant. And rather than buy his ingredients from a food supplier, Giuseppe goes to the market every morning and buys what he needs for that day. Although buying from a supplier would be easier, Giuseppe doesn’t like that you can’t control the quality of the items that you receive and buying the items himself allows him to keep his food cost low. It also allows him to get ideas for new dishes that he can create if he sees produce he’s never used before that he can try out as a special for that day. And even though people may think that he runs his business in an “old-fashioned way” because he runs it with his sons (Giovanni, Angelo and Pino), Giuseppe understands that in order to connect with his customers, he needs to create an experience around his food. Which is why the first thing he does in the morning is check his social media, where he frequently posts videos showing how he created a new dish or curing meat at his farmhouse in the Catskills. He also doesn’t ignore negative reviews on Yelp like most restaurant owners. Instead he responds to them and uses it as a marketing tool, creating wallpaper in the restaurant’s bathroom with print outs of the negative reviews, which he says makes most customers laugh and even attracts customers because he says what people want to say but don’t. Because he’s so established in Astoria, he’s not worried about a lack of customers. He has so many positive reviews that he can afford to deal with the negative ones. It’s more important to him that he’s authentic because his customers appreciate his personality.

For Giuseppe, the most important thing that he sets out to do is deliver good food to his customers. But he hopes that people connect with his business because it’s memorable. From food to furniture, he doesn’t like anything in his restaurant to be “standard” and does everything in his power to create a unique brand that allows him to stand out from other Italian restaurants. He believes that people don’t remember the recipe for a dish they ate but they remember the story of the person behind the food and the atmosphere that they’ve created. His sons understand this mission and now help him run the business, which gives Giuseppe more time to experiment with dishes at his farm upstate, where he plans to build a greenhouse this year. Moving forward, he’s hoping that he can more deeply connect the restaurant to his farmhouse and bring it more in contact with nature to further influence the way he cooks. He wants to use his food to remind people that nature is where everything comes from and that we need to be more in touch with it. He’s hoping that his focus on nature’s impact and his unconventional branding will keep customers coming back to his restaurant.

 

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0 comments on “Monurai Bhakdina, Owner of Queen Cobra Thai”

Monurai Bhakdina, Owner of Queen Cobra Thai

This is Monurai (Mony) Bhakdina, the owner of Queen Cobra Thai, a business that she credits for making her realize that cooking is her true passion. Like many entrepreneurs in the food industry, Mony started Queen Cobra Thai because she had grown unhappy with her position in the corporate world. But unlike other entrepreneurs, Mony’s food tells a very personal story of carrying on her family’s tradition in a new home. Mony grew up in Bangkok, Thailand and came to the U.S. in 2004. Back then, she says, she couldn’t find any food that was like the food in Bangkok, so she began cooking a lot, recreating the recipes that her grandmother had taught her, as she was the cook in their family that everyone learned from. Her grandmother grew up in Thailand in the 1920s and when she was 10 years old, she was sent to work as a cook in the palace for a royal family. She worked there for fifteen years until she got married and then moved to Chiang Mai, where she opened her own restaurant, specializing in high-end Northern Thai cuisine. In 1983, when Mony’s parents decided to open their own restaurant in Bangkok, her grandmother taught them the recipes that she had created and how to cook each dish. Since her own restaurant had closed at this point and Mony’s father was working as an architect, her mother and grandmother ran the restaurant together for six or seven years until her grandmother was unable to continue working and they had to sell the business. Her grandmother then began teaching Mony how to cook, starting with food prep then spicy beef salad and massaman curry before moving onto more complex presentation skills like carving fresh ginger into flowers (which Mony says she’s still unable to do). It was this personal connection to food, and her family, that spurred Mony’s love for cooking and became a source of comfort for her when she moved to New York. Now Queen Cobra Thai is Mony’s way of passing along the authentic, home cooked, Thai meals that her grandmother taught her to others.

Before starting Queen Cobra Thai, Mony was working as a graphic designer at a small advertising company in Manhattan. She had decided to come the the U.S. after earning her degree in graphic design in Bangkok because she wanted to experience the New York lifestyle and since her brother and some relatives were already living in New York, it seemed like the perfect time. But after a while, she realized that the role she was working in was not her dream job. She was constantly feeling disappointed because clients were picking other designs over hers. She had started questioning herself and wondering if graphic design was the right career for her. Her friends and family, who she frequently cooked for and loved her food, saw how frustrated she had become with her job and kept encouraging her to start a food business. The idea stuck in her head and she thought about it more and more until 2013, when she decided to go for it. She knew that Smorgasburg was looking for new vendors and decided to test her food out there since the market would give her access to a large audience. She began selling her food at Smorgasburg on the weekends and working at her graphic design job during the week. She did this for a few months until her food became so popular that she was able to quit her job in graphic design and focus on her food business full-time.

For the first few years of the business, Mony sold her food at Smorgasburg, street fairs and other food festivals, cooking everything in her commercial kitchen in Bushwick and then transporting it to events. She was doing really well and getting a lot of compliments on the food as well as a lot of returning customers. Her customers soon started asking her to do catering for events and to host cooking classes so that they could learn to make the dishes themselves. After getting involved in catering and teaching, Mony decided to shift her business to focus solely on these two facets as the food market/street fair circuit had started to cause issues because it was forcing her to depend on a lot of other people to help run her business. Now she only offers catering and small cooking classes (for 2-6 people per class) out of her apartment. She no longer has her kitchen in Bushwick so she rents kitchen space from her friend who owns a restaurant in Chelsea where she preps and cooks all of her catering orders. Mony’s cousin, who works at the restaurant that she rents from, helps her cook the food and she also has four other people that she hires for a certain amount of hours for catering orders that help her with food prep and delivery. But for Mony, her personalized, hands-on cooking classes have become the most exciting  part of the business. She’s able to tell her story to small groups of people who really care about her food and are interested in learning where it comes from.

Just like her mother’s restaurant, all of the food on Queen Cobra Thai’s catering menu are recipes that Mony’s grandmother created. However, Mony tries to add her own style or twist to each dish, which sometimes ends up happening out of necessity when ingredients that she would typically have access to in Thailand (herbs, spices, palm sugar) aren’t available in the U.S. In some cases, she has to adjust the recipe altogether because she can’t make a substitute with a different ingredient. Although changing her grandmother’s recipes is hard for Mony, she’s used to customizing dishes for her clients that have allergies or dietary restrictions and is able to accommodate those changes. The toughest part for her though is trying to get her customers without dietary restrictions or allergies to stop limiting themselves with food that seems unusual to them. For Mony, Thai food is all about fresh herbs, unique ingredients and balancing flavors, and she wishes that more people were able to experience that and enjoy it rather than questioning it. She cares so deeply about each dish and what she’s putting into it that she wants every customer’s experience to be as authentic as possible so they can really understand the food and the culture behind it.

Food and beverage is an extremely hard industry to work in but doing so has allowed Mony to finally figure out what she loves to do and she’s excited every morning when she wakes up to teach a cooking class or prep food for a catering order. The reason she started Queen Cobra Thai was because of her grandmother and her family and her desire to share their story through the food that she creates. And although she hasn’t been able to yet, Mony still has her sights set on opening up a brick and mortar location within a year or two and continuing her family’s tradition. However, since running a restaurant is so expensive and she doesn’t want to risk all of the money that she’s earned in her food business, she’s planning to open a dessert shop where customers can pair Thai desserts with tea. Not only is this Mony’s goal because she likes sweets, she’s also realistic and recognizes that a smaller-scale operation will provide her a better chance of success in the long run. As Mony knows, once you find something that you’re passionate about, you just keep doing it, no matter what.

 

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Eva Lokaj, Director of Marketing & Public Relations at Old Traditional Polish Cuisine

This is Eva Lokaj, the Director of Marketing and Public Relations at Old Traditional Polish Cuisine. Beside her are her husband, Grzegorz (Greg) Gryzlak (right) and his best friend, Przemyslaw (Mek) Motyka (left), the co-owners of Old Traditional Polish Cuisine. This 3-person team began brainstorming how they could fill the void they saw in the New York food industry after realizing how underrepresented Polish food was throughout all five boroughs. At the time, Eva was working at Calvin Klein, Greg was working in construction and Mek was running a cafe in Ridgewood but they felt the need to create a solution since there were limited Polish restaurants to begin with and more and more were closing. So after about a year of research into the market and creating recipes for the menu, they decided to open a food truck with a five borough permit to not only re-introduce Polish food to consumers but to also be able to meet demand, whether it was in Manhattan or Brooklyn or Queens. The food truck gave them the ability to service more people by bringing the food to them directly on the street as well as to specific locations for private events, weddings, after parties and catering. The food truck officially launched in April 2013 and after five years of business, their mission is the same: to bring their culture and traditions to the streets of New York City.

Eva, Greg and Mek all felt a connection to Polish food because it’s the food they grew up eating. However, Eva notes, the concept and passion for the food truck really started with Greg and Mek as a way to bring a piece of home to New York. Greg and Mek were both born and raised in Poland and emigrated to the U.S. when they were teenagers. Eva was born and raised in New York and although she speaks Polish fluently, had a more typical “American” upbringing. She went to St. Vincent High School and then Iona College and growing up she says she didn’t have a lot of Polish friends. In fact, she hadn’t dated any Polish guys until she met Greg through a mutual friend. However, her mother made sure that she understood her heritage and growing up her home was constantly full of Polish dishes that her mother created. So when Greg and Mek decided to pursue the food truck full-time, she left her job to help them run the business. She now does all the marketing and PR for the food truck as well as running their catering operations. She also works part-time as an office manager at a jewelry company. Luckily the schedule is flexible with a certain amount of hours that she’s responsible for each week so she’s able to coordinate her work at the jewelry company around marketing outreach, meetings and their catering schedule each week. Eva doesn’t have any formal training in marketing but tries to work every angle to get their name out there. From social media to email marketing to creating doughnuts with the Polish flag on them in celebration of the 100 year anniversary of Polish independence, she knows that the more recognizable their business is, the more customers will be attracted to it.

eva & team in food truck

Although the food truck gives them the ability to meet consumer demand directly, Eva says the logistics of the truck is also the most challenging part of the business. Every morning they load everything onto the truck and get to their spot for the day between 5AM and 7AM, depending on the spot. It’s crucial that you get to the spot you want before construction crews come with their trucks and vans or before the street gets too packed so that you’re ready to serve for lunch time. If you’re late, you’ll lose out on customers in popular areas or you could lose the food that you prepared for that day. However, over the years she says they’ve figured out how much food they’ll need for each day on the truck so that’s usually not an issue for them, especially since they now have a commissary kitchen in Brooklyn. They use the kitchen to prep the food needed for the truck, a majority of which they source from local Polish food vendors throughout New York. Their kielbasa is made by a Polish butcher specifically for them and their bread comes from a Polish bakery in the city. They work with a few different vendors to help create their dishes as they’re not able to prepare all of the food themselves. However, they will create a few dishes on the truck (Hunter’s Stew, grilled chicken, salads) and there’s no one main chef, all three of them contribute to the cooking. Any other items that they can’t get in the U.S. (such as Polish mustard, soda and water), they import from Poland to make sure that every item on their truck is Polish.

Just like their cooking, the inspiration behind their recipes comes from all three of them. Since they all grew up eating Polish food, they wanted to create a menu based off of their family recipes. However, every region in Poland adds their own unique spin on most dishes so they decided to combine each one of their “personal touches” to create their own recipes that they thought everyone would enjoy. They then had Eva’s mother taste test everything and approve it before it was added to the menu. They want customers who try their food to feel like they’re enjoying a traditional Polish lunch or dinner in Poland, so it was vital to them that each recipe was as authentic as possible. And it seems that they’ve succeeded. Customers will come to their food truck with a smile and say “This is how my grandmother used to make it!” or “I miss Polish food so much, I’m so glad that you guys are here!”, which Eva says is the most rewarding part of the business. Being able to bring their food to diverse groups of people all over New York and have them appreciate what it is and the tradition behind it is their passion.

 

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Jacob Ryvkin, Co-Owner of Let’s Poke

This is Jacob Ryvkin, the co-owner of Let’s Poke, a restaurant that he started with his business partner, Alex, who he’s been friends with since high school. Alex handles the back-end operations of the business and Jacob handles the restaurant itself (the management, the menu creation, and the daily operations), since he he began working in restaurants when he was just fifteen years old. Jacob grew up in New York and comes from an immigrant family. His parents were musicians in restaurants so he grew up very familiar with the restaurant lifestyle and always had a love for food. He was independent from a young age and wanted to make money, so it felt natural for him to seek work in the restaurant industry. He started out busing tables and then waiting tables, doing various jobs in different restaurants throughout high school and college. And although he ended up getting a degree in business management and finance and worked a few corporate jobs in finance and real estate, he always found himself getting bored and unhappy with the work. He was constantly drawn back into food and restaurants and eventually realized that his “fall back option” had turned into his passion. Now Jacob uses his 20+ years of experience in catering and fine dining to provide restaurant-quality, high-end, ingredient-driven food to his customers in Let’s Poke’s fast casual setting.

Once Jacob realized how happy he was working in the food industry, he started educating himself on the different aspects of each restaurant’s operations: front of house, back of house, kitchen, bar, and as he worked his way up the chain of command, his love for the industry grew. By the time he was twenty-four, he was managing Rasputin, a night club in Brooklyn, NY, where he was running a crew of 100 people with full banquet service, a band and cabaret and doing over $10 million in sales a year. Jacob eventually left Rasputin and worked at a few different banquet halls and night clubs before deciding to put his experience to the test and branch out on his own. He was on the West Coast scouting spaces to open a new night life concept when he was introduced to poke. Being someone who eats a ton of sushi, he found that a lot of the great sushi flavor was offered in poke, while also being a healthy, filling meal that’s more unique and complex than a salad. He immediately started playing with the poke concept in his head and when he returned to New York, he began doing research into the poke spots that had begun popping up at that time. He thought he could do a lot with the poke concept and was so excited about executing it that he and Alex decided to steer away from night life environment and put their project on hold to pursue this fast casual idea. They began brainstorming and planning a little over a year and a half ago and officially opened Let’s Poke in April 2018.

let's poke sign

Since Let’s Poke is such a new business, Jacob says that it’s been challenging to spread awareness about the business itself, especially since a lot of poke places have opened recently and every one of them is on social media. The New York market is so saturated to begin with, it’s hard to gain recognition, even if your current customers love what you’re doing. However, he knows that they have an excellent product due to versatility of their menu items (there’s over 6,000 ways the customer can customize their bowl or burrito) and the chef-driven ingredients that they offer. All of their sauces are made from scratch and most of the items that they serve are also made in-house. They use premium grade fish and have chicken and beef available as alternative protein options. They also offer a lot of high-end sushi ingredients as toppings for the poke that other restaurants don’t have, such as tamago, crispy salmon skins and ikura. However, the most unique thing about Let’s Poke is that they’ve also adapted the poke concept to fit New York’s fast paced environment with their self-ordering kiosks. Jacob recognized that since not everyone in New York is familiar with poke, walking into a poke restaurant can be daunting. The customer may not only be confused by the vast variety of items themselves, a line set up where they’re talking to multiple different people while trying to place an order as well as ask questions about the items can make it even more confusing and can quickly turn the ordering process into a frustrating experience, for both the customer and the staff. So they removed the confusion and made the process more efficient with self-ordering kisosks, where the customer is shown the menu in a step-by-step guided motion with pictures of each item and a brief description (if needed). Not only is this less confusing and more efficient (cutting down on order time by up to three or four minutes), it also eliminates 90% of errors that come up during an order. Jacob admits that errors still do happen, someone may misread a ticket or forget an ingredient, but at least they know the error is on their end as the customer has taken the time to select exactly what they wanted for their meal. Their ability to provide authentic flavor while making the ordering process so customizable with unique menu elements is something other poke vendors simply don’t offer.

Although they’ve only been operating Let’s Poke for about nine months, Jacob is focused on creating more buzz for the business by scaling out into more catering and events and eventually creating more brick and mortar locations. Because he and his team try to go the extra mile with food preparation, he feels strongly that they have restaurant-standard food that they’re able to provide to customers in the same time frame and for the same price point as you would expect to get at a fast casual place. And he hopes that their commitment to quality is reflected in each customer’s experience. For him, the best part of running a food business is the diverse group of people that you meet and the fact that you can have such a personal experience with each one of them. However, his advice for other entrepreneurs in the food industry is to really love the business and to research and understand the amount of time and energy that you need to contribute to produce a successful business. Although food has been very fulfilling for him and he loves interacting with customers, hearing their feedback and introducing new customers to poke, he recognizes that it’s very complex and stressful industry. So he advises everyone from the business owner to the bus boy in a restaurant to truly love what they’re doing because “unless you have love for the game, this business is for the insane”.

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0 comments on “Susan Palmer, Owner of Little Red Kitchen Bake Shop”

Susan Palmer, Owner of Little Red Kitchen Bake Shop

This is Susan Palmer, the owner of Little Red Kitchen Bake Shop. A native New Yorker, Susan grew up on Long Island with a family that always seemed to have a connection to food. Her grandfather owned a wholesale candy business in Brooklyn so growing up she remembers hearing stories about the “candy man” whose staircases were always lined with boxes of candy. Watching Julia Child on PBS or other cooking shows was a normal occurrence for her and her three brothers, all of whom worked in restaurants throughout their lives as servers and cooks. One of her brothers even went on to open his own restaurant in Great Neck. Although no one in her family is trained professionally, both of her parents cooked regularly so cooking, baking and working in restaurants always felt natural to them and they all had a passion for it. However Susan didn’t think of pursuing a career in food until 2011 when she decided that she wanted a hobby to dedicate her free time to and started a food blog. After growing frustrated with the lack of growth in her corporate job and realizing that she could earn a living from the content she created on her blog, she took a risk and turned her hobby into a career. And although her kitchen is no longer little or red, Susan is committed to staying loyal to her brand of home style baked goods by using high quality ingredients and only creating small batches of her mouthwatering desserts.

Susan was a music major in college and worked at a theatre company on Broadway for eight years before starting her own business. Although she loves music and plays orchestral percussion, she has stage fright and recognized that as a woman in the music industry with limited performance spots to begin with and no interest in teaching, building a career in music would be hard for her to sustain. So she decided to work in an industry where she could still appreciate the music without the uncertainty of being a performer. She says that she really enjoyed her time working in the theatre industry but as the years continued, she hit a plateau in her position and became unhappy with her job. She began dreading going to work and turned to her food blog (named after the red kitchen she was cooking in in her 7×7 apartment) as a side project since she was already making various dishes at home and taking pictures of them for fun. During this time she also began entering different cooking competitions, most notably The Takedowns, a competition that was started in Brooklyn by Matt Timms where self-taught cooks bring their various creations, including cookies, for people to taste and vote for the best ones. Susan did the cookie takedown in 2011 and 2013 and won both times and also won in 2012 when she did the ice cream takedown. Through these competitions she realized that people enjoyed what she was making, since she kept winning, and her blog was bringing in enough revenue to allow her to earn a living. With this knowledge, she decided to turn her love of cooking into a career and began working on her own recipes and taking steps to open her own business.

Susan continued entering competitions, running her food blog and working full time until 2014. Once she had committed to the idea of running her own business, she strongly believed that if she was going to open her own bake shop, she was going to do it right and took the time to do just that. She used the entire year of 2013 to create a business plan with a consultant and did a lot of research to perfect her chocolate chip cookie recipe. In May 2014, she did a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the business and officially launched it that fall. However, she continued working for the theatre company for another year after that to give herself a solid foundation to rely on before transitioning to the bake shop full time. She says that she did have some anxiety about lack of money and stability when starting the business and then again when she made it her full time focus. But it wasn’t as much anxiety as a music career would have given her or the anxiety that she felt at a job she was unhappy doing. Food brought her joy and she felt less uncertainty starting her own business because she was taking matters into her own hands and choosing her own path. Like any entrepreneur, there were a few moments when she second guessed herself but she kept pushing through them and was quickly able to learn the hustle of the food industry.

Today Susan has grown the blog that started in her little, red kitchen into a successful wholesale business. She sells her cookies, brownies and blondies at small retailers throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn and also does food service for the catering department at Murray’s Cheese and 10Below Ice Cream. She does her own catering as well and has a reputation for creating custom items for her clients. The toughest part of the business is that the dessert market is very saturated in New York so it’s difficult to find customers to sell her products to. Which is why she’s so intent on keeping her items homemade and authentic in order to differentiate herself from the many other bake shops and dessert businesses that she’s competing with. Everything is made to order in small batches by Susan or her baking assistant. She’s very picky about the types of ingredients that she’ll use because quality matters to her more than anything. Almost every ingredient they use is organic. She won’t use corn syrup or enriched flour and will only use food coloring when a client requests it. On top of having a product that tastes good, she doesn’t want her items to be loaded with additives that are bad for her customer’s bodies. It’s more important for her to create high quality products than do something that’s better for her financially. Which is also why she bakes a lot of vegan and gluten free customized items and takes her time creating them so that anything vegan or gluten free doesn’t “taste” vegan or gluten free. She enjoys that her customer’s dietary restrictions have helped her think outside the box of what’s considered “normal” for baking.

Susan recently moved into a larger commercial kitchen in Brooklyn and her focus now is expanding into more retail locations and doing more catering. She’s always working to make sure that her products are the best quality possible and that they create a taste that you remember. Her mission is to take the cookies that you loved growing up and make them even more delicious, so that when you bite into one of her cookies, you get a flashback to your childhood… but it’s even better than you remember. The most rewarding part of the business for Susan is making customers happy and she strives to recreate “that warm feeling inside” that you get when an experience makes you nostalgic. She hopes that when customers buy her products she’s able to transfer to them the joy that she gets from cooking and baking and will always go the extra mile to make sure that her customer is satisfied. 

 

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PriaVanda Chouhan, Owner of Desi Galli

This is PriaVanda Chouhan, the owner of Desi Galli, a fast casual restaurant that specializes in Indian street food. What makes Pria such a unique business owner is that before Desi Galli, she had no experience in the food industry (other than a few years working at McDonald’s). Her parents moved from India to Montreal, Canada in 1973 and at that time, there wasn’t much variety in regards to Indian food. There were only one or two Indian restaurants in the city and they found that they didn’t have traditional Indian flavors and weren’t as authentic as what they could create themselves at home. So growing up, food was a major part of Pria’s life as lunch and dinner were made daily in her home. However, it was typically either her mother or her sister cooking. Pria would always help in the kitchen, peeling potatoes or washing dishes, but she hated the grunt work of food prep and had no interest in learning how to cook since someone else in the family was already doing it for her. It wasn’t until she moved to New York and got married in 2009 that she decided to to learn how to cook. She and her husband were gaining weight eating out at different restaurants and they never felt satisfied with the Indian food that they tried because it never tasted like the food at home. So she taught herself to cook watching Food Network and shows like Rachael Ray and calling her mom, her sister and her mother-in-law for advice on creating different dishes. At the time, she says, she didn’t have any bigger picture in mind other than gaining “basic life skills”, but after trying in vain to get a job during and after the recession, she was frustrated and decided to create her own destiny. So she created a menu based on the dishes that she and her husband grew up eating and in 2012, opened Desi Galli.

Desi Galli was not an overnight success. Although Pria had been cooking for two to three years at this point, starting with simple recipes and then building upon that foundation, she had issues transferring her recipe knowledge from feeding 3-4 people to mass production. In the restaurant she had to do a lot of taste testing to make sure that each ingredient was portioned correctly so that the dishes weren’t too salty or too creamy. She also had never been in charge of a kitchen so with the help of her first employee (who now manages her Lexington Avenue location), they figured out what equipment and set up was needed to run a line as they went. In the first year, her husband managed the restaurant while also working at his full-time job so that he could help Pria as she was learning the different areas of the business. Despite the insane hours she and her husband were working and the threat of bankruptcy looming over her head, Pria worked through her mistakes and was able to start listening to her customer’s requests. Their menu started out as mainly Indian street food because she wanted that “tapas feel” of having a little bit of everything that she and her husband enjoyed. But she noticed that people were coming into the restaurant and asking for traditional dishes, which they didn’t offer. She realized that she had to “ease the customer into the food”, i.e. let them try the traditional, staple items first and then educate them about chaat and kathi rolls. So she changed the menu to incorporate the classic dishes that customers were looking for as well as heavier items for dinner, such as biryani and naan. These changes helped in stabilizing the business and allowed her to get a better understanding of how a fast casual restaurant needs to run.

Looking back Pria says that she may have jumped into the restaurant industry a little too quickly. She was offered the space for her restaurant in February and opened in May and admittedly did very little research into the business beforehand. However, she knew how to run a business from her time working as a Regional Sales Manager for a clothing line in Canada (where she managed the province of Quebec and had 250 employees working underneath her) and she trusted her instinct that this was the right move. Now she has a handle on how the industry runs and is ready to focus on improving her business model and expanding it. One of the biggest things she’s concentrated on at the moment is educating people about her food. She said people will sometimes tell her that her food “doesn’t taste like India”, which she tries not to take personally as all of the recipes for her menu items come from somewhere in their family, with Pria adding her own spin to it. However, she attributes this comment to the lack of understanding that there are different interpretations of Indian food, which are often based on where your family is from and the way you grew up eating a specific food. For Pria, Desi Galli is her interpretation of what she and her husband grew up eating. But one significant thing that does impact the taste of her food is Pria’s commitment to cutting back on heavy creams and oils that are traditionally found in Indian food. After her weight gain the first few months in New York, she started educating herself on what she was eating and became much more conscious of that fats and oils that your body can’t digest and make you feel bad. Therefore, when creating the menu for Desi Galli, she tried to keep items lighter and healthier, which benefits customers and also allows her to stand out from the heaviness of her competitors.

Desi Galli is a unique business. The name itself comes from the restaurant’s structure: desi meaning “one from the Indian subcontinent” and galli meaning “alley”, so “Indian alley” because the space is so narrow. It makes it seem like you’re going to a hole in the wall, which Pria plays into with her delicious and unique menu items like chicken tikka sliders or their famous desipoutine (french fries with tikka sauce and grated paneer). But more than being known for their unique food, Pria also wants to be known for being a “no pressure” restaurant where people can sit and have a cup of chai or eat a snack without feeling like there’s any rush. In New York she found that there weren’t many places to eat, drink and hang out as compared to Montreal, where cafes are very common. So she created Desi Galli to be a cafe-esque space with outlets everywhere so that customers are encouraged to hang out and do work, read or just chill. She incorporates this European vibe to remind customers to take some time alone to slow down and relax when things get hectic. For Pria, keeping customers happy is the most rewarding part of the business. Whether they’re eating in the restaurant or ordering catering, she loves hearing that her customers love her food or got so many compliments at an event that they’re recommending Desi Galli to a friend for catering. It gives her the belief that customers are becoming more open-minded and willing to step out of their comfort zone when you create a good product.

Although the unpredictability of fast casual restaurants is one of the most challenging parts of the business for Pria, she’s looking forward to continuing to expand her business. She now has a second Desi Galli location in the East Village and both locations are doing very well. She says that she’s open to reinventing menu items if she sees that demand again from customers but her current concentration is continuing to do what she’s doing and do it really well. She did face some sexism when she first started out, specifically from other male business owners in her area but now that she’s established herself, she feels that she is part of a larger community that’s working to diversify the New York food industry.

 

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Brian Goldberg, Founder & CEO of Mr. Bing

This is Brian Goldberg, the Founder & CEO of Mr. Bing. Brian opened his first Mr. Bing location in Hong Kong in 2013 but the road that led him to Mr. Bing (and eventually back to the U.S.) is a very long and interesting one. Born and raised in Rockland County, New York, he says that his love for Chinese culture comes from a combination of relationships, food, language, film, music and literature. He grew up eating Chinese food once a week with his family. Whether it was ordering in on Friday night or going out to eat on Sunday, it was part of the culture in his community, so much so that his father taught him how to use chopsticks at age 7. In college he was required to take a language and, having grown tired of the Spanish classes that he’d taken all his life and that he’d also learned from his father (who was a Spanish teacher), he decided to take Mandarin because he was dating a girl whose family spoke Mandarin. During this time he got really into Chinese film and music and ended up majoring in Chinese. He was studying abroad in Beijing, China in 1998 when he was first introduced to the jianbing (pronounced jen-bing), a savory Chinese street crepe that a little, old lady would cook on the back of a bicycle cart outside his dorm room every morning. He had one every day when he was abroad and loved them so much that he told himself that he would bring them back to the U.S. one day. Although it would be years before he acted on this desire, it was during his time in China as a student that the idea for Mr. Bing was born. Today Brian has contributed to the food fabric of New York with his introduction of the jianbing and is committed to expanding the product’s capabilities to make bings a part of mainstream culture in the U.S. 

Brian was supposed to go to medical school after returning from China and receiving his undergraduate degree but decided to do a Masters in Chinese Studies at Columbia University instead. During this Masters program he was required to take a few classes at the business school, one of which was entrepreneurship. He was asked to write a business plan for anything he wanted, so he wrote one for Goldberg’s Chinese Crepes, a six page plan that focused on creating a chain of street carts around NYC, modeled after the hot dog stands that you can find on most corners and the bicycle carts that jianbings were traditionally sold off of in China. While completing his Masters degree, Brian was also competing as a professional athlete in luge, which was a huge passion of his. He competed for a few years and traveled around the world, simultaneously working as the translator for the Chinese and Taiwanese national teams. He retired after the 2002 Olympics and since he had no money or experience in the food industry to execute the plan for the bing business that he had worked on during his Masters program, he put the idea on hold and started working for NBC.

Brian worked as an NBC page and bilingual tour guide at 30 Rock, leading English and Chinese tours of the TV studios before moving over to CNBC and working as an assistant producer at the New York Stock Exchange. Next NBC moved him to Singapore to help cover Asian business news, which he did for a few years and then worked as a sports reporter for a few years as well. However, he really enjoyed his time at the New York Stock Exchange so he decided to leave the journalism industry and started working in finance for an investment bank. He spent ten years at this bank, first living in Taiwan and then Hong Kong. Although he enjoyed his time in finance and was learning a lot, he started getting tired of the industry and began thinking about what was next for him. He always knew that he wanted to start his own business one day but didn’t know what the business should be. Then, about six years ago while he was living in Hong Kong, he was in Beijing for a weekend trip and ate a jianbing and all of his earlier ideas came rushing back to his mind. He remembered his old business plan for Goldberg’s Chinese Crepes and figured it was time to put his plan into action. So he changed the business name to Mr. Bing, combined his money with some money from a friend and opened a little store in the financial district in Hong Kong. He ran this store for two years while also working in finance. And although they were the first restaurant making bings in Hong Kong, since they were mixed in with many other types of Asian food, they were forced to sell the food at really low prices and it was hard to make a profit. However, he noticed that most of his customers were from Northern China or were expats from the U.S., Australia and the U.K. He realized that Hong Kong wasn’t the right market for his bings and that they would do much better in the U.S. because there was no one else creating the product there. So he shut down his Hong Kong operation, quit his job in finance, sold his apartment and moved back to New York in 2015.

Mr. Bing Blog

Instead of opening a store front right away, Brian introduced Mr. Bing to the New York market by doing pop ups: the Garment District pop up, Broadway Bites, Madison Square Eats, Bryant Park Winter Village, etc. He did this circuit for about a year and won the Vendy Award for Best New Street Food in New York. During this time, he met the owners of Urbanspace who offered him his first permanent location at the Vanderbilt food hall. It opened in January 2017 and based on how well it was doing, they were able to raise enough capital from professional investors to open their second location in Times Square. This past year, Mr. Bing opened it’s first storefront in Chelsea, which doubles as their headquarters and also has a commissary kitchen for their catering business, which Brian says is doing very well. They’ve partnered with food service companies like Aramark and Compass Group to do institutional catering at companies like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Twitter and LinkedIn where they open Mr. Bing kiosks that rotate throughout the year. They’ve also expanded their menu to include dumplings, baos, bubble tea, egg drop soup and most recently, rice bowls. And although they’ve gotten some criticism from Chinese customers who say their bings aren’t authentic because they’re not the bings that they grew up eating (Mr. Bing offers a variety of meat fillings), Brian is committed to preserving the traditional bing that they started out creating. He admits that although their bings are very authentic to what you’ll find in China, Mr. Bing isn’t a 100% replica of the jianbing and he doesn’t want it to be. Their menu is more Westernized and is an evolving process that they’re always trying to improve. Being in New York, they have to listen to what customers want and develop their offerings to meet those demands. However, whether a customer loves the bings or thinks they’re just okay, he finds that most customers, Chinese customers especially, are just happy that they’re here.

Moving forward, Brian’s plan is to open more locations in New York and to continue to perfect the business model before expanding to other cities. He wants to improve their operations, streamline production and tell their story more, so that they can teach more people about where the food comes from. He would also like to incorporate more modern Chinese culture into their stores and kiosks with music and art but says that they’re not there yet. Right now the company’s mission is to introduce bings and other Northern Chinese street foods such as dumplings and baos to the Western world and in order to do so, they have to make sure that they do bings really well. For Brian, the most rewarding part of the business is seeing the impact that Mr. Bing has had on the New York food scene as he’s watched the gradual increase of people who know what bings are and love them as much as he does. It’s amazing to watch people realizing that bings exist and understand that there’s another type of Chinese food that they’ve never had before that Mr. Bing is bringing them. The growing knowledge of this unique and fun product is a testament to Brian that what he and his team are doing is meaningful and although he says he’s “only giving people good food”, he feels like he’s made his mark on the world.

 

 

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Steven Zhik, Operational Manager at Eight Turn Crepe

This is Steven Zhik, the operational manager at Eight Turn Crepe. The concept for this Japanese creperie was brought to New York from Japan by Hiro Nishida in 2012. Hiro was born in Japan and has 20+ years of experience in the hospitality industry through his work in both Japan and New York. Although he currently lives in New York, through his travels back and forth to Japan, he noticed that street crepes were becoming more and more popular and that nothing like it existed in his food community in New York. Served in a cone, the crepe is eaten on the go, which Hiro thought made it perfect for the hustle and bustle that New York City is known for. So he decided to introduce it to the New York market and opened the first Eight Turn Crepe location in Soho with his business partner, Tanya Mirvis. The fast casual restaurant was the first Japanese creperie to open in NYC and presented a new meal concept to the NYC food scene. Steven joined the team in 2016 after being connected with Tanya through a mutual friend. A huge fan of the product, Steven was a regular customer at Eight Turn Crepe before meeting Tanya. After speaking with her about the business, he knew right away that he had to be part of their team. His focus now is understanding their customer on a deeper level (dietary preferences, food trends and spending habits) and using that knowledge to grow their business in the U.S. and internationally.

Steven was born in Ukraine and came to the U.S. when he was 10 years old. He graduated from Pace with a degree in finance and economics in 2001, just two months after the September 11th terrorist attacks, and due the economic and social climate at the time, it was very difficult to get a job. So he and a few friends decided to pause their job searches and travel the world. They traveled for about six months and during this time, Steven ended up meeting someone in Vietnam who was from Queens and who he shared some mutual connections with. He was running a tattoo business in the East Village and told Steven to reach out to him when got back to the U.S. if he was interested in helping him out with the business. When Steven got back to New York a few months later, he contacted him and began running their storefront. Two years later, they had opened up two other store locations and Steven had become a partner in the business. This launched Steven’s career in retail. He worked in the retail industry for 17 years, opening up clothing stores and gift shops until he decided that he wanted to invest in a new business and was introduced to Tanya at Eight Turn Crepe. He thought the rice crepe was very unique and already knew that it was high quality from his time as a customer there. Although he had no experience in the food industry, he felt compelled to join the business. So he left the retail industry and became a partner in Eight Turn Crepe.

Once Steven joined the team, he took over all business operations. His day to day now centers around running Eight Turn Crepe’s store operations and catering business. Unfortunately, they were forced to close their flagship Soho location in 2016 just as he was coming on board due to increasing rent. But luckily around the same time they were invited to open a location at the DeKalb Market Hall in Brooklyn, after being handpicked by management there to be a part of it’s innovative dining experience. DeKalb Market is where they currently operate from and so far they’ve been very successful there. There’s a lot of foot traffic during the week throughout the lunch hour because they’re surrounded by a lot of corporate offices and even more so on the weekends with the Market’s daily live programming. Although the industry is much more labor intensive than Steven is used to, he says he’s never regretted his decision to join the business. And after spending two and half years learning the business and the food industry itself, he’s much more comfortable coordinating the staff (which can vary anywhere from nine to fifteen people at a time), and their schedules and the dealing with the inevitable turnover that comes with most food businesses. Like all industries, there are pros and cons but for Steven it has always been more rewarding than challenging.

Steve + Employee from Eight Turn Crepe

Steven is usually at the store 3-5 days a week, which has allowed him to get to know their customer much better than he anticipated. He recognized that consumers are becoming much more health conscious (asking if their crepe batter contains eggs, milk or gluten), which led to their menu expansion to include vegan crepes and an overhaul of their store to make it more vegan-friendly: dedicating a crepe maker to make only vegan crepes, specifying certain utensils to be used and creating a new fridge and counter area where only vegan ingredients will be stored.  Although they are still in the process of rolling out their vegan crepes and finalizing the logistics of the menu change, Steven’s interactions with customers in DeKalb Market have allowed him to zero in on areas of the business that need to be developed and put his efforts into developing them. However, he recognizes that the traditional recipe that they started with is what attracts most of their customers, so they’ll always offer the rice crepes that they’re famous for. Steven sees their menu development as a way to keep up with changing food trends and expand the business as well as to continue to reach their varied clientele. Similar to the business itself, they don’t plan on changing their recipe, just adding to it.

Steven works very hard to make sure that their customer service is top notch, so the most rewarding part of the business for him is reading reviews about how friendly the staff was or hearing from a customer how much they loved their crepe. He’s put a lot of energy into building a team that cares about the business and that care shows in their satisfied customers and the positive energy that surrounds the location itself. He’s hoping to use their DeKalb Market location as a model for future locations as he concentrates on franchising the business in places like Texas and the Middle East. But for now he plans to continue to work on getting their store operations and catering business down to a science, while continuing to listen to the needs of their customers and providing a solution that fits with their brand.

 

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0 comments on “Dhanny and Joe Palma, Co-Owners of My Kitchen”

Dhanny and Joe Palma, Co-Owners of My Kitchen

This is Dhanny and Joe Palma, the co-owners of My Kitchen. Although they grew up in different environments- Dhanny was born and raised in Trinidad and Joe is a first generation Italian American who was raised in Brooklyn- both Dhanny and Joe had a passion for food and understood that meals were always an experience that you shared with family and friends. After meeting through a newspaper ad and building an extremely successful catering business which they ran together for almost 20 years, this husband and wife team decided to take on a a new endeavor: a restaurant/banquet hall, aptly named My Kitchen, where they decided they would serve customers as if they were having a dinner party at home and welcoming guests into their kitchen. Having been in the corporate food industry for many years, Dhanny and Joe wanted to create a relaxing and inviting space where the focus is on good food and good company and nothing else. Dhanny and Joe’s passion for food and love of entertaining has allowed them to build a business with the customer in mind every step of the way. Every facet of their restaurant centers around the question: “how would we want it done for us?” and is executed based on that answer. 

Dhanny and Joe met in 1993 after Joe put an ad in the newspaper looking for someone who was good with computers to help him run the catering business he had just started. Dhanny, who was working as a broker at the time, felt unmotivated in her position, worn down by her commute and was looking for a change when she happened to see the ad and reached out to Joe to say that she was interested and to set up a meeting. They quickly became the best of friends and started building their first business, Culinary Concepts. They worked out of a commissary kitchen in Astoria and although they struggled at first to pay the bills and themselves, they grew their reputation as a reliable vendor with delicious food and began working with corporate clients like Meals on Wheels and Delta. Together they grew the business into a multi-million dollar company with 25 employees, creating pre-packaged meals and catering corporate lunches, meetings and parties. However, over time they began to see changes, both in the food industry and outside it, that were effecting the business. Less people were ordering corporate catering and more were going out for lunch and dinner and renting out venues for holiday parties. Delta filed for bankruptcy in 2005 and their profit margin with Meals on Wheels was getting smaller. They were getting by but they weren’t making money and they knew the end of the business was coming. So in April 2012, they decided to make a change and close the business.

After closing Culinary Concepts, Dhanny and Joe weren’t sure what their next step would be so they floated around for a few months. They used commercial kitchens to cater for some of their corporate clients and Joe went on a few interviews for chef positions. But after being self-employed, Joe was frustrated at the idea of working under someone else and felt he would be moving backwards. So one day, after Joe came home from an interview feeling defeated, Dhanny said let’s just find a new place and start again, so they began looking at retail locations with a broker and were introduced to My Kitchen. It was an existing business that was being sold and when they walked into the location, Dhanny says, it immediately “felt like it was us”. However, unlike their corporate catering operation, they wanted this new business to be on their own terms. They felt that the food industry had been very difficult on their family life and general well-being in the past, so they set out to run a business that worked for them and allowed them time to see their children and granddaughter, take a vacation or take a mental health day whenever they wanted. With that in mind, they signed the lease for the space in November 2012 and re-opened My Kitchen.

Dhanny and Joe turned My Kitchen into an Italian-Caribbean fusion restaurant that also does corporate catering and events, such as weddings, baby showers, birthday parties and corporate events. Because it was extremely important to them that this business be more relaxed than other restaurants, where customers come in and eat their food, they strive to make customers feel like they’re dining in their home away from home. Every dish is made to order by Chef Joe and served by Dhanny. They have no wait staff, bartenders or line cooks other than a sous chef that helps Joe in the kitchen. There’s no rhyme or reason to their menu, it’s just good food that they would eat and the specials each day are inspired by the dishes that they’re in the mood to eat or create. There’s also no rush when you dine at My Kitchen. As Dhanny notes, they would rather have a handful of really happy, satisfied customers than crowds of customers that are annoyed that their server isn’t giving them enough attention or feel that they’re being rushed out so a table can be turned over. At My Kitchen “there’s more to life than the in and out” of customers. Their focus is to create a dining experience that demonstrates the passion and love that they have for food and for creating meals that their customers love. They run the business not to make money but because they genuinely enjoy working together and they love what they do. And they want to share that love with their customers; their business being successful is just an added bonus.

Since Dhanny and Joe have so much experience in the food industry and really understand it, they don’t have the same fear that many new business owners have, which is that if you’re not open, customers won’t come back. They know that the personal touch they add by cooking and serving the meals themselves has created a loyal customer base and guests continuously come back to dine with them. And with the different areas of their business (catering and on-site events) they always have something to do if the restaurant isn’t full. Both Dhanny and Joe know that they way they operate My Kitchen is way outside the norm but they’ve put their time in in the food industry and now want to enjoy their hard work by cooking and entertaining, which is what they love to do. For Dhanny, it feels like a lot of people have forgotten what it is to go out and dine. It used to be a special time when you would enjoy the company of one or more people, without focusing on your phone or worrying about anything beyond the food in front of you. With each meal, My Kitchen tries to bring back that significance and remind its customers that a meal is an experience to take part in.

Although Dhanny had it in her mind that they would only work for five more years when they signed the lease for My Kitchen, they’ve now been in business for six years and don’t have any plans to close. “Maybe next year we’ll stop”, Dhanny says as she laughs and even though she says that a part of her would love to, she doesn’t think she and Joe could ever stop working in the food industry altogether. They love meeting and hosting customers and a lot of their customers have become good friends. One couple they met even became the godparents to their daughter. Right now though, they’re enjoying what they do and wake up each day excited to see what it will bring. So they’ll keep working until they’re ready to move to the next chapter.

 

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0 comments on “Kristen Tomlan, Owner of DO, Cookie Dough Confections”

Kristen Tomlan, Owner of DO, Cookie Dough Confections

This is Kristen Tomlan, the owner of DO, Cookie Dough Confections. Food was always an important part of Kristen’s life growing up in Missouri. Her mom is a chef so she had firsthand experience of the intricacies of cooking and baking and the creativity that it requires, which spurred her love for both. However, as a teenager she didn’t see a way that her love of baking could translate into a career, so she channeled her creativity into design and continued baking as a hobby. Kristen was working in branding and design in New York when she came up with the idea for DO. An admitted weakness for cookie dough, she would always eat it raw while baking despite the warnings that it could make you sick. After doing this for years, one day (while indulging in cookie dough with friends) she thought, why can’t we make this safe to eat and still bake-able? This moment compelled Kristen to start doing some research and began her journey to reinvent how we see cookie dough.

Other than being a lifelong baker, Kristen had no experience in the food industry before she launched the DO website in December 2014. She decided to start it online first to test the market and see if there was interest in her edible cookie dough. In the beginning, Kristen was doing everything on her own: trying out different recipes, making the cookie dough, packaging it, shipping it out, doing the invoicing, everything from A to Z. And although she says that when she started the business she had “no idea what she was doing”, orders started coming in. The idea started gaining traction through word of mouth of friends and family and then even more so on social media. Since Kristen didn’t have money to invest in any marketing or advertising, she relied on the quality of the product and the uniqueness of the concept to stand out from her competition. And it did. Soon the product got popular enough that Kristen was no longer able to sustain her lifestyle; she was still working full-time at her brand consultant firm, which she loved, and working on DO as a side hustle. She had come to a crossroads and knew that something had to change. So she decided to pursue her passion project and see where it went. She felt that there would always be a job for her somewhere but if she didn’t take a chance now and commit herself to the business that she felt compelled to run, she would never do it. So she quit her job, moved to a commercial space and started building her team.

After finding success through online ordering and catering and bringing on a solid team, Kristen opened a store front in January 2017 and used her design background to create a brand that extended from her packaging to her store. She wanted DO to look different from the typical bakery or pastry shop and to be more graphic and fun. And keeping in mind the very visual way that her generation and younger generations consume experiences and food, she wanted it to be very picture and Instagram-friendly as well. So she incorporated six bright colors to be used in different ways throughout the store (a polka dot wall when you walk in, neon pink signs) but also made sure to include items like the stand up mixers and subway tiles to make it feel more like your kitchen at home and make customers feel more comfortable. The different colors were key to making both the packaging and the store bright and cheery but also to represent the fun and happiness Kristen wants her customers to feel when they eat her cookie dough. A lot of people who try the product connect it with nostalgia because it reminds them of baking cookies with their mom or grandma, which she loves, but she also wants people to associate it with joy and happiness. The joy and happiness that comes from that memory of your childhood or the joy that comes from simply treating yourself to a sweet. Kristen hopes that her cookie dough can give customers a moment of calm during a stressful day or comfort if they’re dealing with an issue in their personal life. Even if it’s a good day, Kristen says, “we’re trying to make it better and make you a tiny bit happier”.

DO sign

For Kristen the toughest part of the business is being responsible for so many different areas of the business at once. Like many small business owners, there are a lot of parts of the business that are out of your control and there’s no rule book that tells you how to deal with these issues as they arise. You just have to figure it out as you go, which gets challenging. She’s also felt that there have been challenges she’s faced as a female business owner that her male counterparts don’t always face. When she first started the business, she felt a lot of people wouldn’t take her seriously or tell her that her idea was “cute”. As a young, female business owner she felt that a lot of people doubted her but she stayed committed to her idea and as the business became more established, people started taking her more seriously.  However, the silver lining of her struggle and the struggle of other female business owners is the change that Kristen sees happening in the food industry. There’s becoming less of a stigma about who you have to be or what you have to look like to run a successful business and more of a focus on your product, your ambition and your passion.

Another amazing change that’s been happening is the willingness of other business owners, especially woman, to give advice to others and share their experience. Most of Kristen’s friends and mentors in the food industry are also in the dessert space but they all feel strongly that the “pie” (no pun intended) is big enough that everyone can take their own piece and still support each other. There is a growing realization that running a good business means doing good by others as well and continuing the cycle; even if you have similar goals, you can still work together to help each other out. The food industry today is much different than when Kristen started out and she’s hopeful that it will continue to improve. As a female business owner, she believes that the awareness and attention that she and other female business owners can bring to the industry as a whole is good for everyone.

 

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0 comments on “Yaya Ceesay, Co-Owner of The Soul Spot”

Yaya Ceesay, Co-Owner of The Soul Spot

This is Yaya Ceesay, the co-owner of The Soul Spot, a soul food restaurant with Caribbean and African influences. Although this combination may seem strange, this unique flavor sets The Soul Spot apart from other comfort food vendors and is inspired by Yaya’s personal experience. Yaya grew up in Gambia, West Africa but emigrated to the U.S. when he was 17 to attend college. As a source of income while he was in school, he began working at a Caribbean restaurant in Manhattan called Soul Fixins, delivering food and washing dishes. However, after a year of going to school and working in the food industry, Yaya realized just how passionate he was about food and decided to start working at Soul Fixins full time. His work ethic and desire to learn quickly became clear to the restaurant’s head chef who was planning to retire. He took Yaya under his wing and began training him to take over his position. Although he had no formal culinary training or background in hospitality, Yaya’s passion for food has always allowed him to excel in the food industry.

During his training at Soul Fixins, Yaya learned how to make Caribbean dishes as well as Southern dishes. He and the head chef spent almost every weekend traveling to different cities in then South, trying different foods, doing research on the recipes and understanding how each part of the meal was created. This training early on in his career really laid the groundwork for Yaya’s dedication to his craft. After the chef retired, Yaya became the head chef and started improving the restaurant operations at Soul Fixins. He started cutting out any unnecessary expenses and improving the food quality based off of the research he had done with his former boss. However, over the years Yaya had begun to feel like he was handling most of the business, as the owners who had used to work with him in the kitchen stopped coming to the restaurant and relied on him more and more. He felt unappreciated in his role and decided that if he could run a restaurant for someone else, he could do it for himself as well. He began saving his money and looking for his own restaurant space. He noticed that a lot of his customers in Manhattan were from Brooklyn and would travel to the city for the food at Soul Fixins. He felt that there was a demand for soul food and that he could combine his training in Southern and Caribbean cuisine with the African food that he grew up eating to satisfy it. So in 2001 he moved to Brooklyn to get familiar with the area and started looking for retail spaces.

Yaya and his business partner, his cousin, Banumu Turay, purchased the restaurant in August 2002 but it was almost a year before they were able to open. No bank would give them a loan so Yaya used all of his savings to purchase the space and fix it up. The Soul Spot officially opened on June 4th, 2003 and although he had no working capital or business experience, Yaya believed in his food. He knew that if he was supplying good food, the rest would take care of itself. At first some people wouldn’t even try the food because Yaya wasn’t from the South. They thought that there was no way he would know how to make the food and if he tried, it wouldn’t be good. But soon people started coming in to try it and calling to place catering orders for their office. They were the only soul food restaurant in the area and the unique cuisine set them apart from other restaurants. For the first six months Yaya worked sixteen hours a day to keep the business going, and eventually his hard work paid off. The business took off and formed a reputation for its delicious and varied cuisine. Even now, 15 years later,  word of mouth is still how they get most of their clients for catering orders because the food quality speaks for itself.

Team at The Soul Spot

A normal day for Yaya now usually begins at 4AM or 5AM, when he arrives at the restaurant to begin prepping catering orders for the day. Depending on the size of the order or orders that they have, sometimes he’ll work from 2AM-8AM getting everything ready before the restaurant opens at 11AM.  For Yaya the best part about owning his own restaurant is being in charge of his own kitchen. He loves what he does and is very hands on creating the food because he never wants the quality of the food to change. Which is why his co-owner, Banumu, handles most of the administrative side of the business while Yaya cooks and runs the business’s daily operations. He wants to continue to give his customers the consistent product that they’ve come to know and love and never wants to be a business owner that gives up his time in the kitchen. It’s this passion for the food and the preparation that goes into it that Yaya wants people to remember when they think of The Soul Spot. And despite the naysayers that doubted him when he first started the business, Yaya believes that the passion they sow into their food is what people are drawn to and trust.

Yaya’s next plan for The Soul Spot is to open up a commissary kitchen to handle all of their catering orders. Cooking out of one kitchen is no longer feasible because his team ends up getting in each other’s way and he wants the restaurant to be able to operate more smoothly. He’s also hoping that a kitchen dedicated to catering orders will allow them to handle any last minute requests that come in without interfering with restaurant’s food prep and purchasing. Speaking with him, it’s easy to tell that he’s excited to start this new project and has no qualms about potential issues that may arise. He will handle it the same way he dealt with the critics who doubted him when he first started the business: believing in himself and staying focused on the food.

 

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0 comments on “George Tenedios, CEO of Fresh&Co and Brad Grossman, Executive Chef”

George Tenedios, CEO of Fresh&Co and Brad Grossman, Executive Chef

This is George Tenedios, the CEO of Fresh&Co (pictured right), and Brad Grossman, the executive chef at Fresh&Co (pictured left). These men are two of the driving forces behind the fast casual concept that focuses on providing New Yorkers with chef-inspired organic food. Although this restaurant is already extremely well-known in NYC with 18 locations throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn, Fresh&Co was created only 8 years ago, in 2010, as a branch of Cafe Metro. George’s father, Steve Tenedios, founded Cafe Metro in 1982, after moving from Midwest Ohio to Brooklyn to work with his brother-in-law making doughnuts. However, as a young boy who emigrated to the U.S. from a small Greek island at age 5 and then grew up in the food industry working as a bus boy and a server at a local restaurant, he always dreamed of owning his own business. So when he realized that there wasn’t much demand for doughnuts at that time, he quit and began working with a deli group for a few years before starting his own business. George now carries on his father’s legacy with their locally-sourced food concept that has made this family business a staple of the NYC food industry.

Cafe Metro was created to be a more traditional, classic New York style deli. However, in 2010, Steve, George, Brad and their team started recognizing that food trends were changing and that there was a lapse in the market for healthy, local, clean, organic food. They were finding that as the millennial population grew in NY, more consumers were becoming aware of the different food options available to them and were becoming more conscious about what they were putting into their bodies. It was a whole new demographic of customers whose needs were not being met. There were a handful of lunch concepts that were opening but they felt that there was a lack of high-quality dining where you could get a clean breakfast, a filling lunch and a satisfying dinner without comprising on ingredients. So they set out to be the solution. Brad, who has been with their team since day 1 and helped open the first Cafe Metro in 1982, became the mastermind behind Fresh&Co’s core menu and began creating recipes that included fresh vegetables, healthy dressings and popular food item like quinoa. They opened their first location, 729 Broadway, in 2010 and three days before the grand opening, decided to remove the pasta station they originally planned to be part of the store and replaced it with a quinoa bar. It was a risky move given the time crunch and the fact that quinoa bar had never been done in a fast casual setting anywhere in New York before. But it paid off. Their customers loved it, and after that the Fresh&Co concept took off.

Fresh & Co Blog

Although it’s still under the same management umbrella of Cafe Metro, Fresh&Co now runs as it’s own entity, with a unique brand, it’s own managing team, operations and menu. And the menu has changed a lot since they first started, but one major focus that hasn’t changed is continuing to use local food as much as possible. Most of the produce that they use in their stores comes from Satur Farms on Long Island because it’s extremely important to them to support their local community and cut their carbon footprint with sustainable farming practices that these vendors have in place. Local vendors also give them a lot of quality control and allow George and his team to ensure that their customers receive high-quality, consistent produce all year round. They keep a close relationship with their partners, visiting Satur Farms and Latham Farms (another local partner) a couple times a year to meet with the farmers, check out the operations and go over the production schedule. Their team has become so invested in sourcing local food that Fresh&Co purchased their own farm about two years ago on Long Island, which employs all local Long Island residents. The farm helps them to understand how different items are grown and the practices that need to be used to keep food clean and sustainable. However, Fresh&Co farms only generates about 25% of all the produce that the stores use, which is why they’ve established and developed their relationships with their local farmers who can contribute to the demand. Fresh&Co’s commitment to these farmers creates a wholesome and trusting relationship that benefits both parties. As food trends grow, so does Fresh&Co’s business and in turn, so does the local vendors’ business.

For George and Brad though, keeping up with the ever-changing food trends is proving to be the toughest part of the business. When Fresh&Co was first created, food trend patterns happened differently, new ideas seeped into the industry slowly. But now consumers are a lot more informed about their food and have opinions on it, which makes it harder to stay on top of what’s popular. However, it’s not a bad thing, George says, it “keeps them on their toes” and he, Brad and the rest of their team are always doing their research to see what’s in demand and make sure they’re on top of it. Their goal is always to provide the best possible service to the customer so whether that means using the freshest ingredients in their soup or creating a new menu item based off of a popular food, they’ll make it happen.

Their dedication to the customer, who they say is the reason why Fresh&Co exists, and their desire to continue to supply each customer with a healthy, authentic, sustainable meal is what sets Fresh&Co apart from other fast casual restaurants. Their team set out to create a concept that filled a hole they saw in the market and by doing so, created a mission-driven business that all food vendors can learn from.

 

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0 comments on “Kay Ch’ien, Owner of Hey Hey Canteen”

Kay Ch’ien, Owner of Hey Hey Canteen

This is Kay Ch’ien, the owner of Hey Hey Canteen. Born and raised in Hong Kong, Kay grew up in the food industry in a unique way. Her great-grandfather was a commodities trader who bought and sold food items such as cooking oil and flour mill in Singapore, a business that her grandfather eventually took over and stabilized, streamlining processes and building a brand around it. Growing up Kay’s parents worked for her grandfather’s business so she was always surrounded by food and its components. This saturation in the food industry gave Kay an appreciation for food and how it’s created, so when she was looking to make a change in her career, it seemed only natural to her that she would do something food-related. Kay opened 2 Duck Goose, a farm to table Cantonese BBQ concept, in 2014 but the long hours and late nights quickly became an issue for her. She wasn’t sleeping at all or seeing her husband and young son and realized that the business wasn’t sustainable for her lifestyle. So she bravely decided to close the business, re-group and take a look at what made sense for her. Which led to the opening of Hey Hey Canteen in 2016- a wholesome Chinese food concept that was born from Kay’s willingness to pivot and to create a new business that worked for her, rather than the other way around.

Kay originally moved to the U.S. to go to college. Her parents had met at grad school in the U.S. so she always had it in the back of her mind that if she was given the opportunity to go to college abroad, she would take it. After finishing college, Kay ended up loving her new home so much that she decided to stay. She went on to get her law degree and began working as a corporate lawyer. After 6 years of working at a law firm, Kay started feeling burnt out and wanted to do something more active that gave her more interpersonal interaction. Since food had always been a major part of her life, she decided to quit her job and open a food business. Although her first restaurant didn’t work out, it gave her the opportunity to figure out a model for a business that she could pursue long term and she was able to create Hey Hey Canteen, a fast casual Chinese concept that puts care and intention into it’s food.

Hey Hey Canteen differs from other Chinese restaurants because the dishes aren’t as heavy or as greasy. It was important to Kay that they produce food that, if you wanted to, would allow you to eat Asian food every day and not feel bad. Therefore, most of the recipes are ideas that Kay thought of and she did a lot of recipe testing to see what worked and what didn’t. Everything is made from scratch and a lot of thought is put into every recipe to make sure that each dish is more wholesome than other Chinese vendors. The added bonus of creating a Chinese restaurant with healthier, cleaner menu options is that Kay can appeal to a broader audience. Most of her dishes are made with Tamari, a gluten free substitute for soy sauce, so although it’s not a gluten free kitchen, she’s able to gear dishes towards those with dietary restrictions, such as gluten intolerance or vegetarians and vegans, which differentiates her from other Chinese restaurants throughout NYC.

Hey Hey Canteen Team

Right now, Hey Hey Canteen is only serving customers directly from their pop up location in Gotham Market in Fort Greene. Kay does have a storefront in Gowanus but had to close it in January 2018 due to the lack of foot traffic in the area and now runs it as a commissary kitchen for their catering orders. Kay is hoping to re-open it in the next few years but needs to see if the community picks up first, since the economic growth in Gowanus is currently going much slower than anticipated. However, Kay and her team are currently working on an expansion into Manhattan with a new location at Turnstyle Underground Market, which they are both excited and nervous for. Although they know the Manhattan scene due to their frequent lunch catering there, this is a big step for the business into a new market that is much more competitive.

Despite her anxiety, Kay is very excited to take the next step with a team of people that respect and care about one another and the business. The toughest part of the food industry for her has been building a team that she can trust and finding the people that are invested in the restaurant’s mission. For Kay, working with a team of people that you really like is the most rewarding part of the business because it creates a positive work environment where everyone is looking out for one another. Now that Kay has found this team, she’s able to think about next steps for the business and what their strategy should be to increase revenue in the coming months and years. No matter what though, she and her team are focused on continuing to create the delicious, thoughtful food that their customers love. And if food trends change and that stops working, Kay is always willing to start again to make sure that what she’s doing makes sense for her, her team and her customers.

 

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Alison Moskowitz, Owner of Food Trends Catering

This is Alison Moskowitz, the owner of Food Trends Catering, a family-run business that was inspired by a young girl’s dream to turn meals into events, similar to the celebrations that she grew up hosting with her family. Alison grew up in a big family and fondly remembers their tradition to throw big parties for holidays, birthdays, family dinners… every meal was an occasion in her home and family and friends would always comment how their house was so warm and inviting and that the food was always delicious. So when her family moved from Russia to the United States when she was 16, she saw an opportunity to create a business in a new community that combined her two biggest passions: food and family.

Unfortunately it would be years before Alison could act on her vision. First she focused on finishing her education, which was difficult considering that when she arrived in the U.S. she spoke no English, and then, years later, on raising her family. However, once her kids were old enough, Alison decided to go for it and began trying to convince her father to quit his job and start the business with her. Alison says that her father also had a passion for food, but was practical and worked as a nuclear engineer to support his family. He was the type of person who did what he had to do to make ends meet so he said no at first. But Alison was persistent and although many people said that she was crazy, she knew that that the food would speak for itself. Eventually her father agreed to open up a small restaurant with her. For the first year, they worked out of their shop on 3rd avenue where they sold “simple, good food”. It wasn’t easy but they were making enough to pay the bills and their employees and keep the business running.

However, Alison’s dream was to do catering. She knew food and understood that the key to good food is fresh ingredients but she knew nothing about the business side of it, so she started to educate herself. Slowly she began improving every aspect of the business: creating new recipes, developing food presentation and making their operations more efficient. She even became their first sales person, walking through buildings around the city, offering free samples of their food and asking if she could stop by another day with a tasting for their office. A lot of people who said yes and had the tasting started to order and she quickly built up a client list. Within 5-6 years they were doing so much catering that they had outgrown their store front. They decided to sell the store and focus solely on catering. They purchased a kitchen and two additional floors in the 41st street building that the business still resides in today and have expanded from there.

Group Shot 2

Alison attributes the business’s success to the people that work with her and says that she got very lucky with all of the good people around her. One of her chefs has been with her since day 1 at their original storefront on 3rd avenue and her children, Nina and David, joined the business in 2008 and 2011, respectively. Although David grew up working for the business during school breaks throughout middle school and high school, for both of the kids there was no expectation that they join the company. In fact, both were working in their own fields before their mother approached them to join the team. She saw skills in both of them that she though would be good for the business so she asked them to work there for 1 year and then leaved if they weren’t happy. Both have stayed and will be the third generation to run the business. 

Aside from her staff and her own children, since starting her business Alison’s family has expanded even farther, to include her clients. She has some clients that have been with her since her original tasting days and she’s seen them get married, have kids, have grand kids and has built a personal relationship with each of them. These people have stuck by her because she knows that the relationship with her clients is the most important part of the business and she goes out of her way to cultivate each and every one, even if it requires her to bend over backwards to do so. For Alison, it’s simple- whatever the client needs, they’re going to get, which is why it’s her job to always be “in the trenches” to make sure that every order a client receives looks and tastes right. She’s always in the kitchen with the chefs tasting food, checking on presentation, making sure deliveries are going out on time and then following up with clients to make sure that they’re happy. This is what she enjoys doing and takes pride in and she trains each of her staff to take pride in it as well. It’s her commitment to the client that has been instilled in every employee at Food Trends so that their service and dedication always stands out, creating a system of trust and loyalty that few caterers have.

Overall Alison says she’s very happy with her work day to day and takes pride in being an established, woman-owned business. She wants to see other women and girls succeed and believes that this country gives you the opportunity to be whatever you want if you’re willing to work for it. Even now, Alison is constantly coming up with new ways to generate business, creating new dishes and hiring new people to learn from. She says she never rests on her laurels because that’s when things go downhill. It’s important to always be looking for ways to improve and there’s always a chance to. The most important thing is to never doubt yourself. As Alison says, “If I can do it, anybody can do it. You just need to want it so much that you won’t stop”.

 

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Zeeshan Ali, Co-Owner of Salad Pangea

This is Zeeshan Ali, the co-owner of Salad Pangea. He’s been in the food industry for most of his life but only recently purchased his first food business with his brother, Shadman Saeed. He grew up working in his father’s restaurant, Kabab King, which his father opened after emigrating from Pakistan in 1993 and realizing that there was a huge Pakistani/Indian community in New York that wanted halal food but had nowhere to buy it. Although Zeeshan worked in the industry for years, he was never set on making it a career until he got the chance to purchase Salad Pangea. Now, although he’s young (just 23 years old), this eager entrepreneur is committed to doing everything possible to make sure that his business is a success and that he can use his expertise to improve previous standards and redefine halal food service.

Zeeshan began working at his father’s restaurant when he was 13 years old. Throughout the years he worked heavily in their catering business, helping to execute catering orders for groups of 75-1,000 people and dealing with every aspect of logistics and operations from outreach to food prep to delivery. He worked for his father until he was 20 years old and then decided to branch out on his own and pursue other interests. He tried going down a few different paths: a food distribution business, medical school, but nothing seemed to be a good fit and it was important to him that he enjoyed the work that he was doing. Then one day he received an offer to take over a family friend’s catering business, Salad Pangea. The owner had decided to leave the restaurant industry and approached Zeeshan and his brother because he believed that they had the skills to take the business to the next level. Zeeshan says that it wasn’t a hard decision because this gave him the opportunity to work at something that he already had experience in and that he had a passion for. He and his brother purchased the business and have been running it for the last 8 months.

Growing up working for his father has allowed Zeeshan to watch how the restaurant industry works from a young age, understand it and improve it for his own business. Once they took over Salad Pangea, he and Shadman immediately began looking over business costs and cutting out any unnecessary expenses to make it more efficient. They have a small team of employees, including themselves, that work out of a food incubator, Pilotworks, in Brooklyn. They rent kitchen space for a few hours each day to prepare the food and do their deliveries so they’re able to keep their price point low, compared to other vendors like Chop’t and Just Salad that are larger operations with retail locations. Because they focus solely on catering, they’re able to go into different fields and expand, which is exactly what Zeeshan plans to do. He’s starting culinary school at the Institute of Culinary Education at the end of October and is hoping to bring what he learns there into practice at Salad Pangea and eventually evolve the business into a full scale catering company that provides halal food from all different cuisines around the world. Taking over Salad Pangea has allowed him to realize that there are so many other ways to provide customers with food and that there are so many more communities that he can introduce halal food service to.

Through his work in the food industry, Zeeshan believes that most restaurants, like his father’s, were created to fill a need. But he has a different way of looking at things. He believes that this generation of consumers is interested in trying something new, specifically in the halal community, and he wants to be the solution for them. He wants to change the perception of halal food, creating a need for a cuisine that he doesn’t believe exists yet: high-end halal dining. And he’s focused on making it a reality.  But he knows that this evolution will take time, which is why culinary school is an important step for him to be able to more deeply understand food, expand his ideas and recipes and eventually teach them to others. Although going to culinary school and running a business at the same time will not be easy, he’s focused on making it work saying, “In order for me to understand this industry, I need to have those skills. If I can’t do it, how am I going to explain it to anybody else?” As is it, he says he only sleeps about 3 or 4 hours a night but he enjoys having a lot on his plate and thinks that free time is a waste. His experience in the restaurant industry has taught him to work hard and he’s ready to hustle as much as he needs to bring his musings to life.

Zeeshan says that since taking over Salad Pangea his mind has shifted on how he should be doing business and he’s taking the necessary steps to create a new concept in halal food service focused on differentiation, quality and customer service. He knows that it will be tough, since older generations of halal restaurant owners focus on providing the food that they know, but he’s up to the challenge. For Zeeshan, the best part of the job is being able to execute a business plan as you see fit and change the plan if needed. And he’s happy to do that as he continues on this journey, as long as he’s doing it his way.

 

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0 comments on “Xiu Chen: Owner of Rice K”

Xiu Chen: Owner of Rice K

This is Xiu Chen, the owner of Rice K, an Asian fusion restaurant that offers Chinese-American cuisine, Japanese cuisine and Thai cuisine that caters to the varied clientele that they serve in Astoria. Xiu’s family has owned a restaurant in the neighborhood for over 22 years. Her father began learning how to cook after emigrating from China with Xiu and her mother and became a chef in the Bronx, cooking Chinese-American food. As he honed his craft and started improving his cooking skills, he decided to start his own restaurant and thought Astoria was a nice neighborhood and a good place for him to build his business. 20 years later, Xiu is carrying on her father’s legacy by continuing the family business. She effortlessly blends their established reputation and authentic recipes with modern food trends, allowing the business to continue to grow, while also raising her daughter and running the business on her own.

Xiu grew up working in the restaurant business from a very young age. She used to stand on a box on the floor at her father’s restaurant so that she could work at the register, so she knows a lot of people in the area that have watched her grow up. Although she enjoyed working there, she says she never planned on taking over the business. She studied marketing in college and after meeting her husband, they moved to China for 6 years to see how they could get involved in China’s quickly growing economy. They ended up starting a construction business and began creating a home in China. However, Xiu’s father was getting older and she felt that it was time for him to retire. At the same time, her daughter, Audrey, was getting ready to start school and she wanted her to begin her education in the U.S. Therefore, it made sense to Xiu that she come back to the U.S., take over the restaurant and set up a home in New York as well. So 2 years ago, she returned to Astoria and took over the business.

Xiu and team from Rice K

Although she never saw herself taking the business over from her father, Xiu says she really does enjoy her job, mainly because of the staff that she works with and the customers that she gets to meet. She says hearing people’s stories and getting to know each person in the neighborhood that comes in is the most rewarding part of the business. These are the people that keep her going, especially when the business gets tough. Xiu’s husband still lives in China and handles their construction business so she runs the restaurant on her own, which she admits gets difficult when you have to be responsible for everything from staffing to food prep to accounting. Most days she’s at the restaurant from 11AM to 11PM or later so it’s hard to balance her time at work and her time with her daughter but she does her best to make sure neither one feels like they aren’t her top priority. Her daughter (now in 1st grade) will come to the restaurant after school a few days a week and Xiu does homework with her and goes through her lessons before Xiu’s parents take over. Luckily they are able to watch Audrey while Xiu works, since her father is now retired, and although they have a good system, Xiu says it’s not something she necessarily wants to pass onto her daughter. “It depends in the future if she likes cooking and if she likes the restaurant business because it’s so much to encompass” but if it’s something she chooses, Xiu will support her. In the mean time, she tries not to put any expectation on her daughter because she knows how hard the business can be. When she took over the business, she knew it would be tough and it was a hard decision for her to make, but now that she has taken it over, she isn’t looking back. As she says, “you only look forward”.

Xiu’s focus now is figuring out her plan for the future and what she needs to do to keep the business growing. She’s very aware that she’s responsible for the business’s success and how that impacts herself, her family and her staff. Which is why she’s made updates to keep the business relevant with the younger generations that have been moving into Astoria in recent years. She’s made changes to the restaurant, remodeling the layout and adding a kid’s menu and most recently, adding karaoke on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. She notes that they’re “probably one of the only restaurants that does that” with a laugh, but unique additions to the business are what have helped her bring in new customers and differentiate themselves from the numerous other restaurants that surround them. However, when adding in these changes, Xiu has been sure to keep the core of the restaurant the same: a family run business that cares about its community. Xiu and her staff take the business very personally, greeting people by name if they can and making sure that each customer feels welcomed and taken care of. It’s these simple gestures and the genuine care that she puts into the business that has allowed Rice K’s legacy to live on.

 

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0 comments on “Ashley Jaffe and Zach Israel: Co-Founders of Blank Slate Coffee + Kitchen and Blank Slate Tea”

Ashley Jaffe and Zach Israel: Co-Founders of Blank Slate Coffee + Kitchen and Blank Slate Tea

This is Ashley Jaffe and her husband, Zach Israel, the co-founders of Blank Slate Coffee + Kitchen and Blank Slate Tea. Ashley and Zach opened Blank Slate Coffee + Kitchen in November 2015 and took painstaking efforts in the layout, design and menu creation to make the café feel like an extension of the customer’s home or office. They wanted Blank Slate to be a place where guests could come to work, meet friends, relax; be the go-to spot for anything and everything. Hence the name, Blank Slate- a place for growth, creativity and unlimited possibilities, which is truly what this café has created for Ashley and her husband.

Unlike most restaurant owners, Ashley didn’t grow up in the food industry and she doesn’t have a culinary background. Ashley worked in Public Relations for 10 years, specifically covering celebrities and entertainment, but fell in love with food and beverage after landing on The Food Network account at her firm. She started doing food and beverage PR, covering restaurants, spirits and soft drinks, and met her husband, Zach, who had an extensive background in the hospitality industry. Both had a love for food and beverage and, at the time, saw a huge gap in the market for a café where you could get an awesome meal and a killer cup of coffee at the same place. After dreaming up this vision for an all-day café concept, where people could “just come in and hang” (a la Central Perk in Friends), Ashley decided to quit her job, become business partners with Zach and open Blank Slate.

Although Ashley says she had no idea how to run a restaurant when they started, she is now the key decision maker for the business and runs the day to day operations. She admits that she has run into one or two issues being a female business owner (mainly men asking her if she needs to consult with her husband before making a decision related to the business, which she laughs off as “silly”) but overall she has been extremely lucky with the support she has received, especially from other women, some of whom own their own business or come in specifically because it is a female-run business. For Ashley, it’s the relationships that she’s cultivated that have made the business so rewarding for her and that have also made the business so successful.

Blank Slate Group Photo

Ashley takes her time training each and every employee, personally sitting down with each person to explain how and why the business got started and allowing them to understand each part of the business and how it works. For her, it’s very important to take time with the onboarding process and “set each person up for success”. The personal touch is what makes her a unique and valued business owner- five of her staff members have been with her since day 1. Which is impressive in an industry with such high turnover. The solid relationships with her dedicated staff and regular customers allowed her to open Blank Slate Tea this past April, a passion project for her as an avid tea drinker. Ashley designed the space to be fun and girly and Instagram-friendly (which is where she says a huge chunk of her business comes from) as well as an event space, where they can host private events such as baby showers and bridal showers, without having to close down the café, which is just two doors down from the tea shop.

Being husband and wife as well as co-business owners is difficult for some people but Ashley says that she and Zach have varying strengths, which is actually an asset for the business. Zach is the “down and dirty operations guy” that can solve a problem without hesitation while her PR/Marketing/social media skills, attention to detail and charisma have allowed her to create a mission-driven business with its own unique personality. Coming from an extensive food and beverage background, Zach is also a great support system for her, since he’s more comfortable dealing with the ups and downs of the industry. He keeps her calm, even during insane periods of stress and anxiety, reminding her to trust the system she’s put in place and to just keep chugging along. In a business that relies on relationships with customers and staff that they seem to have mastered, it’s also the relationship between Ashley and Zach that makes Blank Slate a refreshing dining experience that fits every taste.

 

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