0 comments on “Arthur Palacio, CO at Dos Toros West Village: Part 2”

Arthur Palacio, CO at Dos Toros West Village: Part 2

This is Arthur Palacio, the Coach Operator (CO) at Dos Toros West Village. Arthur was raised in College Point, Queens and says that being in a Colombian family, food was always a part of his lifestyle growing up. His mom, grandma and dad cook every day and although he’s never had formal culinary training, he’s always felt that food was a part of his identity. He started working in the food industry during college at a bagel shop/bakery in Florida and continued to grow his cooking skills after college when he lived in Miami. When he moved back to New York, he worked as a server in a catering hall and then as a parking attendant when his friend, who was working at the first Dos Toros location in Union Square, told him there was an opening in the store and that he should apply to be a part of this new company. Arthur was attracted to Dos Toros because they focus on hiring people with good personalities rather than kitchen skills and he felt like this was a company that he could grow with. In 2011, two years after they opened their first location, Arthur started working at Dos Toros as a crew member and little by little worked his way up to Coach Operator, the highest position in their store. Not only has Dos Toros allowed Arthur to create his own path in the food industry, the opportunity that he was given to become a leader now motivates him to help create the same opportunities for other men and women.

Arthur says that the culture at Dos Toros is different from other restaurants because Leo and Oliver have created a fun but focused work environment since the company began. They don’t take any shortcuts with their food or their team and are known for teaching by example. Every so often they can even be found in one of their restaurants, working alongside their employees. They care so much about their business that they take the time to teach their employees to do things the right way and expect their Coach Operators to do the same. Even creating the title of Coach Operator, Arthur points out, makes them stand out from their competitors with what they expect from their team. Rather than a General Manager who only oversees operations, a Coach Operator works side by side with every member of their team every day, coaching them through changes going on in the store, teaching them about ingredients and making sure that they’re following the correct procedures, all while operating the store. It was this commitment to their employees that made Arthur interested in working for Dos Toros and what’s kept him at the company for the past eight years. After starting as a crew member, he got his kitchen certification and his line certification before getting certified as a coach. From there he decided to become an assistant manager (you can also become a kitchen assistant manager if you want to focus more on kitchen operations), a CO in training and then, finally, a CO for the entire store. The CO training process can take anywhere from six months to a year, depending on the person, but Arthur was committed to finishing his training because he knew from the day that he started that he wanted to grow with the company. He didn’t see any growth in the jobs he was doing before Dos Toros and saw potential in Leo and Oliver’s mission to bring California taqueria-style food to New York.

Dos Toros Line

As a CO, Arthur tries to make it fun to come to work, rather than being “the boss” whose telling his employees what to do. He recognizes that they all have a job to do when they get to the store every day but that you can still make the environment fun and inviting while getting the work done. He sees the CO position as not only being a coach, but also being a teacher and an adviser, so he works alongside his coworkers on the line or in the kitchen every day to motivate and inspire them with his commitment to the job. He trains his employees to understand and exude their three core values: respect (of each other, the food and the customers), genuine warmth (creating a positive experience for customers and each other) and uncompromising expertise (follow every procedure, no shortcuts) and tries to be an example of each of them, despite any difficulties that may arise. He creates personal connections with each employee and takes pride in hiring and training new employees who he feels are friendly and have a good attitude. Arthur wanted to become a leader at Dos Toros to give other people the opportunity to build their own career paths. He found that a lot of high school students or men and women working straight out of high school have difficulty finding a job because they don’t have any experience. Arthur looks to hire these people that like cooking or are interested in food and teach them the steps to take in order to succeed in the food industry. Even if they don’t want to work in food for the rest of their life, he tries to give them a chance to find a new path and make it fun for them to be part of the team. For Arthur, helping the staff grow in their career is the most rewarding part of the job. From asking him if they can get their line certification to actually achieving that first step and continuing from there, as a leader and a coach, there’s nothing more satisfying to him than watching them start that process and seeing it through.

The training process for new employees really encourages career growth, which is something that Arthur loves about Dos Toros. It’s a seven day training where they learn each process for the front of house and for the back of house and then work side by side with Arthur and his managers to master each process and get certified in different stations. However, before that process begins Arthur will sit down with the new hire on the first day to figure out if they have kitchen experience/are interested in working in the kitchen or want to work on the line, so that they can focus their role once they’ve completed their training. They have online training as a tool for new employees to use where they watch videos about each process and then get hands-on experience doing them. For Arthur personally, Dos Toros has improved his culinary skills, teaching him knife skills like chopping and cutting as well as how to butcher meat. For him, the training process shows how much Leo and Oliver care for their team because they want to teach you these skills, they don’t expect you to have them. They only want employees who are willing to work hard and are happy to create relationships with their coworkers and their customers.

Arthur admits that coming into the store with a good attitude every day is the most challenging part of his job. As with any job, you can’t let your personal life interfere with your work but especially so when you’re interacting with other people (coworkers and customers) on a continuous basis. As human beings, everyone has tough times that they go through and has personal things going on that other people don’t know about so “putting that on the shelf” until you get home can be difficult. But for Arthur, making sure that he has a good energy every day to transmit to the other employees is key and his ability to have a smile on his face no matter what, or at least pretend that he’s happy, is one trait that, as a CO, he hopes he’s able to pass on to his fellow mangers and employees. A lot of his staff are young and they’ll often come to him for advice, so he enjoys that his role allows them to see him as a peer and that he’s able to problem solve with them. If he senses that something is off with one of his coworkers, he or one of his managers will pull him or her aside to make sure that everything is okay and will change their position for the day if needed. He loves that Dos Toros has created an inviting environment where every employee can be open and really feels like he or she is part of a larger team, working towards a common goal. As for his advice for others looking to get into the food industry, he encourages anyone and everyone to come work for Dos Toros. Even if you don’t have any experience in food, he says “just do it and don’t be scared”. Especially at Dos Toros, they teach you everything that you need to know and once you understand the process behind the work, it’s pretty amazing and rewarding.

 

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0 comments on “Leo Kremer, Co-CEO of Dos Toros: Part 1”

Leo Kremer, Co-CEO of Dos Toros: Part 1

This is Leo Kremer (pictured left) and his brother, Oliver Kremer (pictured right), the founders and co-CEOs of Dos Toros. Although this fast casual taqueria now boasts 20 locations between New York and Chicago, Leo insists that because they didn’t know much coming into the food industry, they’ve kept their “beginner’s mindset” over the years, which has allowed them to see Dos Toros as a constantly evolving business, even as it’s success has grown. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay area, the brothers got really interested in burritos because they were delicious, affordable and available everywhere. It wasn’t until years later that they became aware that this wasn’t the case in other parts of the country and started digging into this idea. They began asking friends who lived in New York what options were available to them and did some scouting themselves. The more they looked, the more they realized that there was no really high-quality, California-style Mexican food outside of California. And although they had no experience in the food industry, it seemed like a really big opportunity for someone to take advantage of the market. Being that they were expert consumers when it came to burritos, they decided to create a business that appealed to their core customer: themselves. Since Dos Toros’ beginning to their present day operations, Leo and Oliver have continued to keep things really simple and really focused, uncompromising in their expertise and concentrated on being the best supplier of San Fransciso-style taqueria food, from their recipes to their service to the tightness of their burrito roll.

Leo says that he and Oliver were outsiders in the food industry when they decided to start Dos Toros (named for himself and Oliver, “the two bulls”) at the end of 2008 and officially opened their first location in October 2009. Leo was just transitioning out of his career as a musician (he had played for a few rock bands, including Third Eye Blind), which he says was awesome but ultimately didn’t fulfill all of his professional passions, and Oliver was right out of college. Both brothers were unsure of their next step and decided to pursue the burrito business idea that they had been talking about for years. They had always had a good relationship and always had the idea that they would try to start a business together but Leo says that it was the timing, their passion for burritos and the opportunity that presented itself that made it the perfect combination of factors to jump in with both feet. He doesn’t believe that either of them would’ve had the courage to do it on their own so they took a chance on it together and moved to NYC. They decided on a fast casual concept because it was similar to the taquerias in the Bay Area that they visited growing up where you order at the counter and sit down or leave. And also knowing that they didn’t know anything about food service, they didn’t want to overreach and add more complexity to the business than they could manage. Since they always thought of themselves as their main consumers, most of the restaurant design came from their own personal taste and aesthetic sensibility, which Leo says they got from their mom. Their mom is a visual artist so she’s very conscious of paying attention to how things look and feel around you, so they already had a vision in mind for their brand when they were opening their first location. They wanted to create a cool and inviting space that they would want to spend time in, in a neighborhood that they might find themselves in, so the location scouting and design process was very introspective. However, they did take a lot of other people’s opinions into consideration, showing friends and family locations that they were thinking about and design layouts and the logo that they were playing with, which was really helpful in getting to the final decisions that were made. But they knew that the core of the business would focus on the food and doing it really well. So whenever they could go simpler, they went simpler so that they could focus more on quality. 

They began reverse engineering recipes to create their menu, incorporating flavors that they grew up eating and visiting every taqueria that they could find to make notes about who had the best rice, beans, tortillas, hot sauce, etc. They spent countless hours taste testing different ingredients and understanding what they wanted each ingredient to do in the burrito before making a final decision. In some cases they were able to get the recipes pretty far just with their own testing and finding recipes and tweaking them but they did work with a couple of different chefs that they found before finding one chef in particular on Craigslist who played a big role in helping them develop their recipes. He helped them make sure that the recipes could scale up the right way and be repeatable for when they were cooking in large batches. He also helped them understand what equipment they would need to cook the food and what that cooking process would need to be since the professional equipment allows you to create heat really fast. However, Leo says that they continue to tweak recipes and introduce new items (like their habanero hot sauce and the farro, their whole-grain alternative to rice) because it’s the details that add up to the big differences. They constantly try to get feedback from customers on what they can improve or what’s bugging people the most that they can fix. But no matter what, they always focus on keeping their ingredients and menu items simple. They believe that doing a few things the best way possible is what makes them a cut above their competitors.

In the same way that they’re focused on simplicity from a recipe perspective, Leo and Oliver focus on simplicity from a team perspective as well. From training to on-boarding to career advancement, they want to make every process as straightforward and accessible to every employee as possible, because they believe that people are the key to success in business. Every employee in every store is cross trained across every different part of the restaurant. Not only does this make employees more flexible with their skills, it also keep things fun and interesting because they’re able to do different tasks and jobs throughout the day, which keeps it from getting boring or frustrating. Also, Leo says, it doesn’t seem fair to have one person stuck washing dishes all day and not interacting with customers. Leo admits that they’re getting better at training employees and helping them get on a career path without making employees have to guess about how they can grow from their current positions. They’ve started offering formal certification opportunities for employees to learn new skills, get certified on them, get a raise and get promoted. They also have a whole video training site that they use for employees to practice their skills. Each store has a CO (coach operator) rather than a GM (general manager) whose responsible for hiring new team members, training them and promoting them. They call them COs because they believe that coaching is the key piece of leadership and they empower their employees to train and coach their coworkers in a positive way, rather than from a power standpoint. The COs are then assisted by the distract manager, who oversees multiple locations and works one on one with the CO in a collaborative way when and if more complex issues arise that the CO needs help handling. Leo and Oliver are very focused on their team and creating a positive work experience because they realize that beyond the recipes and the store locations and the designs, it’s all about the people on your team and inspiring them and making them excited to be a part of the business. Employees that are happy at work and excited about what they do will only transfer that joy and excitement to customers, which creates a real relationship between the employee and the guest.

For Leo, the most rewarding and the most challenging part of the business is the people. It’s so rewarding for him to see an employee whose so good at their job and inspiring to other team members grow with the company. “Promoting people who really deserve those promotions is the best feeling you can get, I think”, he says. And then also seeing a guest whose a really excited about the food, who comes back a few times a week, who your staff really enjoys seeing and who enjoys seeing them is so rewarding as well. Building themselves into someone’s life and having people use words like “love” when they’re talking about their product or their staff is very meaningful to him. However, it’s also a challenge for Leo to push for excellence but be realistic. Every time he walks into one of their locations, it’s hard for him not to notice every little thing that’s wrong and want to fix it immediately. But communicating that to the team in the proper way and getting them to focus on these little things without seeming unappreciative of everyone’s hard work is a difficult line to walk. As a business owner, it’s hard for him to navigate that balance, especially as they grow and things are being communicated down a chain of command, rather than directly from him to the team. As a leader, he’s constantly working on that balance to make sure that things are being communicated properly but that he’s still leaving room for empowerment and improvisation among his employees. He and Oliver were both concerned that as the business grew, it would become too corporate or reduce their authenticity. Alternatively, they’ve found that their growth has actually increased the strength of their culture. Their food has also gotten better (creating better recipes, using better equipment, sourcing better ingredients) and they’ve only gotten better as leaders. As the business continues to grow, these are all factors that they hope they can preserve.

Identifying what’s right for you and your business is pivotal to Leo and he urges other entrepreneurs to stay true to their passion and their mission when starting a business. However, he advises, it’s not enough to be skilled or passionate, you need to have really identified a need that’s not being met or not being done to the level that you think it could be done. If you only have a desire to be your own boss, that can often get you into trouble. You need to make sure that there’s a case for the business that you’re getting started and that you have a clear plan to meet that need. If you keep a focus on your core customer and make sure everything you do goes back to solving a problem for that customer, then the growth will happen naturally. As for the future of Dos Toros, Leo says they’re really excited for the growth that they’re seeing and the best part about it is the opportunities that it creates for their team members to grow as well. They’re hoping to keep growing at a sustainable rate in their current markets and organically expand into new markets nearby. Right now they’re interested in areas like Philly, DC, Boston, Nashville, Austin, Charlotte, Miami and Dallas but there are so many cool places where they think Dos Toros would be a good fit. The most important thing to them is that they succeed wherever they go, so they’re focused on getting it right with their location choices and going at the right pace for them.

Interested in learning more about Dos Toros?! Check out our blog next week to read the second part of our #IMadeYourFood feature where we will be highlighting one of their longest tenured COs!

 

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Jeremy Merrin, Founder & CEO of Havana Central

This is Jeremy Merrin, the founder and CEO of Havana Central, a Cuban restaurant known for it’s large portions, live music and killer mojitos. A native New Yorker, Jeremy was working in e-commerce and looking for a career change when he decided to make a list of things that he was interested in pursuing and the idea for Havana Central, he says, “just took hold”. Even though he doesn’t come from a food background (in fact no one in his family had ever been in the food industry), he thought this idea presented the biggest opportunity and it was the one he was most excited about. The idea was inspired by a popular Latino restaurant that he lived next to called The Caridad. He started talking to a friend about the food and realized that, outside of Mexican food, there were very little full-service, high-quality restaurants serving the Hispanic market. So he started doing some research into the industry, interviewing Latino and Hispanic people as well as diners in general and eating at every Latin restaurants in the tri-state area to figure out what they were doing well and what could be improved. Through his analysis it became clear to him that there was an audience for this food and although there were a good amount of mom and pop restaurants in NYC, there weren’t any reputable, full-service concepts. So Jeremy decided to create a restaurant whose atmosphere is so immersed in the smells, sounds and tastes of Cuban culture that visiting it makes you feel like you’re taking a wonderful mini-vacation in Havana, Cuba.

Once Jeremy had identified this gap in the market, he started looking at what items were available to them, i.e. traditional Cuban dishes. He realized that since most dishes required relatively inexpensive ingredients, it would allow them to sell and deliver large platters of really good food for reasonable prices, which he thought was key for the economy in 2001. He hired a hospitality, restaurant and retail consultant, Arlene Spiegel, to help create a clear brand for the business and to get it up and running. They hired a food engineer, who helped them come up with the initial recipes for the menu but the real significant base of what they have on their current menu was created by Stanley Licairac, the first person that Jeremy hired to be a part of his team at Havana Central. Stanley was the executive chef at Havana Central for 11 years and was very talented with recipe creation, so most of their dishes are still ones that he put together. But it took about ten or eleven months of menu creation and business preparation before Jeremy was able to open their first location in 2002. And it would be a few years before he was able to fully transition Havana Central into the full-service operation that he knew it could be. 

For the first Havana Central location, Jeremy had purchased a little deli on 17th Street off of Union Square and converted it into a small restaurant with only counter service in about six weeks. The line was out the door the first day that they opened and business was so consistent that within the first three months, they were able to start doing dinner service. Dinner service very quickly became successful as well because they were selling a lot of alcohol from the small bar that they had added to the space. Jeremy realized that a lot of people were coming to the restaurant to drink and as that became a bigger factor, he began to pivot away from his initial plan of counter service. He had always wanted a full-service restaurant but their alcohol sales were so substantial that it made the bar and full-service dining more important than ever before and gave him the ability to transition from a fast- casual restaurant to a full-scale service. They reconstructed the bar in the front of the restaurant and closed off the counter at dinnertime for dinner service, eventually getting rid of the counter completely and making the entire space a full-service operation. As they continued to grow, Jeremy realized that the smaller space was no longer fitting into their capabilities, as they had become a much larger scale restaurant. And although Jeremy admits that their first location was really used as a laboratory, all of that experimenting allowed them to clearly determine what their concept was, upscale the food and to get a good handle on their operations. So by the time their 10 year lease had ended at the 17th Street location, they had already opened two 200+ person locations in Times Square (in 2005) and on the Upper West Side (in 2007).

Havana Central

Jeremy now has four Havana Central locations: Times Square, Yonkers, Long Island and New Jersey (the Upper West Side location is now closed) and at each restaurant he tries to create a family atmosphere, both in the restaurant and on the corporate side, especially because a lot of his employees have been there for 10+ years. So all of the employees are very friendly with one another and most of them have developed a group friendship where they go out together or hang out outside of work. He tries to create a collaborative environment and make sure that there’s no sense of “me against you” so that in the restaurant the back of house is working equally as well with the front of house as they are within themselves. At their core they’re a team and one can’t function properly without the other so he always promotes that belief at both at the restaurant and at their corporate office. For Jeremy, the people he works with are the best part of the job. They’re good people who he enjoys being around. However, the people is also the most difficult part of the job for him, because people are a factor that he can’t control. He can control food, labor and food costs (the basic financial variables) but he can’t control personalities, emotions and personal lives, which are much more complex. Also, there are so many different factors to consider with employees: finding the right people, making sure that they’re keeping customers happy, making sure they’re doing the right thing at the right time and making sure that they’re in positions where they can succeed. Figuring out the balance with your employees is a never ending process and an area that Jeremy is always trying to improve upon.

Although they’ve opened locations pretty consistently over the last 17 years, Jeremy would like to speed up the process. He says that Havana Central is constantly in an state of improvement and he’s always looking for ways to grow and expand the business. Outside of fear of failure, which he admits is a big motivator for him, he really enjoys what he does for a living and still very clearly envisions what the future of Havana Central could be. There are other restaurants that have already done what he wants to do with Havana Central but since the Latin market is still somewhat untapped, there is a huge market available to them and those possibilities really excite him to get to the next level. In the future he hopes to expand Havana Central across the U.S. and make it like the “Latin PF Chang’s” or the “Latin Cheesecake Factory”. But for the moment, he’s happy building the Havana Central brand, making sure that every part of every restaurant that he operates is reminiscent of Havana, Cuba and makes the customer feel as if they’re sitting in a night club or restaurant there, even if they’re only taking a lunch break.

 

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0 comments on “Bari Musacchio, Owner of Baz Bagel and Restaurant”

Bari Musacchio, Owner of Baz Bagel and Restaurant

This is Bari Musacchio, the owner of Baz Bagel and Restaurant. A sociology major in college, she says that the fact that she got into the hospitality industry was “totally random” since no one in her Jewish/Italian family was in food. But when her dad told her that she needed to get a job in order to live in his Manhattan apartment during summer break and that he had hooked her up with a job at Ceci Cela Patisserie, she obliged. She started working at the counter and enjoyed it so much that she continued working there, even when she had graduated college and could only work there one day a week since she had a full-time job. When she first started working at the French pastry shop, she says she didn’t really realize why she kept going back. She just knew that she loved learning people’s names and coffee orders, meeting different customers from the neighborhood and being able to walk anywhere and have to stop and say “hi” to someone she knew. In retrospect, she sees that it was during this time that she got “bitten by the food industry bug” because she loved the neighborhood feeling that the business provided. It’s the same atmosphere that she strives to provide in her cafe, which she describes as having a “Cheers vibe”. Everything from the restaurant’s design to the food to the music was deliberately chosen to make Baz Bagel a neighborhood place where every person feels comfortable and stopping in is just part of a customer’s routine.

It wasn’t until she started doing the accounting for the wholesale business at Ceci Cela Patisserie that Bari recognized that she could turn her love for the food industry into a professional career. She had always been very academic and liked being in a job where she was actively learning and continued to feel challenged. She enrolled in the French Culinary Institute (now International Culinary Center) because she felt that if she was going to commit to a career in food, she wanted to learn every aspect of the business. There she learned the basics of cooking and baking before becoming deeply interested in Italian food and wine (which she reveals is still a special passion of hers) and deciding to go to culinary school in Italy. She came back to New York for a few years after she finished her culinary courses, but later returned to Italy and worked there for a year because she loved the view of the culinary arts in Europe, “it was a whole different type of education”, she says. After returning from Italy the second time, she opened Rubirosa as the General Manager and worked there for about five years, helping to build it from the ground up. During this time, she kept noticing that there were no bagel shops on the Lower East Side, an area that she had lived and worked in for many years. Since she had grown up on Long Island, bagels were a huge part of her daily diet and she found herself traveling to the Upper West Side every weekend to get “good bagels” with her dad, which was a routine they had. She also kept remembering how often customers would come into Ceci Cela and ask if they had bagels and she would think “someone has to open a bagel place around here” because there was no routine available to their community. So in 2014, she started imagining spots in the area where she could open a bagel place and when a space opened up across the street from her apartment she decided to just take a look at it, thinking “maybe my bagel fantasy will come true”. Immediately when she walked in, she was able to envision how it could all work and decided to go for it.

Her family helped her in putting up the money to buy the restaurant but coming off of the success of Rubirosa, where they saw her work like it was her own place, they knew this endeavor was something she was extremely passionate about. Seeing the whole operation work is still one of the most rewarding parts of the business for Bari. She compares it to synchronized swimming, where everyone is moving on their own but working as a whole to create something masterful. The space she’s in has a 120 year old history. Originally an Italian deli and then a multitude of other things, it was an Italian restaurant for 10 years and then briefly a juice bar before Bari took it over. Her neighbor, Anna, used to work there as a girl when her family ran it as a luncheonette, which she showed Bari pictures of on the night that Baz opened, one of which now hangs on a wall in the restaurant. The space has been a part of the community for generations, which makes it even more special for Bari that she can continue adding to it’s history. Unfortunately the owners before her ripped out all of the original counters and fixtures so they had to bring back in the lunch counter and re-design everything. But she felt that bringing back touches of the original decor made the space even more charming and inviting. She was inspired by her trips to Florida to give it the luncheonette/diner feel rather than a grab-n-go bagel store because in Florida it’s normal to sit down, have some coffee and eat your bagel or breakfast sandwich at a table without rushing out. So she decided to create a Jewish diner that centered around bagels, even though grab-n-go may be faster and more efficient in New York. She loved the idea of sitting at a table and hanging out with friends while enjoying a delicious bagel and she wanted to create a place where she would want to hang out every day.

There’s a lot of nostalgia sprinkled throughout the restaurant, from the design to the menu to the packaging. All of the decorations in the restaurant are things that influenced Bari growing up, specifically musicians like Barbara Streisand, Carly Simon and Carole King, which were always playing around her house. Bari’s grandmother grew up on the Lower East Side and went to high school with Barbara Streisand so there was always a connection to her and the empowering message that she stood for. Bari wanted to tie these childhood influences (the influences of her grandmother’s generation) into the menu, so she took some recipes from her grandmother when creating it. Her grandmother has a recipe box full of recipe cards that she and her friends from temple wrote down and put together so she was a able to get a lot of authentic recipes for items like latkes, chicken soup, matzoh balls and matzoh brei. However, for the bagels, Bari created her own recipe. She did a lot of research into bagels (eating many different kinds) to see what she liked or disliked about them and even worked at a bagel shop in New Jersey for free in order to learn how to make them. Once she knew the process, she hired bakers to start making them and then tweaked the recipe to incorporate different elements that she liked from certain bagels until she found the perfect balance. With their packaging, Bari tries to keep the personality of the restaurant and bring it into corporate offices for catering or delivery orders. Catering is usually a side operation for other businesses but for her it’s become just as important as the retail business because every time she caters, she introduces her product to 100 people that haven’t seen it yet. She puts different images on their coffee boxes: one of her grandmother, one of Barbara Streisand, one of her cousin, Gary, in a pink suit for his prom, just to make it fun. She tries to find the joy in simple things and uses her packaging to make an impression and to keep a smile on people’s faces.

For Bari, the most rewarding part of the business is seeing people laughing in the restaurant every day and having a good time. It was really important to her that she create a space where you could “take a date, a baby or your grandmother” and each person would feel like there was something there for them. Which is why she’s not concerned with finding a niche or carving out a space for her restaurant in the food industry. She just wants to be “the neighborhood hang”, which she is, as evidenced by the customers that come into her restaurant seven days a week. She loves that she’s seen kids grow up in her store and takes pride in the fact that when a customer comes in, they’re able to forget about whatever’s going on outside the restaurant. But even though Baz Bagel is an established restaurant in the neighborhood, she admits that there’s an obstacle every single day. Which is why her advice to other entrepreneurs in the food industry is to keep with it, saying “as long as you’re prepared to deal with the challenges and control everything else that’s controllable, you’re gonna be fine”. Perseverance is the key to success for Bari, whose dad and sister both run their own businesses. She believes that the drive to succeed is in her DNA and her dad has taught her that running a business is a game of both “putting your head down and working hard” and “lifting your head up and selling”. So when so many things are going wrong and she wants to quit, she just keeps pushing through it, believing it will work out, which it always does.

As for the future of Baz, Bari says she’s enjoyed expanding “out the backdoor” with their catering and wholesales businesses rather than opening many doors with other locations. She enjoys the charm of having one location but there is demand for them to expand so she’s in the process of figuring out what that looks like. One thing that is clear to her is that whatever expansion they do end up doing, she wants to make sure that it doesn’t effect their flagship store, which is the heart and soul of her business. It’s the place that made her believe that her vision was possible and even today, after five years in business, Bari continues to say that she can’t put her finger on what it is that makes her restaurant so unique. But just like her first job at Ceci Cela, which made her fall in love with food, Baz Bagel and Restaurant is a place where there’s a constant friendly, community feeling and as Bari puts it, “something just feels special about this place”.

 

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0 comments on “Kamola Akhmedova, Owner of Afandi Asian Grill”

Kamola Akhmedova, Owner of Afandi Asian Grill

This is Kamola Akhmedova, the owner of Afandi Asian Grill. Afandi is a title shortened from Nasreddin Afandi, the name of a fictional character whose story of being a traveler on the Silk Road is very popular in Kamola’s native country of Uzbekistan. Kamola moved to New York in 2013 after meeting her fiance at The MET during a business trip for her parents manufacturing company. The company, which specializes in the manufacturing of ice cream and frozen foods, was looking to expand it’s product line and Kamola was meeting with clients in New York. Her husband, who is also originally from Uzbekistan, overheard her talking on the phone and struck up a conversation with her. Five months later, after dating long distance, they decided to get married and Kamola moved back to New York permanently. She says it was one of the biggest decisions she’s ever made because she had been a part of her parents company for most of her life and wasn’t sure what she would do for work in New York. But soon after getting married she got pregnant and she spent the next two years raising her son and continuing to work remotely for her parents. In 2015 her husband decided to open his own shipping company and she began helping with the business, doing the bookkeeping and running operations. However, after a while, Kamola started getting interested in the food industry again, since she had worked in it for most of her life. She began thinking about how much she loved Uzbek food but it was all so heavy and greasy; there was no modern Uzbek food that would appeal to the market in New York. So she decided to open her own fast casual restaurant that would focus on a new version of Uzbek food but still would be able to educate New Yorkers about her culture.

Uzbekistan is located in Central Asia so it has influences from both the Silk Road/the Western part of China and the Soviet Union, which makes both their culture and their food a very unique combination. Their breakfast food is most similar to the Soviet Union countries (pierogies, cheese pancakes, blintzes) but most of their traditional lunch and dinner dishes (Uzbek pilaf (plov), dumplings (manti) and noodle dishes (norin or lagman)) come from Western China and are very meat-heavy, containing either lamb or beef. Originally when she began pursuing a career in the food industry, Kamola did research into manufacturing, thinking that she could create a manufacturing business around Uzbek food. But she quickly realized that it would be too hard to replicate her parents’ operation without experience in the U.S. Her parents had been working in the manufacturing industry for years, first mass manufacturing ice cream and then expanding into frozen foods when she was 14, the same time that Kamola began working for them. She had started learning English in high school and since her parents don’t speak English, she would help them schedule meetings with their partners abroad. She attended an Australian university in Uzbekistan and continued her English classes, taking a bigger role in the company and travelling with her parents to international expos and conferences to help translate. Although her schedule was extremely full with work and school, she says she didn’t mind it because she was always passionate about being in business. She didn’t know exactly what field she would pursue but always knew she would get into some area of business and be a business owner.

Since Kamola had been surrounded by food from an early age and knew manufacturing wasn’t a viable option, she began thinking about the restaurant/cafe business because it was a smaller part of the food industry and a (seemingly) easier operation to run. She started doing research into food trends in New York and found that vegetarian and vegan options were very popular. She thought there could be a way to make Uzbek food lighter and healthier with vegan and vegetarians options; an “every day meal” that would attract recurring customers rather than a heavy experience that they splurged on every once in a while. However, although she knew how to cook and had business experience, she didn’t have any experience in the restaurant industry, so she spent the next year learning. She wanted to do her research into the business and decrease her risks as much as possible so she started going into different restaurants in Uzbekistan and asking chefs for help. She worked with these chefs to deeply understand and learn their recipes and then she made them every day until she learned how to create every dish. Then she started working backwards seeing where she could substitute ingredients for lighter, healthier and/or veggie-friendly options. She spent six months in Uzbekistan and six months in New York learning and working on the menu before deciding if she could even open a restaurant. But her research paid off. She constructed a simple menu that included some main, authentic Uzbek dishes as well as the vegan and vegetarian options that she had created. Once that was complete, she made a business plan and started looking for restaurant spaces in the East Village since it’s a traditionally Ukrainian area that customers are drawn to. She ended up finding a small space with a kitchen on 1st Avenue and her restaurant opened in September 2018. It’s one of the first Uzbek restaurants in Manhattan.

Afandi Store

Since her business has only been open for about six months, Kamola says there’s still a lot to be done to get more customers into the restaurant. She admits that it’s been difficult to gain interest from customers because it’s something new but she tries to explain the cuisine to every single customer that comes in so that he/she understands the influences that make it unique. She’s incorporated a lot of the Uzbek culture into the store design (statue of Afandi, Uzbek paintings, cups and bowls) but also tries to show the creation of her modern Uzbek food by depicting the meshing of New York City and Uzbekistan with the image of two American women wearing Uzbek hats. She’s also very aware of the impact of social media on food businesses and is trying to do more on Instagram and Facebook so that their audience will get to know her business and the mission behind it. She’s been inviting influencers to come to the restaurant and try the food for free in exchange for a social media post and even created a “green wall” to make the restaurant more picturesque for social media. However, as difficult as it’s been for Kamola to get her business to stand out in a saturated market, she says that the most difficult part of being a woman-owned business is being able to balance your family and your business. It feels like there’s never enough time in the day for her to manage both aspects of her life and that gets really tough. Her son is her biggest motivation to make the business successful but even when she’s thinking about the business throughout the day, she’s always thinking about her son. Although she really enjoys her job, she has to work to support her family and it’s always challenging trying to figure out how to balance everything. It frustrates her as a business owner and mother that there’s not one clear solution but she hopes that over time she can find a routine that works for her.

Kamola’s immediate plans for Afandi Asian Grill include expanding their menu to incorporate more food from other Soviet Union countries and starting to offer brunch on the weekends. But long-term she plans to open another restaurant that’s smaller with only counter service and grab-n-go food. She’d like to open a small manufacturing facility in Brooklyn where all of the Uzbek food would be cooked and then transported to these small restaurants that would eventually expand throughout the city. However, this operation requires more financing so she plans to do more research into the logistics to see what would be feasible in New York. She’s started going to more networking events and meet-ups to make connections and learn from people who have been successful in the food industry. Understanding how other women have grown their businesses and garnering their advice is very important to her. Kamola relies heavily on her research and being a new business owner, it’s one of her two pieces of advice for female entrepreneurs looking to get into the food industry: do as much research as possible and then get as much experience as possible. She doesn’t regret her path into the restaurant business but looking back she wishes that she knew more about restaurants and how many things you have to handle as a business owner before jumping in. She says if she had realized, she definitely would’ve worked in a restaurant to get more experience first, even if she had to work for free. Because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what cuisine you’re cooking, real life experience in a kitchen is more important than anything else.

 

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0 comments on “Liz Solomon, Founder and CEO of King David Tacos”

Liz Solomon, Founder and CEO of King David Tacos

This is Liz Solomon, the Founder and CEO of King David Tacos, a business that specializes in grab-n-go breakfast tacos that are “born and bred in Austin but made for NYC”. Like her tacos, Liz was born and raised in Austin, Texas but moved to New York to pursue a career in advertising. However, after working for 10 years in the same industry, she became disenchanted with her career path. She loved her work building brands but she knew from an early point that this wasn’t the industry she wanted to work in for the rest of her life. She knew that one day there would be an opportunity to make a shift in her career and kept the faith that she would know her next move when it presented itself. However, the crossroads she was looking for didn’t appear as she expected it to. It came as her dad’s illness was nearing it’s end. And unlike the typical entrepreneur story of starting a business to be your own boss or to be in charge of your own destiny, Liz realized that she didn’t want to have any regrets about her life. Her dad’s illness had hit her with the awareness that you never know what could happen in your life. It was a very acute feeling that made her recognize that she needed to make sure she did the things she had always wanted to, even if it meant taking a risk. Being a Texan, the lack of breakfast tacos was the first thing she noticed when she moved to New York and it was something she thought was glaringly missing from the food scene. And because her dad was the first one to push her to open a breakfast taco stand (Times Square was his location of choice), she decided to try and fill the gap that she saw. It wasn’t the opportunity she had been envisioning for herself but she had been waiting for the right moment for so long that she knew she had to seize it. So she took stock of her life- she was financially secure, had years of business knowledge, had the product and the passion for it and had a stable partner (her husband) who could support her, both emotionally and financially, in this venture. So she started a breakfast taco company as an homage to her dad, David, and to make an impact on other people’s lives by bringing them the joy of breakfast tacos.

Liz says that she’s not special in that she noticed the breakfast taco hole in the New York food industry, she’s just special in that she was crazy enough to act on it. And once she was committed to the idea, she jump into the food industry “head first”. She formed the LLC in December 2015 and by January 2016 she had taken her food safety course, was learning the rules and regulations of food production in New York and had started searching for a tortilleria and a kitchen for production. By April 2016 she was finishing up her recipe testing and had found a shared kitchen space to rent. In May she put everything on hold to prepare for her wedding in June, got married, came back from a “mini”-moon and did her first two trial runs of production at her husband’s company and at her sister’s company. During the trial runs she realized that she was going to need employees so she started hiring at the end of June/beginning of July and officially launched in July with two tacos and one salsa. She started doing catering orders with contacts she had made through networking and business was slowly coming in through word of mouth. But things really took off thanks to an article in New York Magazine, written by Sierra Tishgart, which profiled Liz and King David Tacos because they were the only breakfast taco company in the city. The article got them off the ground but they were still only offering catering and requiring that customers order a minimum of 100 tacos because Liz was bootstrapping the business herself and that was the only way they were able to break even. However, she realized that they couldn’t expect every client to do catering and 100 tacos wasn’t a sustainable way to make people order. Their catering base was growing but they needed guaranteed business that catering didn’t provide and a way to get tacos directly to the client.

After doing catering for a year, King David Tacos opened their first breakfast taco cart in Prospect Park in September 2017, which was quickly followed by their second breakfast taco cart on Wall Street in November 2017. The mobile carts gave them a retail presence and the stability they needed for consistent production, which allowed Liz to maintain a full-time staff and get enough revenue to pay rent and lock down their own space in the shared kitchen they were working out of. It also allowed them to establish better processes (the consistent business gave them the time and money to improve their systems) and introduce new products, expanding to four tacos and two salsas. However, the food carts also introduced Liz to a whole other world of rules and regulations that are tied to mobile vending. They had to respond to RFPs (request for proposals) for the locations where their carts are parked and win them in order to get a restricted permit with the New York City Department of Parks. The restricted permit guarantees that no one else can be in their spot but it’s a contract for only a certain number of years. So once the contract is up, they’ll have to win the RFP again. Luckily, both carts do very well, with 75-80% of the business being returning customers, which is exactly what Liz designed the product for. She felt that other breakfast taco companies failed in the past because they tried to recreate Austin or didn’t tailor the product to New York’s needs. She recognized that in order to bring breakfast tacos to New York, they needed to be a convenient item that people could “grab-n-go” on their way to work. She knew that she wasn’t going to convince New Yorkers to make the choice to buy a breakfast taco if they had to go out of their way to get them. Therefore, the strategy behind every decision they’ve made as a brand is to put themselves in people’s routines. The mobile carts allow them to literally get in the customer’s walkway and makes the purchasing process more efficient for the consumer.

Liz also realized that tailoring her breakfast tacos to New York meant understanding how New Yorkers eat. She’s proud of her Texas roots but knew that trying to make Texas and it’s eating habits the focal point of the business wouldn’t work in New York. New Yorkers love to indulge but overall are more health conscious, so she needed to create something that had good, healthy ingredients but was filling enough that you could eat one or two and feel satisfied. So she created the prototype for the tacos to be 1 egg, 1 piece of bacon, 4-5 cubes of potatoes and a little bit of cheese. This breakdown changes based on the type of taco and it’s ingredients but keeps the same main ratio of portioning. She felt like this was a meal that was easy to get on your commute, easy to take into the office and was solid enough to get you through the morning. Unlike a bagel or pastry that’s all sugar and carbs and makes you feel guilty after you eat it, her tacos are a good middle ground of healthy and indulgent, where you don’t feel like you’re limiting yourself to the “typical healthy food” of yogurt or a smoothie. When thinking about her breakfast tacos, Liz wants customers to say that they’re the best breakfast tacos outside of Texas but also wants them to recognize that this is something they can eat every day. She believes that fad diets are fading out and that more and more people are realizing that whole foods are good for you and moderation is the key to a healthy lifestyle. She wants people to see her breakfast tacos as a part of that lifestyle because not only are they a delicious, wholesome breakfast, they’re a unique option that people can easily incorporate into their breakfast routine.

For Liz the most rewarding part of the business is the personal connection she forms with customers, since her business began from such a personal mission. The best part is interacting with customers at their mobile carts, seeing them buy the tacos, eat them and tell her how much they love them. She loves being able to hear their feedback and figure out ways that they can improve what they’re doing. She recently was at their Prospect Park cart and a couple that comes with their kids every weekend told her that their kids go home and play “taco cart”, which really stuck with her. The impact that her business is able to have on other people’s lives is really what she does it for and it makes her feel like she’s been woven into their life in a small way. But as the business owner, the more successful they are and the deeper she gets into the business, the less and less she’s at the carts, which is tough for her. She likes to be hands-on with everything so she channels that into her employees, who are interacting with customers on a daily basis. She tries to instill empathy for employees in the other areas of the business into all of her team members to make them understand how every part of the operation effects each other and to create a system of mutual respect across all levels.

As most business owners in the food industry know, working in food is a very thank-less job, so it’s hard to find people who are committed to the business. When they don’t show up for you or for your other employees, it’s hard not to take it personally in a small business. But as a female business owner, Liz says she’s learned to toughen up over the last few years and get more comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. In the past she might’ve shied away from confrontation but she’s learned that it’s okay to be more assertive when the situation calls for it. She believes that as a female entrepreneur you have to set firm standards of how the business is going to be run and use your power when necessary to make sure that these standards are being upheld, or else people will take advantage of you. Although that’s not how she’s been “trained” to handle things as a woman, she’s grown used to this space outside her comfort zone and likes challenging herself to get used to operating there. She’s very sensitive to the female inequality in the food industry and advocates that other female founders work to find their voice, even when it’s uncomfortable. For Liz, it’s constantly about finding the right balance of care and assertiveness but making sure your underlying tone is one of respect. Without respect, for your employees, your customers, your partners and for yourself, your business will never create the impact that you hope to achieve.

 

 

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0 comments on “Lily Brynes, Founder and CEO of SPOTS NYC”

Lily Brynes, Founder and CEO of SPOTS NYC

This is Lily Brynes, the founder and CEO of SPOTS NYC. A native New Yorker, Lily was only 23 years old when she started SPOTS, a company that she created almost unwittingly. Lily had always been a big fan of baking and for fun liked to make large-scale cakes, like the Nike box cake for which she had purchased an edible printer off Amazon in order to make the famous Nike “swoosh” logo. In February 2014, she had decided with her boyfriend (now fiance, Samson) that for Valentine’s Day that year they would exchange personal gifts instead of material ones. She had the idea that it would be cute if she could bake him cupcakes with a picture of them on top. So she dusted off the edible printer from her Nike cake, made the personalized Valentine’s Day cupcakes and liked the finished product so much that she posted a picture of them on her Instagram. Immediately she got a message from the PR person at her sister’s clothing company asking her where she had gotten them. When Lily said she had made them, she asked her if she could make them for all of her magazine contacts as a unique Valentine’s Day treat. Lily had time off from work so she decided to do it. She didn’t have the pre-cut circles for the cupcakes at the time so she was cutting them all by hand, adding the edible images, using packaging from The Container Store and delivering them the each office herself. She realized that other people may be interested in ordering her SPOTS so she made a gmail address and an Instagram account called SPOTS NYC and magazines like Marie Claire and Lucky began posting about them. Within a few days, she got an email from Marie Claire’s corporate team asking her to make 500 cupcakes for their spring press preview the next day and from there, the business took off. Although Lily had a full-time job that she was preparing to jump into, she thought she would regret not pursuing SPOTS and decided to turn down the job. She took advantage of an opportunity to pursue a passion project and now helps her customers tell their own story with her personalized mini cupcakes. 

Lily says that she always had aspirations of being an entrepreneur but it wasn’t until college that she found her true passion in food. Her stepfather owns Neuman’s Kitchen (a large catering company in NY and Philadelphia) so she worked front of house and back of house there throughout high school and into college. However, freshman year of college she interned for Danny Meyer at Union Square Hospitality Group and had such an amazing experience that she continued to intern there every winter and summer break until she graduated and then accepted an offer to join their team full-time. However, looking back now, she says it wasn’t a role that she should’ve accepted. They had created a position for her where she would help with the corporate catering at KKR (a private equity company) and worked directly out of their office with one other colleague. Therefore, she wasn’t a part of the culture at USHG, which was really the part of the business that she had fallen in love with, and didn’t feel that the role she was in was a good fit for her. But she had a great mentor at USHG who she voiced her concerns to and who helped her transition to working on the Super Bowl pop up in early 2014 that Danny Meyer was opening in partnership with the NFL. She helped open and run the restaurant in NY the week before and the week of the Super Bowl and once it finished, they asked her to do the management training program at Shake Shack, which was starting in March 2014. It was during the month between the Super Bowl and the beginning of training at Shake Shack that SPOTS was born. Once Marie Claire had posted about her product, she spent the month doing orders for magazines and brands as a side project, not really realizing that it could be a business. She was still planning to do the training at Shake Shack and use it as a stepping stone in her career but as she got closer to the start date and orders kept coming in, she felt that SPOTS would fuel the entrepreneurial spirit that she had always had. So she decided to leave USHG and to take a leap of faith with SPOTS.

For the first year after she launched the business, Lily was baking the cupcakes in her apartment kitchen, delivering them herself and handling all sales, marketing and billing. She says that when customers used to call and ask for her marketing manager, she would put them on hold and then pick up and pretend she was someone else within the company. After a few months, she started working with a kitchen that produced all of the cupcakes for Crumbs (now out of business) and would create “naked cupcakes” for her and deliver them to her apartment every day so that she could print the image/logo and decorate them before delivery. Although it was easier not creating the cupcakes, she was still constantly grinding and eventually her operation got too big for her kitchen at home. She began renting kitchen space from the bar Slate NY on 21st Street in NYC and started hiring employees to help her bake and create the cupcakes, finally realizing that it was too hard to keep doing it by herself. She rented space from Slate NY for about two years until she ran into a problem one day when she went into the restaurant to start baking and found their racks broken and packaging thrown on the floor. The next week she moved out of Slate NY and into her current office, where she built a prep kitchen so that her team could create the product in their own space. In hindsight she recognizes that she made the mistake of not acknowledging that she needed help sooner, but despite the large volume of orders coming in, she believed that she could do it on her own. However, she did realize pretty quickly that they needed custom packaging because they were getting a lot of inquiries about shipping. So she spent nine months completely building the packaging from idea to creation to produce a custom made package for her mini cupcakes since they didn’t fit in the “traditional cupcake” packaging. This is the same packaging that they use today in her commissary kitchen in Long Island City, where her baking staff works, since they outgrew her office in Manhattan. All of their production takes place in their commissary kitchen and her four person office team handles all incoming orders.  

The most interesting thing about SPOTS is that the product hasn’t really evolved much since that original batch. Lily knew when she first created them that she didn’t want the cupcakes to muffin top because she needed them flat to print the image and was able to figure out the best baking process. It’s also always been the same size for the mini cupcakes (mini whoopie pie halves) and always the same four flavors: birthday cake, red velvet, vanilla and brownie batter. She came up with pricing for the cupcakes by doing research on companies that were offering a similar product and figuring out what labor and delivery/shipping costs would need to be added. Fast forward 5 years and SPOTS NYC is now an established business that sold over 300,000 cupcakes last year.  Lily‘s humble enough to say that she owes a lot of her success to Instagram, since it was the platform that helped her launch her product, and Marie Claire, for promoting it. But the truth is that she was able to carve out a niche in the market and promote her product through the right channels. Which is why her advice to other entrepreneurs looking to get into the food industry, especially female entrepreneurs, is to own your product or idea and network with the right people, no matter how daunting it seems. She believes that there’s enough room in the industry for more creative food ideas and for collaboration among “competitors”, which is why she created ALPHA, a female founders club where women can network with other female business owners as a way to empower one another. She found that in the food industry, it’s hard to gain the respect you know that you deserve as a woman-owned business so reminding each other that they all deserve a seat at the table is necessary for everyone’s success. For Lily, competition never seemed to be a challenging part of the food world because it’s such a huge industry that she believes there’s enough business for companies to share. “If anything”, she says, “that means that there’s room in the industry for more”.

For Lily, the best part of running her own business is that she genuinely gets to make people happy with her product. Seeing the reactions people have when they get the cupcakes, especially when their face is on them, creates such a personal connection to the food that she loves. She loves helping clients tell a story with her edible branding, which is what she hopes her customers associate SPOTS NYC with. In the upcoming years, she wants to make SPOTS a household name and wants it to be the go to edible branding company. Similar to how a customer thinks of Edible Arrangements when they want a bouquet of fruit, she wants customers to think of SPOTS NYC when they think of something edible with a photo. Eventually she does see herself selling the business down the line but right now she’s experimenting with experiential service through on demand printing. Ideally she’d like to create kiosks where you could order the SPOTS cupcakes and have them printed on site. It would cut out the need to order in advance and create an experience for the customer. She believes that everything is moving towards experience-based interactions with businesses and wants to be ahead of the curve of incorporating this technology into her edible branding, making it even more personalized and unique.

 

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0 comments on “Gopal Singh, Head Chef and Co-Partner of Mint Masala”

Gopal Singh, Head Chef and Co-Partner of Mint Masala

This is Gopal Singh, the head chef at Mint Masala, an Indian restaurant that he runs with his business partner, Shekhar Gowda. The duo met while working at an Indian restaurant on the Upper West Side (Gopal was the chef and Shekhar was the manager) and quickly realized the other’s expertise in their respective areas of restaurant operations. They worked together for about a year until they decided to open their own restaurant. Both had been in the hospitality/food industry for years at this point, working at various establishments, and wanted to make one final move to a business where they could control every factor of the service. For Gopal, he believed that he had enough experience as a chef to open his own place where he could be in charge of the kitchen rather than working for someone else. So in 2013, they opened Mint Masala on Macdougal Street in Greenwich Village. Although Gopal admits that the first year and a half was difficult because it took them a year to get approval from the Department of Buildings to expand the kitchen after renting the space, they were able to use their individual skills to create a restaurant where atmosphere and food quality are the top priorities. Now, with a combined 80+ years of experience in the food industry, Gopal strives to differentiate their restaurant from their growing list of competitors by providing high-quality food whose difference you can taste.

Gopal grew up in India, where his career in food service began. He had no background in food (his father was in the army and his mother was a housewife) but he became interested in the industry because one of his friends had started working in a restaurant and was making good money. He saw the food industry as an area of opportunity for him and after graduating high school, decided to forgo college and see where this new path could take him. He began working in restaurants, getting insight into their daily operations and understanding the different parts of the business. However, he really got interested in cooking when he began working in an army cafeteria/mess hall. It was during this time that he learned a lot about Indian food and his passion for food grew. He realized that this could become a career for him and decided to enroll in culinary classes. After culinary school and getting a little more experience under his belt as a chef, Gopal opened his own restaurant in New Delhi. He was running the business for about 7 years and working as the head chef when a friend of his, who lived in the U.S., sent him a visa application form to emigrate to New York. After considering all of his options, he decided to move to the U.S. because he believed there would be more opportunities available to him. So he sold his restaurant and emigrated to the U.S. in 1990.

Once he arrived in the U.S., Gopal began a long journey within food service, owning and working in a variety of Indian restaurants throughout New York City, Long Island and Connecticut. He started working at Diwan Grill on Long Island, a job that he was connected to by his friend who helped him obtain his visa, before moving to Connecticut in 1997. He had heard that there was a good market for Indian food at the time and decided to open his own restaurant. But he ended up closing the business about 2 years after because he didn’t like living in Connecticut. Not only was business slow, it was too quiet for him and he felt like there were never people around. He had gone into Manhattan for a day during this period to check it out (he had never been before) and felt much more comfortable there. He was used to the hustle and bustle of a city and thought Manhattan was a unique place where he could access anything that he might need. So he moved to Jamaica, Queens in 2000 and has been working in the city ever since. He found that most of the restaurants that he had worked at before opening Mint Masala were pretty similar to each other cuisine-wise, but each place had their own recipes for how they liked certain dishes to be prepared. Since these places were so similar, it made Gopal realize how important recipes are to the success of your business and how they can be the differentiating factor between you and your competition.

Therefore, when he and Shekhar decided to open their own restaurant, Gopal started writing down his own recipes, the same ones that he had created and used in his restaurant in New Delhi, which were more traditional than the Indian restaurants that he had been working at in New York. He wanted his recipes to reflect the home cooked meal that you would experience if you were in India. Since his recipes are more traditional, he uses much less oil, butter and cream than other restaurants. He found that when other chefs didn’t know how to flavor the dish with spice, they would overcompensate with butter and cream to give it flavor, which gave customers the impression that all Indian food is oily and heavy. It was important to Gopal that each recipe be the right combination of high-quality ingredients and taste, which is why he uses spices as flavoring rather than unhealthy additives. Their healthier recipes and subsequent better taste is what sets Mint Masala apart from other Indian restaurants, because you can taste the difference in quality. He believes that customers keep coming back to dine with them because they recognize the balance of ingredients and flavors and appreciate it, which is why it’s crucial to Gopal that the food they serve is always consistent. When a new employee joins their team, they are trained for 2-3 weeks and Gopal is very hands-on throughout the entire process to make sure that he/she is learning all of the recipes correctly. He makes sure that everyone in his kitchen is maintaining the high-quality food that they’re known for so that when he’s not there, all recipes are being made correctly and their excellence never wavers.

As the leader of the kitchen staff, it’s important to Gopal that he take the time to get each employee acclimated to the restaurant and create a personal connection with everyone on his team. A lot of his employees are actually people that he worked with previously in other restaurants and chose to join him when he opened Mint Masala. They had experienced how he ran his kitchen and were happy with the atmosphere that he creates, which is one of respect and trust. He’s flexible with his employees’ hours in case they have something going on in their personal lives that they need to take care of and pays his employees a salary so that they don’t lose money in case they do have less hours one week vs. the next. It’s rewarding for Gopal to have a kitchen team that’s happy and invested in their work because it trickles down to the customer and their experience. They always have a consistent flow of customers coming in and it feels rewarding to him that people are still coming in and eating the food that he and his team creates. A lot of people will try the food and write a review saying that they were happy with the food or the experience in general, which is another part of the business that he loves. He checks the reviews each night and reads through them to see if customers are still happy and if there are any specific ways in which they can improve. When you’re opening a business, you’re ever sure how people will react to it, but if people continue to come in and you’re making money, that’s success in Gopal’s mind.

Now that they’ve mastering casual dining with Mint Masala, Gopal and Shekhar are planning to open a fine dining restaurant in Manhattan in the next year or two. They want to create an upscale experience that incorporates their traditional food in a more formal setting with a full bar and more seating. Although this is a change from what they’ve done in the past, they both trust the knowledge that they’ve gained over years in the food industry as well as themselves. In the past, Gopal says, people have tried to give them advice about what they should do with Mint Masala because everyone has their own experience and own opinion on what works best in the restaurant business. However, they’re planning to focus on their own ideas and do what they need to in order to make the business successful. Whether other people think it’s right or not, as long as they continue to provide high-quality food to their customers that keep them returning, they’re happy.

 

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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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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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