Chef Roy is celebrated for “food that isn’t fancy,” and his business philosophy merges food and social media with community, honoring the street food culture that laid the path before him. Thanks to Roy’s entrepreneurial spirit and the boom of food trucks after Roy launched Kogi in 2008, food trucks are now a $850 million dollar industry.
He is a world-renowned restaurateur and chef, recognized as one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People in the World, a James Beard Award recipient, and New York Times bestseller. On a global scale, Roy also co-hosts the Netflix cooking series The Chef Show with Jon Favreau.
As QuickBooks celebrates small business success, here are Roy’s insights on how to survive trying times and how he continues to innovate and grow as a business owner, prioritizing community and kindness:
What’s the smartest thing you did to help maintain your business during the past year?
The pandemic hit the food business hard. Overnight we lost 50% of our business and all of our catering. I was worried about our staff and how to give them hours so they can support themselves. Then on a breezy afternoon last April I had a thought—What if we let go of the idea of profit and were able to raise money with the purpose of feeding those in need, and every single penny would go to only food, supplies, and staff. The goal was to stay alive, and to stay alive with kindness and love. For the next 10 months we served over 10,000 meals through our drive-thru pick-ups. It kept our staff employed, our company alive, brought joy and nourishment to many, and realigned our purpose as a business.
Who did you lean towards to help you through this time?
We doubled down on our core fans and loyal community. Our main message was “If you got our backs, then we got yours and will fight to survive.” We fed people for free throughout the pandemic. We showed up rain or shine in the darkest moments to feed every neighborhood. Even if only one person came out when we showed up. Many friends chipped in and helped with donations so we could feed those in need. Everyone in our concentric circles stepped up so we could be their conduit to give. I’m eternally grateful and hopeful that it was a glimpse of how good we can be to each other when we want to.
Do you have a secret weapon when it comes to successfully managing and growing your business?
My secret weapon is that I try to not think about our profit. For me, it’s people over profit. That sounds counterintuitive but it helps me to be frugal and purposeful with every business decision. And making a thing (for us it’s food and culture) that people crave. To me, managing a successful business is about breaking even, because breaking even is so much more than it sounds. Breaking even means affordability and accessibility for patrons, it means generosity, it means everyone wins in a small way. And that’s big for me as a business owner.
How do you continue to grow and develop professionally?
I try to listen and trust my gut, and sometimes you have to turn down opportunities to protect your freedom as an entrepreneur. Not everything in life is about dollars and cents. You gotta pay bills, but not at the expense of selling out your values. This way of thinking keeps us strong and growing in the healthiest way possible.
What do you do to ensure growth and innovation within your company?
The most important thing for us is making sure our food is delicious. That’s it. Is the food good? Is the team happy? Are our bills paid with no debt? Are our patrons smiling as they eat the food? Does the “thing” feel alive? Is it fresh? Does it feel as new as it was when it was new? I look at all these things daily, and this tells me if the business is growing and innovating. I try not to think about it in terms of profit or margin. And if you hit a rough patch, go back to all the fundamentals of your business—for me it’s frugality, honesty, transparency, love, kindness, caring, moral compass—then reset.
What do you do to recharge when you’re feeling drained?
I hit the streets. Nothing like being fluid and putting yourself in the mix of what’s happening. I love the smells, sounds, people, culture, motion, life. It also sparks most of my ideas! All of my companies are translations of who I am and what I experience on the streets and in the neighborhoods past, present, and future.
What’s the one thing you wished you knew before starting the “food truck movement?”
I’m just thankful that the food truck culture let me be a part of it! There were food trucks before Kogi BBQ that we are the descendants of. I’m grateful that I was born into a life where I grew up on these trucks and on these streets. So, it’s not about what I wish I knew, it’s gratitude that I knew what I knew, so that I never came across as a poser or colonizer. We are part of a food truck lineage and I thank the Latino community every day for welcoming me into the food truck community.
Best piece of business advice you have ever received and given?
So many pieces of advice come to mind! First and foremost, check everything, never assume, and taste everything. Every detail matters especially the ones no one notices. And take the high road—you don’t have to be mean to be the best.
What advice would you give someone looking to launch a food business that they probably haven’t heard before?
Do you have a flavor that you love or something to say? Do you know how to do the things behind the scenes like ordering, scheduling, prep, cleaning, organizing? Are you dedicated to putting in the hours and the work? If you can say yes to these questions, then it’s a start.
What is your definition of business success?
Business success means so many things to me. If I am caring for people and the world, that is a success. If I am teaching and providing pathways for the youth and future generations, that is a success. If I am able to pay my bills and my staff on time and robustly, that is success.