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From the spring 2013 issue of OPEN, the McCombs School of Business magazine.

Chow down with our very own food network. No reservations required.

 

Amy's Ice Creams and Phil's Ice House owner Amy Simmons

By Tracy Mueller

César Chavez is credited with saying, “The people who give you their food give you their heart.”

Spend 5 minutes around a restaurant owner and you’ll quickly see how true that is. And while foodie television shows like "Top Chef" and mainstays on the Food Network try to feed Americans’ seemingly insatiable appetite for culinary culture, they don’t exactly reveal the true reality of restaurants. To get the full story, we spoke with five alumni restaurant owners around the country.

Despite the brutal hours, high overhead, staff turnover, and alarming failure rate, they open their doors each day, inviting in patrons for first dates, sweet sixteens, business meetings, and marriage proposals. Or at the very least, the small luxury of a warm meal prepared by someone else.

Amy’s Ice Creams and Phil’s Ice House
Austin, San Antonio, Houston

Amy Simmons, MBA ’92 

“If anybody gets the impression that we’re the big guys, it hurts my feelings,” says Amy Simmons, owner of Amy’s Ice Creams and burger joint Phil's Ice House. “There’s nothing corporate about us. It really is organic. We love small business, we love the creativity, we love competition because it helps us be better. It helps us all. There’s plenty of room for everybody.”

Consider the company’s mission statement: “To make people’s day.” Simmons says it guides everything they do and how they treat their investors, employees, and customers. The philosophy also helped Simmons keep the company from straying too far from its small business roots.

“Success typically is measured in rapid growth, so I felt pressure,” she says. “But I did step back and say, ‘Does that match what feeds my soul?’ and the answer was, ‘No.’ It’s that personal relationship with your community and your employees where I feel I can make the biggest difference in the world.”

That’s not to say Austin’s ice cream maven is anti-business. She teaches every employee about business principles and involves them in cost reduction and product improvement decisions. Thanks to scoopers’ ideas and efforts, Amy’s hasn’t needed to raise prices in five years. 

She also views her company as a sort of business incubator, encouraging employees to become entrepreneurs while using Amy’s as a living case study. Local businesses launched by former Amy’s staffers include the Little City coffee shop, Ozone Bikes, and Club DeVille.

“We want to let them know that they’re not selling out by going into business, and that there are really creative, compassionate ways to go into business.”

Signature dish: Mexican vanilla ice cream with strawberry crush’n

Biggest challenge of the restaurant business: “Early on, when finances are limited, it’s difficult to attract people with experience elsewhere. You have to find mentors outside the business. It’s one of the reasons I got my MBA—to have that network of brilliant people.”

31 Flavors and Then Some: Amy’s has created more than 1,000 flavors during its 27-year history. It keeps up to 350 in rotation at one time. Recent offerings include bacon, beer, and habañero. 

A Perfect Match: “Amy’s being similar to Austin is not a mistake,” Simmons says. “I spent two days here and knew it was the perfect place to start the business. It was an environment that felt really at home for the concept."

Slow Food Truck
Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Oren Bass, BBA ’05 

Oren Bass Slow Food TruckLet’s get one thing straight: owning a food truck is not a hobby. Don’t be fooled by the kitschy trailers, tongue-in-cheek names and pop-up locations. This is serious business.

“It’s almost like opening up a new restaurant every day,” says Oren Bass, chef and co-owner of the Slow Food Truck in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “When people say they want to do a food truck, I tell them to be ready to work 15 hours a day.”

Between the permits, location scouting, and marketing, packing and unpacking the truck every day, cooking everything fresh daily, driving all over South Florida and setting up shop in any one of the multiple locations the truck stops at, Bass has his hands full. Not to mention the catering business he and his partner also run. 

But Bass wouldn’t have it any other way, and he takes comfort in the laid-back atmosphere surrounding a food truck.

Slow Food Truck

And in a region known for its upscale dining and nightlife, Bass—who attended culinary school after graduating from McCombs—says he is proud to serve gourmet cuisine that rivals many brick-and-mortar restaurants. In fact, the truck won second place for fan favorite and critics’ choice at the 2012 Las Olas Food and Wine Show, despite being the only mobile competitor out of nearly 70 participating restaurants.

The truck’s name refers to the “slow food” movement, founded on fresh, local, seasonal, and sustainable food.

“We’re a chef-driven food truck,” Bass says. “Everything is made from scratch. We have chef friends who tell us, 'Yours is the only food truck that I can eat at.'"

Signature dish: Beef short rib sandwich and warm Florida lobster roll. Bass says a customer once drove an hour and a half just to buy one of their sandwiches.

Favorite Fort Lauderdale hot spot: The beach, and the Las Olas neighborhood. 

Biggest challenge of the restaurant business: The hours.

Brush with fame: Finished in the top 10 of the Food Network’s “America’s Favorite Food Truck” online contest in 2011. 

Due Forni pizza and wine bar
Las Vegas and Austin

Alex Taylor, MBA ’03 

Alex Taylor Due ForniAlex Taylor isn’t sure how many restaurants, bars, and coffee shops he has opened, but it’s definitely more than 100. First it was launching new stores for Starbucks across the Southwest after he graduated from Duke University. Then, as part of his MBA internship while at McCombs, he helped open Craftsteak in Las Vegas with celebrity chef Tom Colicchio. He returned to Sin City after finishing business school, opening dozens of bars, restaurants, and lounges for casino giants MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay resort and the Encore Resort and Casino. 

And in February 2011, Taylor and his chef-partner Carlos Buscaglia finally got the chance to open their own place, a Las Vegas pizza and wine bar. Despite the weak economy, the concept took off, and they recently opened a second location in the heart of Austin’s nightlife, at Sixth Street and Congress Avenue.

If pizza and wine sounds like an exceedingly basic concept, that’s the point. Taylor says the key to surviving in the food and beverage industry is to keep the menu simple, since the rest of the business is already so complicated.

“No business has the amount of variables that a restaurant does,” Taylor says. “We design, create, prepare, manufacture, package, deliver, sell, and watch our products being consumed, all in a very short period of time.”

But for Taylor, every day spent managing those chaotic variables is a day that reminds him of home.

“My mother loved to have dinner parties, and as kids we would help prep during the day and then serve at night,” Taylor remembers. “So I always associated food with family and friends and parties. And that’s what this industry is to me; I get to throw a party every single night.”

Due Forni

Signature dish: Baby octopus, braised overnight, chilled and marinated, then roasted to order in a 900-degree oven

Favorite Las Vegas hot spot: Red Rock Canyon

Best meal he’s ever had: 26-course, six-hour dinner at Robuchon in the MGM Grand

Biggest challenge of the restaurant business: “Containing my enthusiasm. I have a low tolerance for bad restaurants, but I don’t want to be a snob.”

How Do You Roll? custom sushi
Locations nationwide

Yuen Yung, BBA ’96 

Mess with a sushi aficionado’s tuna roll and apparently the claws come out.

Yuen Yung How do you roll?Just ask Yuen Yung, who received “sushi hate mail” for desecrating the ancient culinary art with the menu offerings at his restaurant chain, How Do You Roll?, which lets patrons customize their own sushi, including using non-traditional ingredients such as strawberries and grilled chicken.

“Sushi snobs were like, ‘Whoa, you guys are blasphemous!’” says Yung, not overly bothered by the outrage.

The general public seems to be more forgiving, and the fast-casual chain is taking off. How Do You Roll? broke even six months after it opened in October 2008 and has been profitable ever since. Its headquarters are in Austin, but Yung has sold 40 franchises, with 15 locations open in Texas, California, Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina.

It’s a surprising career turn for the former wealth manager who swore off the restaurant business after growing up working in his parents’ Chinese eatery in Houston. But one day on his lunch break, in search of something other than fast food, he bought premade grocery store sushi. He was underwhelmed.

“I thought, this is like dating somebody I don’t like, but I guess it’s better than nobody,” Yung says. The lack of availability of quickly prepared, high-quality sushi got him thinking about a business concept. When his brother, a sushi chef, came to Yung ready for a change in his career, they decided to return to the family business and open How Do You Roll?.

How Do You Roll? sushi

Yung realizes that even though at times he hated working in his parents’ restaurant, the experience bonded his family together. And now his own family is getting in on the act. His wife plans the company’s annual franchisee conference, and when his 9-year-old son wanted a Nintendo 3DS last summer, he earned the money for it by bussing tables, just like Yung used to do. 

“But he’s better at it than I was,” Yung says. “He quickly learned the power of taking care of people and then they might tip you. He still asks when he can go back to work.”

Signature dish: Custom rolls, so it’s different for everybody.

Biggest challenge of the restaurant business: Managing growth and balancing patience with attention to detail

Company philosophy: “We’re not a sushi company serving people. We’re a people company serving sushi,” Yung says. “The thing we sell is freedom of expression, and we want to make the world better one stomach at a time.”

Favorite Austin hot spot: Lady Bird Lake, running and walking with the kids

The Kebab Shop
San Diego, Calif.

Arian Baryalai, MBA ’10 

The Kebab ShopFish tacos may be the star of the street in San Diego, but The Kebab Shop hopes to establish a new staple in Southern California. 

“The concept for The Kebab Shop originated from Europe, where kebab shops are as popular as hamburger joints and taco shops are in the United States,” says co-owner Arian Baryalai, MBA ’10. “We seek to bring this dining experience that so many Europeans have been enjoying for years to the U.S., while at the same time putting our own spin on it.”

For The Kebab Shop’s six locations, that means offering fresh salads, grilled meat, seafood, and veggies alongside the traditional döner kebabs—spiced lamb, marinated chicken, or falafel topped with fresh vegetables and a creamy garlic yogurt sauce, wrapped in flatbread.

Like so many restaurateurs, Baryalai entered the business because of his love of the food and his desire to be an entrepreneur. His wife’s family acquired the business in 2008, with Baryalai serving as an informal business and legal adviser. After graduating from McCombs and spending a year in investment banking, Baryalai felt the pull to run his own business, and he officially joined The Kebab Shop, helping launch a new location. 

Signature dish:  Lamb döner

Advice from a customer: “GET YOUR OWN,” says one Yelp reviewer, cautioning other patrons against sharing a kebab, adding you will “regret the decision [to share] when you get to the end of your sandwich.”

Most challenging part of the job: “Every day I am forced to address different issues ranging from intellectual property, real estate leasing, and labor and employment law to finance and accounting, operations, and marketing.”

Favorite San Diego hot spot: Extraordinary Desserts. “It is a great place to go with friends and enjoy a delicious piece of cake with a cappuccino.”

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