Mike Lenard has been a leader in business operations, leadership, retail, and food service for the past 17 years. In 2010 Mike founded TaKorean, a DC based Korean Taco and Rice Bowl concept in a retrofitted 1985 Ford Box-Truck. TaKorean has since grown to as many as 5 locations in Washington DC and Philadelphia and currently operates 2 locations. Mike co-founded the DMV Food Truck Association in 2011 and served as its Assistant Director and Treasurer until 2014.
Connect with Mike on LinkedIn.
What You’ll Learn In This Episode
- Worker issues including; paid time off, compensation, workplace culture.
- Use of technology for administrative operations – making the restaurant office run itself so leaders can lead
- TaKorean’s launching a franchisee program that it has been working on for
This transcript is machine transcribed by Sonix
Lee Kantor: [00:00:32] Lee Kantor here another episode of Franchise Marketing Radio and this is going to be a good one. Today on the show, we have Mike Lenard with TaKorean. Welcome, Mike.
Mike Lenard: [00:00:42] Thank you. Good to be here.
Lee Kantor: [00:00:43] Well, I’m excited to learn what you’re up to. Tell us a little bit about TaKorean and how are you serving folks?
Mike Lenard: [00:00:49] Yeah, so TaKorean started about 12 years ago in Washington, D.C. It’s a quick service, fast casual restaurant chain, and it served down the line in front of customers, Rice Bowl and taco concepts. So very much in line with the build your own bowl concept that we’re seeing a lot of. And it’s a Korean inspired with kind of a Latin American twist in terms of flavoring.
Lee Kantor: [00:01:13] And right now you started are you the founder of it? Did you start it or you’re the current CEO?
Mike Lenard: [00:01:21] Yes, I’m the founder and I still run the company today. We actually started out of a food truck back in 2010. And then by 2012 and 2014, we opened our first two fixed locations and in 2015 we actually retired the food truck and continued to to pursue inline and brick and mortar restaurants.
Lee Kantor: [00:01:43] So when you started it, did you envision it at some point to be a franchise and you were just kind of testing the waters with the food truck? Or is this something that just kind of organically grew over time?
Mike Lenard: [00:01:53] Yeah, franchising is something that was not on my mind when I very first started. However, in the early days in 2011, 2012, I did have conversations with some people in the industry about franchising, so it was always in the back of my head. At that time. I wasn’t ready to get into it. And you know, there are a couple of different growth models for companies and and for a while I sort of dabbled in which way we wanted to grow. Obviously, there are quick service restaurant companies that are all privately owned or they’re publicly owned and traded. And then there’s franchise companies and there’s pros and cons to both of them. And I think that with all the experience I have now, it really made sense to teach people how to help me run the business in a sense of the franchisee relationship. And that’s really where it came back around during the pandemic. I was doing a little bit of consulting on the side and I was like, What am I better at consulting it than anything in the world? How to run a Thai Korean restaurant? And I was like, Gosh, I need to look at franchising again. And and I think that we can really make a splash. And I think that we can sort of update the way franchising is and really keep a lot of quality control and and a lot of support.
Lee Kantor: [00:03:07] Now, when you were having those kind of thoughts and conversations, were you thinking, I’ll just take the food truck and franchise the food truck as the franchise? Or were you always looking, okay, now we’re going to have to get into brick and mortar here and do it that way?
Mike Lenard: [00:03:21] Yeah, the transition to brick and mortar didn’t have that much to do with any franchising ideas. It was more just food trucks are hard, man, you know, they’re hot, they’re sweaty, they’re not dirty from a health code standpoint. But, you know, there’s just a lot of grease buildup and stuff you have to clean every day. And I really enjoyed those days. But it’s actually more difficult, in my opinion, to create standard operations around a food truck and to have a general manager of a food truck, in my opinion, has to be a much higher level person than a general manager of of a quick service restaurant, because, you know, you’re going different places every day. You’re parking different places every day. You have to know how to troubleshoot a generator and fix a water pump and all these different things. So I actually found it getting into the larger restaurants, which are also higher volume to be easier. And I think that that was really what paved the way for that growth. So the food truck was never really a thought for that. We’ve thought a little bit about offering a food truck type license for college campuses, food programs and things of that nature. So you might see a little bit of that, but that’s not a huge push with the franchising.
Lee Kantor: [00:04:35] Now, you mentioned that your expertise was around kind of running this type of a restaurant. Is that something that you were able to quickly transfer the knowledge to people, maybe not as passionate or as skilled or as you? And then you were realizing, hey, maybe I can replicate this. If I can do that, then, you know, I’m almost there.
Mike Lenard: [00:05:00] Right? I mean, so I was doing consulting, restaurant consulting. But for for other people, not this was just some side stuff I was doing and I was helping them with leadership, culture and standard operating procedures and things of that nature a little bit with marketing. But to be clear, we actually have not sold a franchise unit yet. We’re just launching, we just finished our PhD. We’re out to market really just in the last couple of weeks. So we’re obviously. Really excited to get someone on board and give them give them a lot of support. And I think that passion’s a little bit of an overrated word. It’s starting to mean less these days. I think that you just need good people who want to run a good business. And and I can we can teach those people exactly what to do.
Lee Kantor: [00:05:50] So where do you think the opportunity lies when you have kind of a workforce that is a little persnickety at the moment? You know, you have a lot of folks that don’t want to get into this kind of work. And how do you create a culture that makes your place of work a place that they want to be part of and, you know, a hill they do want to climb and be part of a bigger mission.
Mike Lenard: [00:06:17] Yeah, absolutely. I mean, to Korean, conceptually, is is simple, right? We have a limited amount of gas equipment. We don’t do deep frying. We have a limited amount of SKUs and prep work. So from an environmental standpoint, a lot of our employees find it simpler and easier to execute our food and it enhances the quality of the work environment. Know, a lot of the people that we have have also worked at other quick service restaurants. And it’s not that it’s easy. I mean, restaurant work’s always going to be hard, but a lot of it’s about creating a concept that’s not unnecessarily complicated. The other thing is our administrative processes and the technology we use for everything from invoice processing to scheduling and everything else. You know, the managers can spend a lot more of their time working, working in the shift shoulder to shoulder with everyone. They don’t have a lot of administrative work to do in our system. That also leads to a really good work culture. And then, you know, I can only speak for our company stores, but I think it’s a lot about leadership skills. And and this is a place where I have done leadership coaching before and we can bring that to our franchisees to create the environment we want. Our company stores, we’ve been very successful with staff retention and we haven’t had a lot of the issues you’re seeing out there right now. Obviously, those issues are real and it’s, you know, because restaurant work is kind of sucks sometimes, right? And it’s all about reframing the conversation, you know, and just creating a concept that sucks a little bit less and trying to have fun while you’re there really is how we see it. Compensation is another aspect to compensate people correctly. You know, with a franchisee, we don’t dictate that because that’s not part of the franchise process, but it’s certainly something that we want to align with people who believe in. You know, it really comes out. It’s a business decision, really, and we feel like it pays off.
Lee Kantor: [00:08:26] Now, you mentioned that like leadership and culture, it’s an important part of of what you’re offering potential franchisees. And you use the word coaching. Is coaching part of what the franchisee is going to get? I noticed a lot more franchises offering some sort of regular coaching sessions, whether it be individual or group to their franchisees. Is that something that you’re going to employ as well?
Mike Lenard: [00:08:56] Yeah. So as part of our our manager training, which every franchisee would go to, we actually have a huge section on leadership methodology, which I think is unique. I’ve read a lot of other people’s manuals and they don’t touch on this enough. I don’t think so. There’s going to be kind of a core tenor throughout the entire relationship that’s going to be based around what we expect in terms of of how we want to lead our operations, in terms of the ongoing coaching. Yes, we will do. But it’s going to obviously be on a case by case basis because some people are going to need more than others. You know, another thing with leadership coaching is it’s not all about kind of teaching and managing people. A lot of it’s almost almost akin to therapy, right? I mean, you’re talking through issues at their store. There’s interpersonal issues between people. Okay. Like what are the nuances here? You know, how do you deal with it? And in that sense, yeah, we would we would provide a lot of support for that.
Lee Kantor: [00:09:54] Yeah. I think that one of the key things to implement any type of coaching program is to reframe it from something punitive to something as almost as a perk, that this isn’t something you have to do, this is something you get to do. And it’s only going to help you grow faster and and help you improve your, your workforce and you personally. So that’s the way I’ve seen it work best. If you can reframe it from something that is that you’re trying to fix somebody, you’re just trying to help somebody be better.
Mike Lenard: [00:10:28] Yeah, that’s right. That’s absolutely right.
Lee Kantor: [00:10:31] Now, since you don’t have any franchisees right now, have you developed an idea, at least around a persona or an avatar for that ideal franchisee? Is he the person that’s getting one area or she getting one territory and that’s it? Or are you looking for empire builders? Are you looking for professional? Franchisees where this is just another brand in a portfolio.
Mike Lenard: [00:10:54] Yeah, I mean, ideally and look, we’re there’s a lot of different types of people out there that I believe could successfully run a Taco Ryan store. So, you know, just to start with that, we’ve thought about this a lot and we have all kinds of whiteboards on the wall with different things. And yes, I mean, I think ideally to just to start, we’d like a couple of individual unit franchisees, you know, that we can really give a lot of support to people who are likely first time franchisees just because of the nature of the fact that we’re unproven and we’re aware of that. And yeah, I think the important thing is that, you know, they’ve got the finances where they can open it comfortably. They’re not spending their last dollar doing it. They potentially have the finances where if it does if it performs well, that they can expand so that there’s at least a trajectory there. And then in terms of who they are, I think that we want to have a good relationship. That could be a lot of different types of people, but they need to be basically good hearted person. And in terms of experience, we just want people who are familiar with being on their feet and facing customers. So it doesn’t have to be that they worked in a restaurant. It could be that they worked at a shoe store, could be that they were a pharmacist. It could be a lot of different things. But we want someone who at least knows what it’s like to stand on their feet and face customers, just so that we understand that they they are aware of those demands. And other than that, there’s really a lot of different types of people who could be successful in terms of empire building and multi unit. Yeah, of course we’d love to. To have the right partner, build lots of stores. Everybody wants that. But I think you have to be careful when you’re starting out and you have to create a nice base and a pad to build on. And so I think we’re just trying to start a little bit slow.
Lee Kantor: [00:12:47] Now, what about location? Are you looking at college areas? Are you looking at the exurbs? Is there a certain kind of population or demographics that you’re looking for where successful units can operate?
Mike Lenard: [00:13:02] Yeah, I think that second tier cities like in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, we’re interested in getting into Maryland and Virginia, but we’re not yet registered in those states. You know, those are the types of areas where I think we’d like to to kick it off. We’re also open to up in New England, Massachusetts. And if we found the right partner, we potentially be open in a lot of places. But I think we’re going to focus our energy in terms of marketing to the mid-Atlantic region and in terms of the real estate itself. You know, there’s a lot of types of real estate we can do well in. And I think suburban strip centers, modernized suburban strip centers are really, really good for concepts like this. And then I also think that in more urban areas they can be. But things have changed a lot in the last couple of years with central business districts being, you know, they used to be five day markets, now they’re three day markets. Right. So, you know, the office that we used to look at in real estate has changed a lot. So it’s a little bit of something to to sidestep and just kind of figure out what else is there. Ideally, we want centers where there is office and residential and experiential things going on. And you know, everybody wants that. I’m saying I’m describing the perfect real estate. I realize that. But, you know, I think it’s important to bring the product to where the customers are going to interact with it best.
Lee Kantor: [00:14:36] Does it work best in areas where, you know, people are focused on their health and wellness, like, does it work well in a strip center that has maybe a fitness center? Or is it does it have to have a grocery store? There are certain kind of markers that make one location better than another.
Mike Lenard: [00:14:56] We perform well around fitness centers. We think our food is really well balanced and eats relatively light. We don’t market ourselves as specifically healthy because we don’t want to border to disingenuous, but we do think that it’s the type of thing that’s light that doesn’t weigh you down for the rest of the day. It has a lot of vegetables in it. So there is some appeal there, there’s no question. But the grocery store thing is actually huge, right. The biggest thing is that we we know that we’re not Chipotle. Right. So we need to be somewhere where people come there on a routine basis and we get that kind of exposure. So, you know, coffee shops like Starbucks, particularly grocery stores and then gyms are good because it’s really part of someone’s routine. And so those are all very good things that we look for and also that we’ve experienced in our own company.
Lee Kantor: [00:15:49] Stores now in the growth of the company. And I’m sure the pandemic might have kind of spurred some of this. Do you have like an easy ordering app for pickup and curbside and things like that? Or is that almost table stakes in today’s world?
Mike Lenard: [00:16:04] Yeah. I mean, everyone should have that. We we have integrated online ordering for pickup or delivery. And then obviously we’re on the third party apps as well. But we encourage people to go to CNN.com for you can also order delivery through there. We also integrate directly with a third party where they actually deliver our white label orders, which operationally makes it really easy for us because we get to retain all the customer data and obviously we pay a flat delivery fee instead of a percentage and we get to own our customer experience. So if anything goes wrong, it’s easier for us to refund them or give them credit for next time. Whereas if anything goes wrong with a third party order, we we’re not the ones that took their money. So it’s hard for us to service those customers. So yeah, it’s fully integrated and from an operator standpoint, it’s all integrated into our point of sale and into our accounting system. There’s very little manual entry, if any, that’s required with that system.
Lee Kantor: [00:17:05] So if somebody wants to learn more about the opportunity, what’s the website.
Mike Lenard: [00:17:10] It’s going to launch this week? And it is well, take and you can obviously get to it.
Lee Kantor: [00:17:17] And then from there there’ll be a way to get into the franchise if you’re interested in the opportunity.
Mike Lenard: [00:17:24] But we’ll be talking in just double check taker and franchise. I wanted to make sure it wasn’t talking franchising. Yes. So it’s Takara and franchised also. You can get there from Taco CNN.com as well where you can see our core business.
Lee Kantor: [00:17:40] And that’s Taco Orian.
Mike Lenard: [00:17:44] That’s right.
Lee Kantor: [00:17:45] Well, Mike, thank you so much for sharing your story today. You’re doing important work and we appreciate you.
Mike Lenard: [00:17:51] Thank you so much. I look forward to talking to you again.
Lee Kantor: [00:17:55] All right. This is Lee Kantor. We’ll see you all next time on Franchise Marketing Radio.