Risky Busi­ness

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.

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