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Food Fighters guest headshots of Akash Kapoor, Founder & CEO of Curry Up Now, and Zaid Ayoub, CEO of SAJJ Mediterranean

Akash Kapoor, Founder & CEO of Curry Up Now, and Zaid Ayoub, CEO of SAJJ Mediterranean

About the Guest

Zaid Ayoub is the founder and CEO of the Bay Area-headquartered, rapidly expanding fast-casual concept SAJJ Mediterranean. A Jordan native, Ayoub frequented a local falafel shop while in college in the U.S. studying engineering and noticed that it often had a line out the door. After a few years in tech startups, a friend of his mentioned his Mediterranean fast-casual concept idea, and Ayoub and four partners took the plunge, opening the first SAJJ location in Menlo Park in 2012. Under Ayoub’s strategic leadership, SAJJ Mediterranean has grown from that single brick-and-mortar location into a growing network of 13 restaurants and three food trucks offering catering and event services. The customizability, localization, and transparency of SAJJ’s offerings make Mediterranean food convenient and approachable. Ayoub plans to use his background in entrepreneurship, and his longtime love of Mediterranean food, to continue expanding SAJJ Mediterranean into a trusted restaurant brand that brings fresh, healthy Middle Eastern eats to those around the globe.

Curry Up Now founder Akash Kapoor has been a self-employed entrepreneur and businessman since childhood. He moved to the U.S. in 1993 and successfully grew a variety of businesses, from credit card marketing to mortgage banking to debt and tax mediation, before leaving the traditional business world in 2009 to start Curry Up Now with his wife, Rana. Curry Up Now was the first Indian street food truck in California’s Bay Area, and over the last decade, has grown to include three food trucks, two craft cocktail bar concepts, and 11 brick-and-mortar locations, including a sixth franchised location which recently opened in downtown Salt Lake City, UT. Curry Up Now is recognized as the largest and fastest-growing Indian fast-casual concept in the nation and has been included, over the years, in a number of prestigious business lists, including its recent breakthrough onto the Inc. 5000 last year.

Episode Summary

In this episode, we chat with Akash Kapoor and Zaid Ayoub, restaurant industry innovators and respective founders of Curry Up Now and SAJJ Mediterranean. Tune in to hear Akash and Zaid talk about how they launched digitally-integrated loyalty just in time to engage with customers during COVID, and how they’ve explored new ways of attracting and delighting their customers – including online markets, secret menus, and more. They also discuss the impactful roles that restaurant culture and data play in creating a healthy and sustainable business. Learn more about opportunities for innovation during COVID in this latest episode of Food Fighters!

Episode Transcript

Zach Goldstein


From fake meat and robot chefs to ghost kitchens and delivery drones. The restaurant industry is rapidly evolving. Welcome to Food Fighters, bringing you interviews with the leading industry trailblazers. I’m your host, Zach Goldstein.

Zach Goldstein


And I’m here today with two restaurant entrepreneurs who started their lives in the restaurant industry with food trucks here in the Bay Area, and now are expanding their empires across not only California, but beyond. Akash Kapoor is the founder and Chief Troublemaker of Curry Up Now. Akash founded Curry Up Now in 2009 with his wife Runa, creating the first Indian street food truck in the Bay Area. He has since expanded the brand into three food trucks, three craft cocktail bars, and 12 restaurant locations with the mission to grow Curry Up Now into the largest Indian food eatery in the US. Welcome to Food Fighters, Akash.

Akash Kapoor


Thank you, Zach, thanks for having me. I’m super excited about today.

Zach Goldstein


Great. And joining me and Akash is Zaid Ayoub. Zaid is the founder and CEO of the Bay Area-headquartered, rapidly expanding fast casual concept SAJJ Mediterranean, which aims to create culinary experiences that are personal, satisfying, and transporting. He has grown SAJJ from a single food truck to 13 restaurants with plans for new locations by the end of this year. Zaid, thanks for joining us.

Zaid Ayoub


Thank you, Zach. It’s great to be here.

Zach Goldstein


Well, I’m excited to have you both, because you are working on and expanding some really exciting concepts in the middle of what is obviously a very unusual time for the restaurant industry. You’ve seen a lot of evolution, both having started as food trucks and now having restaurants across a wide geography. And you’re seeing a similar type of disruption as a lot of dining instances become digital. And so you two are both embracing digital, and I want to spend some time talking about that today, both in terms of online, ordering for pickup and delivery, and frankly, in terms of actually building an eCommerce business. Zaid, maybe we’ll start with you, and on that last point, tell us about the eCommerce business you recently launched and then we’ll come back and talk about digital ordering as well.

Zaid Ayoub


Yeah, thanks Zach. The world really has been moving towards digital channels for quite a while. And we embraced this a while ago where we have our own online ordering. We work with third party providers, we have great loyalty programs. The thing that happened in the last six months with the onset of COVID-19 is I believe the future came much, much faster. We kinda accelerated where the consumer trends are going in a very short period time where we’re now living five years ahead of where we are. And that being said, like you suggested, the in-store dining in California actually is prohibited. So people cannot eat inside the store. We have outdoor dining, which is helps a little bit, but consumer habits changed where everything, people order ahead of time, they can pick up the food and go home or have it delivered to them. The interesting thing that we saw also is that that habit became accentuated at the homes where people are buying groceries in the same manner. And we feel that there’s a merger or there’s an intersection happening between grocery stores and restaurants. Historically 50% of food was consumed at the grocery stores and 50% was consumed at restaurants. And now the divide is blurring. And to that effect, we launched what we call the SAJJ Market, which is a direct to consumer vehicle where: customers ordered the groceries, or the sauces, or the meal kits, and we deliver it to them the next day. Today it is live in the Bay Area and we’re putting plans together to actually make it available outside the Bay Area as well.

Zach Goldstein


It’s amazing because a lot of restaurants are thinking about real time delivery. Generally you think about it as kind of available in an hour and reliant on generally third party delivery to make that happen. You’re talking about a 24 hour or perhaps eventually slightly longer, but for now 24 hour delivery, but a far broader set of items that you can get from the restaurant beyond just your menu.

Zaid Ayoub


Yeah, yeah. I mean, you know, Amazon and DoorDash and all of those great companies really spoiled the consumer, in the sense that we expect something to come the same day or within an hour. And there is obviously the on-demand piece of it. And we still offer that obviously for ready meals and family means as well. But once you give yourself a day to deliver, you could open up the market significantly. You could offer much larger variety. All of a sudden, size is not a problem because you could put the stuff in a truck and not in a trunk. And you could really do the delivery based on a milkman approach rather than a taxi approach. What do you have? An actual route. And all of a sudden delivery becomes affordable. And the other obvious thing here is that your average ticket size is much bigger because if your people are stocking your fridge and your pantry for a week, you’re going to be buying a lot more than if you’re getting lunch or dinner for two or three people.

Zach Goldstein


You’re doing fulfillment of this yourselves as of now, right?

Zaid Ayoub


That’s correct. We are doing it ourselves in the Bay Area. We have our vans or distribution centers, and we’ll try to figure out how to actually do it outside, which will contain more packaging. In our case, obviously you have to worry a lot about temperature control, whether you go frozen, whether you go cold. So figuring those things out and hopefully by the end of the year we’ll be able to launch something nationwide.

Zach Goldstein


Great. And Akash, you actually have been looking pretty heavily at a digital shift in your business, as well, as you think about ordering for pickup, ordering for delivery. What kind of change have you seen in the middle of COVID and how have you adapted?

Akash Kapoor


You know, similar to what Zaid, just talked about with, you know, we’ve always been a digital forward business. So back in 2009 we launched our food truck, and then two months after that we had an app where our customers could order. And that was, seems like, I mean, literally a decade ago, right? So we’ve been very kind of digital forward. And fortunately we’ve got some great partners, with loyalty and in online ordering that really helps now, you know, we’ve got these big boy toys that have kind of taken us into version two of this kind of digital platform. However, I will say that unlike other industries, the restaurant business, somehow for technology comes to the party a little late. So, I think the onset of COVID has obviously kind of made everybody realize that we need technology just like anybody else, and we need it now, and it’s great to see thousands of restaurants or, you know, in the Bay Area, specifically hundreds of restaurants overnight or within a week were able to digitize their offering, which earlier they had nothing, right. So it’s good. And, and for us, you know, we chose to go with kind of a national shipping route and we partnered with GoldBelly. So we’re shipping hundreds of hundreds of meal kits every week. And it’s been amazing. We’ve actually shipped thousands over the last three months. And we did this for months. And apart from that, on the local side, the onset of COVID is obviously broad, 80% of business being on digital platforms, be it ours or on third party delivery platforms. Obviously the catering businesses is not there. So we’ve lost that, but the effort now, I mean, COVID’s six months old. It is what it is. We’re living it. We’re dealing with, in California, we’re dealing with these fires now. So these things are… it is what it is. And I think what we have to do as restaurateurs, as people who have to obviously make money, even at lower revenues, is the fact that we have to increase our own internal ordering rather than keep relying on these third parties to bring us orders at obviously very high marketing fees.

Zach Goldstein


This is a huge point because you are both in California and the reality is because of mandates and it’s different by every city, but your restaurants have probably been closed by mandate a lot more, even than the average restaurant across the country. In fact, many of yours are probably still closed for dine-in business. And so digital is a big element of where that revenue is going to come from. And if you passively let it all come through third parties, I would imagine that represents a major concern for you.

Akash Kapoor


A huge concern. And yeah, we haven’t had such a high percentage of these third party platforms giving us, you know, as many orders as there are in fact; til April, we only partnered with DoorDash. We didn’t even have others active at our restaurants. So yeah, it’s scary. Because I mean, there are restaurants that do inflate prices, most do, but then that hurts. That hurts your brand as well, because all of a sudden you become expensive. DoorDash charges typically 12 to 14% in a service fee, and obviously the delivery fee, and then all of a sudden your food’s 30, 40, 50% more expensive. So that hurts your brand as well. Right? I mean, you turn out to be an expensive option rather than a fast casual brand at $10 to $12. So yeah, it’s a huge concern.

Zach Goldstein


Let’s talk about some of the tools you’ve used to drive people to order directly from you. And I know each of you have experimented with free delivery. If you are purchasing directly through your app or website, you’re obviously offering loyalty incentives that are only available if people order direct as opposed to through third party. What kind of impact is that having? And how do you see that evolving as you get more and more of a direct relationship with these digital customers?

Zaid Ayoub


Maybe I could probably start here. So the third party marketplaces, in my opinion, are here, they’re here to stay. They have massive marketing capabilities and the reach and access. So they’re here. The way I view this though is slightly different. So if I’m sitting home on a Saturday afternoon with my family, trying to figure out what to eat, I’m going to go on one of the marketplaces, maybe DoorDash or UberEATS, and I browse, I figure out what we want. We might want sushi, we might want Chinese whatever and get their food delivered to me within the hour. And I’m going to end up paying extra for it. I know it’s going to cost me more than if I was to go pick it up from the store or if I go directly to the store. But if what we’re trying to do is: if I’m, on a Saturday afternoon, sitting home and wanting to eat shawarma wrap or a chicken kebab salad, I want my customer to go directly to SAJJ and buy it from SAJJ directly. So I think the two coexist, the two platforms or the two channels will coexist. When COVID started, it was all about free delivery. We did free delivery for about four months, just because you really want to capture that customer and people don’t want to spend money. It’s all delivery, nobody’s leaving their home. And the delivery was the in thing. Now, what we’re trying to do is we’re moving away from free delivery. We have very minimal delivery charges, but the customer is going to end up paying a lot less, like Akash mentioned, because they’re coming directly to us, but now they’re also going to be getting loyalty points. They’re going to be a part of our promotions for any offer that’s going to come out, whether it is, buy one, get one free or buy one, get 50% off. If the customer engages with us, then we’re going to be more intimate. We’re going to know when is their birthday, and we’re going to talk with them and send them a gift on their birthday. And it’s all about really being a part of the customer’s life. And then our theory always has been to bring the customer to the store and have them convert to a catering customer later on. Now there’s no catering as Akash was mentioning because everybody’s at home. Our target now is to take the customer and convert them to a direct to consumer person at home buying our groceries and our sauces to have and our items to put in their pantry. So it’s very, very interesting how things are evolving, as you could tell, everything is digital and the way we approach customers is digital, just because the physical interface is just not there anymore. It will come back and then hopefully when things do come back, everything will go up, kind of we’ll be working on all cylinders, if you will.

Zach Goldstein


Great, Akash, as you think about the challenges of talking to customers and building repeat purchasing in this digital era, where people aren’t walking in and getting the very lively experience that is a Curry Up Now restaurant, you’ve been able to do some menu innovation and to lead with the uniqueness of your food. And it helps to have those direct digital channels. So tell us about some of the innovation that you’re doing and how you’re actually striking the balance between a familiar, comfortable experience that your customers already know and love and pushing the envelope on coming up with new things that will drive them back more often.

Akash Kapoor


Right, so we’ve always been kind of, you know, we’re not a typical Indian restaurant where it’s naan and kebab, and, you know, 10 page menus and things like that. We’ve always kind of pushed the envelope and challenged people to eat the way we think, Indian streets, it works. And that’s, to us, that means eating Indian food on the street, because I mean, we started on a food truck. So we came up with a our number one seller, something that pays my mortgage and it remains our number one seller til today: it’s a burrito. Just because it’s so affordable and it stays hot. And, when people are working in the financial industry, you can see people walking around and eating that, which is amazing. So it’s things like things like the burrito or the Quesadillix, which is just like a quesadilla, but, you know, we do it on Indian flatbread, or Sexy Fries, which are like poutine. And recently we just launched the Tandoori Fried Chicken Sandwich, which has done very well for us. And just prior to that, we launched, life bowls, which are basically a paleo / keto / vegan and a protein option. So I think things like that are very important, and tying into loyalty, maybe even we have a secret menu and we’re going to launch that on the Thanx platform very soon, just for the loyalty program members. And I think that will be very cool. But also what we’ve done and which has helped is we’ve actually changed our packaging to again, 80, 90% of the meals are being eaten at home. And in some locations it’s even more than that. And we want that food to get to people in a better state. What COVID has done is actually, because the third party delivery platforms have become so popular in the last six months, that’s their business model. Now they’re kind of taking deliveries from three restaurants, four restaurants, or even two or three deliveries from, from our restaurant and then going from one place to the other. And by the time the last customer gets his or her food, that might be an hour and 20 minutes. And by then, I mean, if the food’s hot and cold, or if it’s, you know, if it’s saucy over, over fried or things like that, it’s not gonna show up very well. So we’ve had the lowest ratings on all social platforms in the first few months when COVID started and we’re like, what’s going on? And then we looked at it, we’re like we’ve got to get food to our guests homes in a better kind of state. So we’ve started to kind of package sauces, and are showing people kind of almost a DIY approach, but not hard, just like “open lid, pour,” or things like that. And I think that’s really helped us as well. And then there’s more menu items coming in that are very kind of, to our brand. So I’m pretty excited about all that.

Zach Goldstein


The secret menu is such an interesting tool because you have had a history of such unique menu innovation that the idea that you can lean into that and give people access to stuff that they get exclusively by being a part of your loyalty program, that doesn’t cost you the same thing as giving out discounts. But yet it may actually engender far more loyalty long-term.

Akash Kapoor


I totally agree. Yeah, because with loyalty, loyalty costs money. No matter what you do on loyalty, it’s going to cost you money. This is more organic. It may still cost you money. You may not end up making as much, and that’s fine. As long as you’ve got that, kind of, the idea is to build some sort of a cult following of your own, be it even just on digital and with loyalty, you’re able to do that. So we launched our loyalty program, I think weeks, just weeks before COVID started. So it was great timing for us.

Zach Goldstein


That’s right. Sometimes, we say it a lot in this business, better to be lucky than good. But you guys are good too, so that helps. Zaid, you’ve had to make some changes on the food side too, because many of the customers walking up to your restaurants had a line-based ordering experience. And that’s obviously not happening if customers aren’t walking into restaurants and instead they’re ordering via digital. So how did you think about that adaptation?

Zaid Ayoub


Yeah. So the first thing we’ve done is we doubled down on things like family meals and pre-packed assortments of food, to basically serve a group. The other thing we did is we came up with meal kits right away, and meal kits are basically pre-cooked and chilled products that we shipped to the customer’s home. And they could reheat in about 10 minutes or less. We added side kits like, our lentil soup very, very popular. So now we sell it, we send the actual ingredients in a one pound bag that you could easily make at home. Same thing with the falafel kit, you could get the falafel mixed by itself and then actually do it at home, bake or fry. So we didn’t change the food itself, we kind of changed the way it’s put together and the way it’s delivered to the consumer. And by the way, all along, we’ve always believed in what we refer to as the network effect. And this idea is to get to our customers any way the customer wants us to get to them. The customer decides. Do you want to a food truck and in the old days, do you want the catering? Do you want individual meals at scale at home? Do you want to come to the store and customize your own meal? And we’re happy to do it any way the customer wants it to. Add to it, the loyalty layer that we’re talking about, and then you’ve got something that really works well. So today customers can still customize their wrap or their salad the way they always have been in the store, but now they do it digitally. We also have the lifestyle bowls, the traditional ways of eating things. With a click of a button, you’d get the stuff that’s we curated for you. So it’s a combination of the whole thing. What to me is extremely important, is actually, two things; the freshness of the food is by far is the most important thing. And because you’ll keep the quality and the integrity of the food and the actual flavors. And the other thing is the consistency, because we’re running 13 locations and a couple of food trucks, you’ve got be the same everywhere. And I think we worked very hard on the supply chain before COVID, at all hours, to be very consistent in what we offer. So, luckily we actually launched our loyalty program doing COVID. I actually accelerated our program to launch it because I knew we needed it, and we needed a better digital ordering experience. So it’s the accumulation of all of that that will make the brand become bigger than what it really is.

Zach Goldstein


Yeah. I mean, we’re certainly seeing just that; people are consolidating their spending at a fewer number of restaurants. They find what they’re comfortable with and where they’re seeing a consistent experience. And you can call that loyalty, or you can call that fear of the unknown, but whatever it is, it is absolutely leading towards higher lifetime values for the customers you keep, but also a lot more risk of losing customers. And that’s where this quality and consistency really comes in.

Zaid Ayoub


Absolutely, absolutely. And, you know, I read somewhere recently that fast casual restaurants are in trouble because of COVID and because of the experience of the customers. And one thing I read that was really interesting, it said, it’s not that they are too big for what they do, they’re actually under-utilized. So if you could actually take the space that you have and utilize it better, may it be by doing meal kits or doing family meals, or even doing another brand altogether, a virtual brand, like many people are doing right now, you will put that asset to much better use and utilize it better where your returns are going to be really good. So for me, it’s time to really think outside the box, completely outside the box, because quite frankly, I wish COVID will go away today, hopefully we’ll have a vaccine, but we’re looking at probably spring time. And God forbid there would be lingering effects. I don’t want to… I’m not a pessimist, but I think the impact that that COVID-19 had on consumer habits is really here to stay. We will find the new norm. I don’t think it’s gonna be the way we used to be, but we have to adapt as businesses to deal with the way life is going to be in 2021, 22 and so on.

Zach Goldstein


Yeah, for sure. And, and let’s do our best to put on those optimistic lenses about some of those changes that are here to stay. One of them, that comes from having customers purchasing through digital channels: there’s a lot more data and a lot more understanding of who these customers are. And so that allows much more personalization, which you both kind of touched on, with secret menus and with loyalty, et cetera. I would imagine your digital average checks are higher. Are you seeing an increase there, or are there other things that you’re seeing that may ultimately be new advantages you can lean into?

Akash Kapoor


I think our checks are up 15, 17%, depending on location. They’re down where we have bars, obviously, that’s where we’ve seen kind of the biggest declines in reaching sales volumes. But overall, including third party platforms, our check sizes, they’re up about 15, 17% everywhere. Where we’re seeing also, I think one of the reasons it has gone up is people are buying maybe, maybe a third meal, even just for two people because the delivery fees are expensive and, you know, it’s still a checkout process and things like that. So I’m thinking that’s why it’s gone up. We’re we’re seeing a lot of drinks as well. Cause earlier, if you’re sitting in your office, 90% of the offices are giving you some sort of a soda program or a coffee program that’s made available, or even a snack program. We’re seeing more drinks being sold during this time. So there’s always something that comes, you know, that’s good. And, as you said, on the optimistic side of things, and I think those things will stick, unfortunately, or, you know, actually fortunately, I think that the real estate, your box size, your restaurant size is gonna become smaller. We’ve already opened one restaurant since COVID began, and we will open one more next week. And then we just signed a few leases to our franchisees and everyone’s kind of looking for smaller stores at this point and I think that’ll stay and it’ll be more efficient. One thing we did was also kind of cut down some of our lesser selling items. So I think those things, I think our real estate cost is going to naturally, obviously because of the economy going down, it’s going to get lowered, but I think your building costs are going to be lower for newer restaurants. So I think that’s, to me is also, you know, a big positive.

Zach Goldstein


You’re both openings, new stores, in the middle of this and obviously net industry-wide, we expect to see contraction. That’s not the case for Curry Up Now and for SAJJ. So Zaid, how do you think about opening a new restaurant, which you are intending to do more of this year in the middle of all this uncertainty?

Zaid Ayoub


Well, it’s really challenging on many fronts just because, you know, the way you do things during COVID is completely different than pre and in the sense of freedom of movement, meeting people, having face to face contact, looking at things real time. So there’s a lot of challenges. The thing is though at the end of the day, you know, people need to eat, three meals a day, day in day out. And, the question is really, how do you capture that market? What do you need to do and pivot and change to be able to really capture where the trends are, where things are gonna be, and I’ll give you a couple of examples. So, the catering business that used to be a huge part of our business, was I would say 80%, family style. We will set up a whole bar of, sauces and proteins and starches and the customer, the guests would actually make their own bowls predominantly. Well, that’s gone, the way we do catering today is all individual meals. So we have to figure out how to do individual meals at scale, is what I name it, you know, you’d get the orders of 200 to 300 people, even more than that. And now you deal with packaging. So that changes your requirements, your physical requirements in the store. And we had something called SAJJ Go, which is basically us going and setting up shop inside big companies, inside big lobbies and be able to have there only for three hours, at lunchtime. That’s still gonna be a push for us as we go on and that, so you could envision a SAJJ inside the lobby of a big building. And once people go back to work, they’ll be able to come down and customize their own meal in a couple of minutes and go back to their offices, that will definitely be there, but then it’ll be more of a digital experience. So, you know, you get to adapt, you just get out of that flow with where things are going. The main thing is that, like I mentioned, people still need to have breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And the question is, how do you get to them?

Zach Goldstein


Great. Knowing what you now know, we sit here, it’s almost September, 2020, and it’s hard to believe that it’s only been eight months of this year, but knowing what you know now and what’s to come, you’re both very forward thinking you started your careers outside of the restaurant industry. You’ve brought a lot of that experience to what you do today. What are some of the decisions that you made in the last 12, 18 months that you’re proud of that you think have served you well? And what are some of the things that are still to come that you think will be the next big ones?

Akash Kapoor


Let me get that. So we, I mentioned earlier, we invested online and on digital loyalty and frankly, those are very expensive investments and we’re probably months, or maybe a year from making money on those, just because it, you know, it’s a very heavy kind of upfront investment with lower stores. It takes time, but not a worry, we’re just very happy that we have these tools. And just prior to that, we started franchising. And, you know, I looked at how do we become the biggest and the baddest Indian food player in the industry. And we were like, let’s start building corporate stores and also franchise own stores. And so we started franchising, and we started opening, our first store opened in the summer of last year. We opened three, two weeks before COVID, end of February, which is crazy. But they’re doing well, all things considered. And then since, as I mentioned, we’ve opened one last week, we’re opening one next week, with a few more scheduled to open this year. And I think that that has been kind of a huge learning experience for us because you’ve got to figure out supply chain, which in the food industry is, you know, we’ll save that for a complete other discussion, but the supply chain part of it has been terrifically kind of complicated, but we figured it out. We were able to get our food basically to any city where we’re opening a store today. But I think going forward where we’re focused on is, there’s unfortunately going to be a lot of closures, that you talked about earlier. There’s going to be a contraction that’s going to happen. And part of it was probably needed, it sounds a little heartless, but I think there was an oversupply of restaurants. Our friends in the fine dining part of the industry have probably taken a bigger hit than the fast casual industry. And I don’t know how many of those are going to survive. So there’s less competition there. But I think our focus is going to be not just building newer stores everywhere. We’re also taking over, something that we do very well is, you know, taking over second generation restaurants and converting them into Curry Up Now. And so opening smaller leaner, meaner stores that are able to do, you know, a thousand bucks a square foot in sales and hopefully kind of expanding our footprint. So that’s kind of, I think the positivity from the last 18-24 months, and there’s been some positive in the last six months as well; there’s so much learning. And you know, I’ve become so intimate with the brand. You know, having not needing to travel, you know, two weeks in a month, you just kind of go back to your basics and do more of what made you better and what made you successful. What made it successful?

Zaid Ayoub


Yeah, I could probably iterate on what Akash was saying. I think for us a digital presence was a really, really good thing to do. We’ve been technology enabled all along, even in the backend as well, you know, with the way we run operations and temperature control and all of that. But digital has been… we’ve been always in it, but the fact that we were in it big, I think was a great decision, and is helping a lot. The other thing for us that I think really helped us a lot during these really rough times is our culture. I tell my team, our vision actually is happier and healthier people, and that actually my team came up with it. It’s not like the board did. It’s not imported. It’s actually what they believe. And I believe if they’re happy and healthy, then the customer’s going to be happy and healthy. And then the business will be happy and healthy. And I think what really worked for us really nicely is we have an incredible team. They’ all stepped up, whomever, as we opened stores, managers jumped in, they want to be there and they’re still working very hard day in, day out. I think that’s helped us a lot. They carry the brand. They are the brand, they are our ambassadors, because they interact with the guests, they interact with the employees, they interact with the suppliers. So, I think that’s actually something that’s across any industry. That’s not something that’s food related. So for us, the two really good things that worked for us is the digital presence and the culture of our staff.

Akash Kapoor


And Zaid, to your point, our staff has been working under duress since, I mean, they’re always working under duress because of the industry, but we’ve chosen specifically since March, March 15thish. I mean, people have had pay cuts, people have been furloughed, or, you know, their friends have been laid off. Some have been brought back, some have been laid off again. And they’ve had coworkers getting tested positive and quarantined, and there’s just so much going on. And then, you know, when the protests started with George Floyd and the curfew and, you know, stores being broken into that’s just… And now the fires, I mean, it’s amazing how resilient our workforces. And obviously we are, and I salute them day in and day out. They’re just crazy, amazing people. Like, it’s crazy.

Zaid Ayoub


Now, we just need 2020 to pass and move on.

Zach Goldstein


That’s right. If we could just turn the page on 2020, we could all have some real reasons for optimism, but we’ve got months still to go, I think. So let’s leave it on that note, because as I mentioned, you both spent lots of time before opening restaurants, you spent lots of time in other industries. And so as you think about people, which are so important to the success of a restaurant, and as you think about the things you’ve pulled from earlier in your career, what is one or maybe two things that really differentiate your approach to building a restaurant from the average person who’s growing a brand in this space?

Akash Kapoor


So I come from the mortgage industry. I was in the mortgage and banking industry for 10 years. And I was basically a sales guy, right? We were selling loans all over the country. So I look at the food industry. It’s a sales business. So we have to approach it as sales, marketing, and then fulfillment, or in the mortgage industry we used to call it processing and underwriting. So that’s how I look at it, be it right, be it wrong. We, you know, in the next few years will tell, but I think you’ve got to have a great product at the lowest price at, the best quality and all that, you know, the same stuff that everybody else says, but you really have to mean it. You just have to show up every single day. There’s so many choices. There’s, just, again, we keep talking about digital now everybody’s digital. Now there’s even more choices earlier. 20% of the restaurants probably never had an ordering platform. Now everybody does. You’ve just got to be there. The quality just has to, and service, and I think people are expecting even a greater level of service now. At least that’s what I’ve seen. I don’t know about you, Zaid.

Zaid Ayoub


Yeah. I think people are more sensitive because of what’s going on. And it’s totally understandable. So, I mean, we’re getting a lot more feedback, by the way, than we ever did, which is a good thing, because that means we’re engaging well with our guests. The one thing I would add if I may is we built a very customer focused brand and, I think it’s very important in the food business, that whomever is leading the business understand what is it that they’re trying to do? Are you going to be a calorie experience, a chef driven menu, a seasonal menu? Are you going to be a scalable type of concept that’s has convenience and is easily accessible to the guests? And you could try to do a lot of those things, but I think it’s easier to focus on certain core competencies and execute them really, really well, and have the measurement systems to be able to do AB testing, to be able to understand, get data and analyze it and use the data to better yourself as you go. So customer focused to me is extremely important. The other thing again is, again, is the people and the culture of the company. It is very, it’s a tough business as is, and if you don’t have the right culture and the right people, view the way they look at at the business and the way they treat it, it’d be very, very hard to keep going. And what that really means: you gotta have great communication with your team all the time. You’ve got to be transparent, you’ve got to be open, which is not a typical thing in the industry, at least historically. So the different approaches, I would say it’s a more open approach that would really help everybody be on the same page by communicating a lot at the end of the day, executing on the vision to have to have a great experience for customers.

Zach Goldstein


Great. Great. Well, thank you both so much for the time. I’m sitting here realizing as we’re approaching lunch here in California, that had,I just placed an order from either one of your apps at the beginning of this episode, the food would be here by now. And so I may need to do just that, but thank you for your time and enjoyed the conversation. Wish you both a lot of luck as your brands continue to expand, not only in California, but across the country.

Akash Kapoor


Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

Zaid Ayoub


Thank you, Zach. It’s lovely being here.

Zach Goldstein


Thanks guys. You’ve been listening to Food Fighters with me, Zach Goldstein. To subscribe to the podcast, or to learn more about our featured guests visit That’s Thanx, spelled T H A N / foodfighters. This podcast is a production of Thanx, the leading CRM and digital engagement solution for restaurants until next time, keep fighting food fighters.

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