From washing dishes to a restaurant empire
THERE’S NO SHAME IN STARTING FROM THE BOTTOM. WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum once lived in penury and survived on food stamps, Starbucks’ Howard Schultz grew up in a housing estate for the poor and billionaire businessman Shahid Khan used to wash dishes for $1.20 an hour. These men know that opportunities don’t grow on trees, and sometimes you need to take risks and forge your own path.
John Kunkel, restaurateur and founder of 50 Eggs, likes risk. And like Schultz and Koum, he knows what it means to go “all in”. Life for him in the restaurant circuit began with soap scum and dishwashing. He was 15 and it was his girlfriend’s father who had given him the job. Within a couple days, he became fascinated by everything behind the food business. “I saw the line cooks on a busy night and it looked like fun,” he recalls. “I was convinced I wanted to be a part of it.”
By his late 20s, he had worked every position in the industry, front and back. “I basically ran a Ponzi scheme on myself to finance my efforts and probably had more balls than brains along the way,” he chuckles. “When I launched my first restaurant, Bakery Café, I had my house mortgaged and credit cards maxed out. But despite the odds, I went on to open 50 Eggs. It’s a miracle that I’ve no investors or partners, yet am able to fund creative projects.”
From his humble beginnings as a young dishwasher, Kunkel is now the owner of a brand worth millions and runs a company that owns some of America’s most popular restaurants, including the James Beard Foundation award-nominated Yardbird Southern Table & Bar.
50 Eggs is recognised as one of the coolest concepts around.
Yes, we’ve won some great accolades. Whatever restaurant it is, I always want to be the first to innovate. I don’t want to copy trends. Bakery Café was something Miami didn’t have ‒ a great entry into the market. It was less risky than fine dining and didn’t have the crazy hours of nightlife. It was this fast casual segment that exploded in the last say,
15 years. It was what people wanted ‒ better quality food, served fast.
Is there such a thing as over-expansion?
It depends. Quality will definitely be an issue. You can do a lot of things, but it all comes down to your people. It’s like an orchestra. Everybody has to work together to create beautiful music. So it’s important to invest time in training to make sure you have a team. The way I started has become the fabric of how this company operates. It’s all about exceeding expectations and delivering beyond the product one pays for. How do you become the business that puts you out of business?
High turnover is a huge problem. How do you fix that?
A few years ago, we made a commitment to bring on a position that deals solely with culture, communication, retention and recruiting. Being 45, I may not relate to a 19-year-old who wants to work only 30 hours a week. But it’s part of the workforce and we have to accept that. Find a way to deal with it and provide balance within your company with appreciation. Happy employees translate to happy customers.