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Baja Fresh’s David Kim goes public

Latest restaurant CEO on ‘Undercover Boss’ talks TV, ops, people and profits

David Kim, the chief executive of Baja Fresh Mexican Grill, has long been known as somewhat media shy.

But the turnaround specialist and entrepreneur, who purchased Baja Fresh in 2006 for $31 million, is taking a big leap into more public life in an episode of the CBS show “Undercover Boss,” scheduled to air on Sunday.

Sporting a goatee disguise and admittedly fumbling his burrito-making skills, Kim is the latest restaurant executive to anonymously slip into the ranks of his own company on national television. Previous industry undercover bosses include John Fuller of Johnny Rockets Inc., Don Fertman of Subway and Cody Brooks of Hooters.

See a preview of Sunday's show (story continued below):

 

In addition to the 255 Baja Fresh locations, Kim also owns the La Salsa Fresh Mexican Grill chain, and, through a subsidiary, the Canyons Burger brand. Through a separate investment group, Kim is also a Cinnabon franchisee and owns The Sweet Factory candy chain. He is also author of the book “Ignite!: The 12 Values That Fuel Billionaire Success.”

Kim spoke with Nation’s Restaurant News about his “Undercover Boss” experience — though he was unable to share all of the details about the show under instruction not to give away a “big reveal.”

What was the thinking behind this and what were you were hoping to get out of doing this show?

We actually were contacted by the producers, and they asked us to be on the show. I’m very shy with the media, so at I first turned it down. I didn’t want to do it. But after talking with some of our staff, I said I would. I’m a big proponent of people. It’s a difficult time for a lot of people in America right now and I wanted to do something that would inspire them. But, in the end, I actually got a tremendous amount of inspiration from the people I worked with. It went the other way.

How did you get placed in the restaurants? What was the ruse?

I have some restrictions on what I can say about it, but it was a job swap (scenario) where two people compete for one job. I had a disguise. I was supposed to be a punk rocker, initially, but that didn’t turn out too well. So they made me a video store clerk with a goatee. It actually worked very well. People didn’t really recognize me.

What jobs did you do?

I did everything, from cleaning toilets to washing dishes, making food, dealing with customers, and being a cashier.

What was the hardest to learn?

It’s funny because I’ve been in the restaurant business for some time and I really thought I could do it. I had no idea I got old so fast. I was just screwing up left and right. It was embarrassing for me. I’ve gained more weight. I’m slower. At one point, I was making some burritos and I kept screwing it up, and those burritos I screwed up, I would eat. I must have gained about 10 pounds.

How did that change your perspective of the operation?

There were several things, but I realized that it was about the people who work for our company. That’s what inspired me the most. Through that process of getting to know their hardships, what makes them really happy, who they are and how they care for other people in the company. All those things put together were, for me, the greatest experience I had with the show.

We did get some marketing ideas. We had a lot of requests about how come we don’t do a better job of telling the world and our customers that our product is made from scratch and fresh. I think, over the years, we took it for granted that our customers knew that we had, for example, hormone-free products, and that our plates and burrito wrapping paper and bags are recyclable now. People talk about going green, but we actually do it.

People have a perception about what fresh means. That means a lot in our business. Not having a freezer in your store makes a huge difference. Fresh to our definition is actually making things from scratch, but I don’t think consumers understand that.

How will you communicate that message better?

Our ads are including more information about our “Eat Well/Live Fresh” initiative, and we will start talking more about the quality of our ingredients and freshness.

There are great companies, like Whole Foods, that do that well. We thought our customers knew, but our demographics have changed and we have to continuously convey that message.

You said there’s a surprise at the end of the show. Can you give us a hint?

No, but it’s a surprise that will change people’s lives.

How is Baja Fresh trending in terms of sales?

We’re doing much better than last year. Everybody has had their difficulties. We like how things are going.

Any changes to the menu?

At the beginning of this year we introduced four new Baja bowls, a whole line of basically burritos without the tortilla. Our bowls are doing extremely well. A lot of restaurant chains have them but ours taste very different. We’re all about flavor.

How is Baja Fresh handling increasing commodity costs?

We’re monitoring commodity costs daily and our purchasing department is diligently working with purveyors. Just a few weeks ago, we were trying to ensure we had a steady supply of produce like tomatoes and lettuce (because of bad winter weather in growing areas). The supply is evening out a bit, but now it’s time to ensure it’s at a cost we can afford.

Have you looked at menu price increases?

We have taken a small price increase in last three months.

How did consumers respond?

We’ve not seen a negative effect. We work with a company that surveys for us on a daily basis. We really have been monitoring, but we haven’t really seen any negative impact to date.

What are the challenges for Baja Fresh this year?

The challenge will come around growth. As we grow our brand, we want to make sure we don’t compromise the integrity of who we are when it comes to our passion about freshness. We’re obsessed with freshness.

Are you planning on doing more TV now? Dancing with the Stars?

You know, I was just getting the hang of it and getting better at the store level. I’m tempted to call them and ask if they have another show I can go on.

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected]

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