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Taking a Ground-Up Approach to Menu Innovation Sets Hai Hospitality on an Upward Trajectory

“This food we serve people is the most intimate connection.”- Rhonda McCullar “Everyone has a voice in the food, that's really what makes our group so unique.”- Jack Yoss

Chefs Rhonda McCullar and Jack Yoss from the Hai Hospitality Group in Texas might come from different backgrounds, but they share an essential familial passion for true hospitality. McCullar got her start in the kitchen with her mom and aunts, Yoss learned from his dad, and those early experiences of loving tutelage shows in their leadership style. They both bring an incredible attitude of empathy and support to the collaborative work of their team, and a unique perspective on management and menu innovation. It is evident when they have an opportunity to connect with each other, as they did recently with Nation’s Restaurant News listening in, how much they respect each other and enjoy working together.

RM: I started out as just loving to cook and being in the kitchen with my mom and my aunts and doing family functions, and just having a passion of serving and entertaining people. I was in a culinary program in high school, and then I went off to play college basketball, and so athletics kind of took over my life. After my mom passed away, I decided that I needed to do something because I was taking care of my little brother and sister. And so, I decided to use my degree in science and become a 6th grade science teacher. During that time, I really, really missed just being able to cook for people and to have that intimacy of cooking and eating and sharing a meal with people, so I decided to go to culinary school.

JY: My father was the cook in the house. Good, hearty, comforting food and I learned how to cook from him. He passed away pretty early on in my life, and I really found home in kitchens.  I've been working in kitchens since I was 15 years old, all over the world. I learned through work how to make a life in this business. Rhonda, you have degrees in science and culinary. Which is what I love about hospitality and the restaurant industry. It's so diverse!  You have staff with a PhD, and staff with a GED, and you're still the same, with the same opportunities.

RM: Yeah, you know what? I may have the scholastic background and have a formal education, but you have all the culinary knowledge and backgrounds, that global scholastic experience that I extremely look up to. That perspective, it’s just so broad. I've learned a lot from you and it's amazing the history we share, that we have that link between our parents and what they meant to us in the kitchen and how they molded our expression today. It's something I didn't know about you before, and I'm grateful that I got to experience this moment and hear that because that just brings us a little closer together.

JY:  Well, something everyone should know is that you make some of the best food in our company and you are vegetarian! Specifically, the way that you work with meat, and your way around protein dishes, is absolutely incredible. And you never take this credit or put this out there because of the person you are and the humility that you have. I am always amazed at the way that you come up with the food and ideate it and execute it without being able to taste many of the critical components and tasting them through other people. How do you start? How’s that process?

RM:  I just start with a protein that’s interesting to me, or something that’s caught someone else’s interest. And then I’ll just try to bring that element or that component to our team so that everybody is experiencing different things. New things, new flavors or new styles and techniques. I really learned to trust and honor feedback from the team and understand that perspective. I think as a company we have really gotten where we are because we have a strong core value of collaboration, and that's basically what I do each time. It’s allowing people to have that that voice and that that input and build that confidence on our team. Especially with the servers, because they are out there with the guests interacting, and so they know what’s expected and what things they are asking for. I start from that knowledge and then I try to create something that's in line with those things.

JY:  It’s a perfect example of why we have our core values as a company. Collaboration is one of our core values, evolution is one of our core values, and humility is one of our core values. Most other companies, they have a top-down approach to food innovation, right? You're the chef de cuisine or the executive chef. You're creating the food as a sous chef, and you might be able to have some input on there and tweak it out a little bit. But really, it’s one person’s vision that’s creating the whole base of the menu and what you do. Ours works the opposite way, which is what keeps us on our toes as chefs. You know everyone in our group can work on food, and we do tastings once a month where there's anywhere from eight dishes up to 20 dishes that are being tasted. And these are made by prep cooks, line cooks, sushi chefs, front of the house bartenders and servers! Everyone has a voice in the food, that's really what makes our group so unique.

RM:  That one like aspect of our tasting process is definitely something that separates us from a lot of kitchens out there.

JY:  Yeah, ours really starts with the whiteboard that gets wiped away at the beginning of every month and you start writing up what's in season, maybe what some of the servers been asking for. It goes into the feedback session and then the CDC is really guiding that process and correlating everyone together. You'll have a bartender working on a dish with a line cook!

RM: I love when the bartenders get involved. They are at the bar and can talk to the guests and tell the story of a dish that the Chefs have created and worked hard on. And it's just something that I think is super impactful.

JY:  You bring up a good point. You know our food tells a story as we grow and as companies grow, it gets it gets harder to tell that story, right? But it is easier if the food is not coming just from me. It's not coming from even just the CDC. It's really grown from the ground up. It's seated within our group and that makes me feel really great about our growth. Is will always be evolving and we will not get stagnant.

RM:  I don't think that this group will ever get to a point where we are stagnant because we have so many people who are allowed to have a hand in the expression of food that we serve that it's just unlimited. It's an unlimited amount of perspective. We have a crudo dish that came from a flower that the chef’s wife loved on a trip they went on for their anniversary. From that flower he created the dish, which looks very similar to the flower. When you have those types of stories and that that type of inspiration in it, it goes beyond innovation. It’s the love that we're putting into each dish, and the story that we have to tell behind them.

JY:  It’s all about inspiration. There's a one sheet that comes with every tasting dish that's got the base recipe, a picture, and the inspiration story. Then the presenter talks about that inspiration. Being able to see that happening here is truly special. It’s unique to what we do, and helps our chefs and cooks grow and mentor and develop our next generations.  There is a National Labor shortage. We're having challenges of our own, just like any other group. I will say that comparatively speaking, from everything that I read, and chefs that I talk to, we're not having nearly the same problem that most restaurants are. You know we treat people well and we treat people with respect. So, they want to work with us. Our labor dollar value has gone up. I think it's a great thing, I think that a lot of what's happening right now is going to leave impact for years to come.

RM: Whenever I go in for an interview process, I go in very optimistically. I try to have extreme empathy, just based on what a person is telling me and how I feel that individual will fit within our team and with what our core values are. Are they warm? Open to feedback? You know all those things that are aligned with the cultures. I think that is the most important.

JY: We can sit and say we can't get staff, but we look at why aren't we getting staff right now? Are we paying people properly? Treating them properly? Are we being flexible with our schedules? Are we actually caring for that person and what they want to get out of their career? If you're doing all those things, you're going to attract people, and you're going to retain them. It's really that simple.

RM:  In order for you to have success you have to have a tight-knit team and everyone has to have that level of trust. It’s really hard to bring anything up to the next level and that's where you have those stagnant moments. And so as long as you have your team oriented to that, then like the sky is the limit because everybody is going to be pushing everybody to get better. 

JY:  It makes me excited for growth and the future. I think the industry is going to get better.

RM: I think you once said that the most intimate thing is to put something in someone’s mouth. This food we serve people is the most intimate connection. I'm giving you something to eat and it's gonna be joyful and delicious and you're gonna remember that moment. It's super impactful to people. Those moments that you remember. I think that's where we're going as a as an industry.

About Menu Masters:

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.

The Nation’s Restaurant News MenuMasters Awards, sponsored by Ventura Foods, is a highly respected competition honoring menu R&D leaders for their personal achievements and contributions to the foodservice industry.

MenuMasters Spotlight is a monthly communication that with stories that tap into the most creative minds in menu innovation and how their passion for food drives their success in business and life.

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