“I think most in most cases your better employees don't quit the job for money. They don't quit the job, they quit the manager.”- Nick Graff
“I think that entrepreneurs always love puzzles. I mean solving puzzles is probably the number one thing that gets me out of bed every day.”- Jet Tila
Sponsored by Ventura Foods
Chef Nick Graff, vice president of culinary innovation for Noodles & Company, grew up in Southern California in an Italian household where there was always a pot of sauce going in on the burner. Chef Jet Tila, culinary vice president of Pei Wei, is also a California native, a first-generation American growing up in the “first family of Thai food” in Los Angeles, whose presence in both the restaurant industry and on food media makes him one of the most recognizable faces in the ever-expanding Pan-Asian culinary scene. We listened in as the two caught up with each other recently.
NG: I grew up in a household that was always cooking. I feel like it is in my blood.
JT: Same. I come from a family of three generations of restauranteurs. My grandparents originally came from China. They had restaurants there in Hainan and then moved to Thailand, and my father's family opened a cafe in Bangkok. And then my parents immigrated in the 60s, and opened Royal Thai cuisine. I didn't really have the desire to maintain my family's business. But I love what I am doing now as a consultant, and working for Pei Wei, it is a great challenge to have my work across a lot of disciplines at once.
NG: That that is probably truly the most thrilling part of our job, is every day is different. That is always fun.
JT: Yeah, I think what gets me out of bed, I think it's the variety of opportunities, but they all kind of center. I think the through line to what I do, what I enjoy doing the most is probably teaching and creating experience and teaching various opportunities through food media, through television shows or through social media. I’ve just written my third cookbook. Just to be able to get information out there, creating experiences through our restaurants, I'm very happy.
NG: Don't take offense to this Jet, but I always refer to the Food Network as the Cartoon Network for chefs. It's our Saturday morning. You know, it's where we watch all these great chefs on TV. Gives us new ideas and makes us think about what we do. It's reading all the publications.
JT: We take for granted how much of a spectrum food is. So, someone might be in one of our restaurants in middle of America just trying Pad Thai for the first time. Whereas chefs like you and me have been eating Pad Thai for 40 or 50 years on the coast. And I don't take that for granted. So, if I'm on Barbecue Brawl and we're making Korean short ribs and I'm sparking someone’s interest, I mean, we’re reaching someone who is already interested or exposing someone who's never seen it before. I think that entrepreneurs always love puzzles. I mean again solving puzzles is probably my number one thing that gets me out of bed every day.
NG: I think I think you nailed it. If it is the puzzles that get me out of bed, it's supply chain and recession that keep me awake right now. Can you get the product? What's it going to cost you?
The freight lanes are out of control cost-wise right now because fuel is so high. So, supply chain for sure is at the top, right behind that for me is I feel that there's no doubt we're probably slipping into a recession. So, we're all seeing traffic numbers start to dwindle, and so it's how do you maximize what's coming in the door so that you can keep your doors open and hopefully not end up with any rifts within your buildings. It's about being very strategic and at the same time giving value to the guests to give them reason to continue to frequent.
JT: I think there are macro lessons that we're all applying. I mean, menu engineering is a big part of it in terms of what are we substituting in terms of ingredients and also how are we manipulating menu size. I think the recession is a big question mark, right? I don't question that it's happening. I'm back to 2008. We're back in terms of war-rooming and constantly measuring and pivoting. So that's I think that's a few of the things we're all doing as operators.
NG: Yeah, I would agree. It’s all strategizing around being efficient, where no matter what part of your business you're talking about. As a company we have not been good in the past about having redundancy within our supply chain. And so that's a big focus for us right now. Imagine, Noodles & Company being out of cheese sauce because there's a listeria outbreak in the in our kettle manufacturer? That would be devastating to the business. No matter what part of the business we're talking about, it's looking for efficiencies. It's hunting and pecking for nickels and dimes. Because it all adds up.
JT: Yeah. I mean, operators are ripping their forces apart from the revenue side to hours of operation to menu engineering to labor. But that's what everyone has to do. I mean, if you're not, if you're not running exercises daily right now, I mean, you're basically heads in the sand and not getting ahead of it.
NG: We continue to look for ways to incentivize them to stay once they have joined. You know the benefits packages, the way we treat them. Just simple celebrations in the restaurant when it's appropriate and anything we can do to make our teams feel valued and part of something more than just a job.
JT: You know, I've always believed in a culture that is top down, right? I think if you have employees that are always shifting in and out, if you have a high turnover situation, there's a lot of analysis that needs to be made. Is it wages? Is it non-monetary compensation? Is it culture?
You know, I always believe in management with firm boundaries, but I think it's open boundaries. I don't have a specific implementation tool here other than it's always back to basics for me. I mean we need to be pre-servicing, we need to be setting standards and goals, but also at the same time listening our employees what's going on in their lives without crossing lines. If you really dig in, if management is not fair and black and white, and culture doesn't come from the top, I think that's that. That causes probably, in my personal opinion, the majority of concerns of high turnover outside of wages and outside of people just not wanting to do it anymore. We have no control over those things. But I think there are some incremental opportunities within just really good company culture.
NG: I think most in most cases your better employees don't quit the job for money. They don't quit the job, they quit the manager. They didn't feel connected to something and you can't put a price on that. It’s hard to that value that you just know that intrinsically people want to feel connected to what they're doing. They want to feel that what they're doing has value and purpose and as leaders, I think it's important that Jet you hit it on the head. Listen. Hear what they're saying. Sometimes they just wanted to be heard. They don't expect any kind of change or anything. They just want to say what's on their mind. Making them feel like they're part of something bigger than themselves and bigger than the group itself, that's really, really important. If you let them shine, they'll actually surprise you. They'll do more for you than you ever imagine they possibly could. Hey, Jet, let me ask your question. How do you manage your obsolete inventory at the tail end of a Limited Time Offer?
JT: We definitely are purchasing for that eventuality, we're very tight on that assumption. They'll pay when they don’t think it through. The previous regime did a poke, and they brought in all this tuna and it was just a nightmare. So we brought poke back for a very short LTO and we purchased just enough to blow it out. So that's kind of how we manage that.
NG: So it sounds like there's not a hard stop, it's just when you're out, you're out.
JT: That's it, because we run the assumptions right. We'll just go by product calculated or assumed usage.
NG: Yeah, that's something we're trying to figure out right now with 500 restaurants. We're doing our forecast to try to try to nail it right, but in the past our history has been that we have a hard stop date. And so, we've literally had an occasion where we had $300,000 worth of coconut milk leftover from a Thai green Curry dish that we did. So, we were able to sell that to another supplier fortunately. I've been pushing the idea of let's just run it tight and if a store is out, it's out.
JT: Yeah, especially this day and age. I'm with you, when we're out, we're out and that's it. So we don't sit there with hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of dead stock.
NG: There's also that struggle if you're not scaling your technology. I've had people in previous organizations quit. They say ‘I'm not working with these guys anymore because they brought me in to grow, and culinary and sales are innovating. But business intelligence and tech is not. It seems like the infrastructure is always the last thing they think of.
JT: Right, right. Or the reverse is you get these tech nerds that open restaurants that are all infrastructure and are not enough culinary and experience. So there's a lot there. Man restaurants are the best and worst businesses in the world. As we all know. Are you finding any work life balance Nick?
NG: You know it's hit and miss. I mean, there are times where I can find it, and times I can’t you know? I mean that that's this business and you don't get into it if you're not signing up for. So fortunately I'm married to somebody who's also a culinary graduate. She understands my work life. She's no longer in the business. She's one of the ones that got out in COVID. She was in event management, and she's like, I'm done. I'm doing something different, but she understands. You know every now then I have to force myself to take time. That's the business. What we love to do.
JT: That's a great question to you in general. I've known you a long time and I think in our years of knowing each other, my world has evolved quite a bit from a full time Chef working for large institutions into a personality. So my name is a brand. I've taken a very conscious decision in this last decade I take very small pieces of very select partnerships because all of my partnership rise or fall on my visibility on in media, right? This is just straight truth. The more I'm on television and the more I'm in media, the more my restaurants kind of have an opportunity to have visibility. And there's a monetary value there. We can measure conversion. I'm very straightforward. I map out very clearly to my partners. I am also choosing to not tie myself to 50 to 80 hours of OPS. I just because I don't have time. The more I do OPS, it's an inefficient use of my time, the more I can't be on television and sync on media opportunity. So for me, I have found a decent amount of work life balance. My wife would tell you the opposite, but it's way better than it used to be.
The MenuMasters program was founded by both Nation’s Restaurant News and Ventura Foods in 1997, with the inaugural event held in May of 1998.
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