Amber: Hi I’m Amber Ambrose and this is BusinessMakers USA, brought to you by Insperity, inspiring business performance. And today my guest is Steve Hooper of Kigo Asian Kitchen which is a concept here in Seattle, Washington. So welcome to the shoe Steve.
Steve: Thank you, good to be with you Amber.
Amber: So our first question that we like to ask every guest is just give us a snapshot of what Kigo Asian Kitchen is exactly.
Steve: Kigo Asian Kitchen is a fast, casual build-to-order, Asian-inspired concept. When I was in business school 6 years ago now I was looking at the world and saw there were great concepts like Chipotle and Panera and Jimmy Johns out there, but the Asian concept was kind of missing from that ecosystem and we got started essentially to help fill that void.
Amber: Great and I know there’s a lot of wok action happening and so there’s some active participation in the back and people are flinging food. It’s not like at a steam table type of situation.
Steve: Exactly. We are a fully cook to order concept. When we were looking at different concepts that were out there, there were a lot of places like Panda Express and others that were kind of steam table and just waiting to be served kind of stuff and we thought cook to order was going to be our angle. So everything from the beginning to the end of the process is in an open kitchen – wok to order or our salads are built to order right in front of you. Everything is Asian inspired foods and flavors but in an approachable format for the average consumer.
Amber: That makes sense. So one thing you mention, and I’m just putting it all together right now, is the you graduated from business school 6 years ago and you just told me before we turned the cameras on that Kigo Asian Kitchen is about to turn 5. So you had one year from the time that you got out of school to the time you started Kigo. That seems like a very rapid ramp up and I would love to know that story.
Steve: So I went to business school having a finance background; I worked in investment banking, I was a venture capitalist doing tech and telecom deals for a number of years before business school. And while I was at business school it was with the intention of starting something, I did not expect restaurants for that something.
Amber: Especially as a venture capitalist where you’re probably like well this is not the greatest investment of all time.
Steve: but what I found while I was there was the really analytical side of it was the fast casual industry is so different from the other segments of the restaurant industry. There’s a lot of scale that’s possible and you have the ability to really make a difference in the lives of the people that are working. And I had the opportunity to work in Boston for another entrepreneur, his name is John Pepper and he runs a chain called Boloco. John let me work my MBA summer for him and what I found when I was there was just a real passion for the people that were working so hard day in and day out, giving them opportunities to both better themselves, their lives and their families.
And so that’s what got me excited and inspired to start Kigo was spending time actually in the restaurants and make this shift in my life from high finance to slinging stir-fries. And for me the thing that was happening over that first year was sort of figure it out mode. I was looking for locations, I had a business plan, I had a bunch of other things but that same entrepreneur John Pepper gave me my real first opportunity. Northeastern University back in Boston was gutting their student center, they wanted an Asian concept. He gave me a call and over a beer we basically did a handshake deal with Northeastern to put the first Kigo Kitchen out in the world.
Amber: That’s funny because I didn’t realize that the first concept of Kigo Kitchen was in Boston.
Steve: It was. So I spent 4 months back in Boston in the classic entrepreneurial way just making it happen, figuring it out, bringing in stuff as we went along with the team at Northeastern University. Fast forward another year from that, 2013 we opened in South Lake Union, the heart of Amazon.com country here in Seattle.
Amber: You mentioned something about how it can make a difference in the lives of people that are working at various places. I know you have sort of a unique strategy when it comes to hiring, I would love to hear more about that.
Steve: We try and be sort of a mission driven organization and one of the things that we’ve come across – for me creating opportunities for everybody, regardless of background, has been something that’s been important; something that we stumbled into almost 2 years ago.
Amber: And it wasn’t intentional.
Steve: It wasn’t intentional, it just kind of happened. Something which we stumbled in to 2 years ago was a group called Pioneer Human Services here in Seattle and they help people reintegrate into society or get a second chance after facing incarceration or drug addiction. And we’ve partnered with them in a variety of different ways to help train people. We will go in and help them do mock interviews; well it turns out some of those mock interviews are actual interviews for us and we hire people on the backend.
And so we’ve used their platform, which they call Pathways to Success, to help bring in team members and what we’ve found is they’re really loyal folks. They hear no so often because of their background and the problems they’ve faced and they’re just looking for a chance to do right and we can be that stepping stone. We’ve had several folks come into our organization and step out and go on to their next thing from Kigo within the last 2 years of working with Pioneer. So it’s been a really great – it started as an experiment and we’ve continued to grow that relationship.
Amber: A very successful experiment it sounds like.
Steve: Thus far yes.
Amber: And that’s sort of a running theme with a lot of the entrepreneurs we talk to in this area of the country, Seattle specifically. Do you think there’s a reason that there’s a lot of sort of mission-driven profit organizations here?
Steve: That’s a really interesting question. I think there’s sort of two things that this area has in spades; one, it’s one of the highest per capita giving rates in the country in terms of donations to nonprofits and other things along those lines. A lot of that is actually driven by the ethos over at Microsoft. Bill Gates started this challenge program inside of Microsoft to push people to donate in a very aggressive way and that’s really trickled down in a really interesting way into the water of entrepreneurialism in Seattle. I think the second half of that which is sort of the upcoming Millennial generation and whatnot really doesn’t want to work for just any company. They want to work for a company that’s trying to make a difference and change the world in its own unique way, whatever that is. And so the combination of those two things I think creates a unique environment here in Seattle for companies that are both for-profit and for a cause.
Amber: You have a partnership with someone we’ve interviewed on BusinessMakers USA before, Ethan Stowell.
Steve: We do.
Amber: I would love to know how you guys hooked up and how that took shape.
Steve: So Seattle is actually, for as much growth as we’re seeing – we’re the fastest growing city in the country and so many other things – we are still very much a small town. And so Ethan and I, if you look at our family histories and other things, actually have many touch points over the last several decades. My sisters danced at the ballet company that his parents ran and my mom was on the board of directors of that company, so there’s a lot of touch points within our spheres of influence. But the way we really got hooked up around Kigo in particular was I actually got to work with his wife very closely on the Seattle Restaurant Alliance Board of Directors.
Amber: And that’s Angela.
Steve: Angela Stowell, yes. Ethan’s wife Angela is every bit as impressive if not more so than he is and I think he would say the same if asked. And she actually – I was recruiting her to join our board of directors because I really thought that she could bring a lot of nuance to the table and an interesting perspective on both the industry and where we’re going. As part of her on-boarding she said hey, I think there’s some things we can do with the menu and some of the branding work and some other things, let’s bring Ethan in to just have a conversation. One thing led to another and Ethan got excited and stepped up to be a culinary partner. So he and Angela are very much intimately involved in what we’re doing and sort our going forward story here.
Amber: Is it through Ethan Stowell Restaurants or is it a completely separate deal with just Angela and Ethan as partners with you?
Steve: Ethan Stowell Restaurants is sort of partnered in the general sense, so we work with some of their team on different kinds of projects. But really it’s Angela and Ethan personally that are spending their time, energy and effort on helping us become one of the next big fast casual concepts.
Amber: That’s great. What are future plans?
Steve: Right now we’re really focused on Seattle, we’ve got a lot of opportunities right in front of us. The Angela and Ethan relationship, because of the name that they carry in the Seattle market, has brought us a lot of new real estate opportunities that we didn’t have access to just a year ago which has been a terrific boon to our growth locally. But we’re now making a push to try and get more regional and national in nature.
We do already have the foothold in Boston; we’re talking to some folks about growing that presence. We’re talking about licensing relationships throughout the country at either airports or other universities like Northeastern. So the next several years are going to sort of look like we’re going to continue building company owned stores where it makes sense and we’re going to work to partner with people like we do at Northeastern where it makes sense to work through a partner.
Amber: My last question is what are some of the challenges that you’ve faced because now you’re at the 5 year mark, which is sort of a pivotal moment I think in the life of a restaurant or a concept? What are some of the biggest things you’ve had to overcome and how did you do it?
Steve: I think one of the big ah-has actually came through Angela and Ethan’s influence over the last year or so. We realized that our product, while good and doing well by itself, was just a core stir-fry product; that was all we did. In some ways I’ll call what we were a year ago a one-trick pony. We didn’t have a lot of breadth to our concept, we weren’t a complete restaurant in a lot of ways. And what Angela and Ethan have brought to the table and the thing that we’re going through now – which has kind of been the biggest challenge of this moment – is adding in Vietnamese cold noodle salads and now we’re launching our Banh Mi style sandwiches.
We’re working on soups for the fall and a breakfast program and some other things. So we’re going from this solid thing that was the original idea behind Kigo to a fully formed, fully fledged fast casual restaurant concept. And that transition has been a challenge because the team for years was used to doing one thing, one way, all the time and now we’re adding all of this complexity and ramping all of that up and so that has been a real educational experience for our team.
Amber: Sure, especially on the training and personnel side I would imagine.
Steve: Absolutely, we’ve got 70 folks with us today, we’ll be hopefully double that by the end of the year and just continuing to grow and evolve the people in the context of changing everything.
Amber: The entire menu.
Steve: Change the wheels on the car while you’re driving and the plane while you’re flying it; all those analogies, we’re literally doing that. And so that complexity is just adding a whole layer of challenge to our life at the moment. But it’s been great; it’s been a lot of fun. The products that Ethan has helped us launch have been really well-received by customers and so we’re excited for what the future holds.
Amber: Well good luck and when you come to Houston we’ll have to have a lunch date there.
Steve: Absolutely, we’ll make it happen.
Amber: Thank you so much for joining us Steve, we appreciate you.
Steve: Thanks for coming in today.
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