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How 2 Young Restaurateurs Broke Through a Crowded Industry

Alan Jackson and Sonu Chandi are finding ways to innovate, even in an oversaturated California restaurant scene.
How 2 Young Restaurateurs Broke Through a Crowded Industry
Image credit: TeerawatWinyarat | Getty Images
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The restaurant industry is one of the hardest to break into anywhere, but it's even tougher in the oversaturated California landscape. But, Alan Jackson, executive chef and founder of Lemonade, and Sonu Chandi, CEO of Chandi Restaurant Group, are still finding ways to innovate. 

I was fortunate to chat with Jackson and Chandi to learn about their beginnings in the restaurant industry, their growth strategies, their motivational techniques and more.

Alan Jackson

Before opening Lemonade, Alan Jackson was a chef for fine restaurants like Jackson’s and The Farm Beverly Hills. He created Lemonade after finding a hole in the Los Angeles market. Now, he serves fresh and nourishing dishes in a sunny, cafeteria-style environment.

How did you first market Lemonade to people who didn't quite get the cafeteria-style experience?

I created and opened Lemonade in 2008, basically as a response to not being able to find the type of food and dining my wife and I were looking for in our daily life. 

Good food should be for everybody! As a chef, when I wasn’t working, I couldn’t find anything, to-go or eat-in, that was flavorful, had variety and was vegetable-focused, affordable and easy. Wanting something different for myself and my family, I knew I needed to create an outpost for people to get the type of food I wanted to have daily.

Related: How to Start a Restaurant

Cafeteria-style was the only way I could envision a visceral connection between the customer and the type of food we planned to serve. A picture in a magazine inspired me: It was a restaurant in Turkey where a chef was leaning over the counter, steaming pots below him, talking with his guests. It was so inspirational for me. Marketing this concept has been all about the customer experience. In the early days, we spent a lot of time explaining to people how to order and what to order. Over the years, we have been able to perfect and simplify communication with our guests.

Are there any particular marketing strategies you used to help Lemonade expand quickly?

We did our best to be an operations-focused company. We have done no external marketing in the past eight years, other than the usual presence on social media. What we have been hyper-focused on is making sure the consumer perceives the value of our offering and craves our product. We want the in-store experience to match the expectations of our customers. So, all marketing efforts have gone into training team members on hospitality, perfecting recipes and improving atmosphere.

How did you pace Lemonade's growth in order to take full advantage of its popularity, but not overwhelm yourself or the business?

Growth feels overwhelming, period! But since day one, we’ve been a vertically integrated company. Most companies of our small size don’t start with the manufacturing capabilities that we did. We started by owning and operating a central commissary and manufacturing plant that produces all of our sauces, dressings, marinades, seasonings and long-cooked meats. We utilize a system called “cook chill” that streamlines and improves the process of cooking large quantities of food. By architecting the company in this fashion, we have been able to guarantee recipe adherence and improve quality and the overall health of our products. This has given us an operational advantage, allowing us to grow at a steady pace without being overwhelmed. The challenge for us was the cost of carrying this facility until we got to scale.

How do you make sure Lemonade maintains its company culture across multiple state-wide locations?

We nourish our team, our customers and our stakeholders! To nourish is our core value. If we can nourish our team members with knowledge, they can flourish. In order to achieve this goal as a culinary-focused company, we built our own proprietary recipe technology platform that disseminates recipes, training, announcements and updates to the fingertips of our staff by way of in-store tablets. We believe that it is our responsibility to supply team members with information easily so that they are informed enough to do the right things for the customer, the company and themselves.

How can you tell if a potential employee will fit Lemonade's culture?

I always ask myself if I would feel comfortable asking them to housesit for me. It’s a pretty easy litmus test.  

Related: 10 Questions to Ask Before Making Your First Hire

What are your plans and strategies for future growth?

Over the next twelve months, we will be opening three additional units in the Bay Area and two in southern California. We are presently developing a license model, as well as the next regional territories for the brand.

We are also concentrating on improving the customer experience, taking friction out of the ordering process and perfecting systems to guarantee operational excellence.

Sonu Chandi

At 16, Chandi spent weekends working with his father at an Indian restaurant. In 2003, he worked as a translator for his father's first restaurant. In 2007, Chandi and his brothers purchased their own business, Mountain Mike’s Pizza. Now, the Chandi brothers have seven Mountain Mike’s Pizza restaurants throughout the North Bay and another three restaurants in Santa Rosa, Calif. 

Did you know when you moved to the U.S. that you would enter the restaurant industry?

I never thought we would own a restaurant when we moved to the U.S. My dad was working at a restaurant when we moved here, but we didn't have any clue about owning a business, especially not a restaurant. 

What fascinates you the most about the restaurant industry?

Food brings people together to create memories, and if you do it well, the restaurant owners can be a special, celebrated part of the community. We have been very fortunate to see this happen for us in the community of Santa Rosa with our restaurants, The County Bench Kitchen + Bar, Bibi’s Burger Bar and Stout Brothers Irish Pub & Restaurant.

You kept several jobs while attending school full-time, and now you own and run a long list of restaurants. Have you ever experienced burnout or a loss of motivation? If so, how did you get back on your feet?

I come from a small farming family in India. My grandfather worked seven days a week, as well as many nights, to make a living. I feel we have it easy compared to my grandfather and those before him. I get up every day to become a better leader, to continue learning, and to go beyond where I never imagined I could. I'm a self-motivated individual and always think a few steps ahead of where I am, so there is never room for burning out.

Related: 11 Startups That Will Let You Enjoy a Life of Leisure

Small failures put me down sometimes, but I have been able to overcome them and use them to be more successful.

What marketing strategies did you use to help your restaurants gain popularity so quickly?

Being involved with the local community and always going out of my way to support local causes have helped the Chandi Restaurant Group rise to success. Those who see our efforts have become our super-fans, and they help market our group of restaurants without us even asking them. Taking a leadership role in restaurants always keep us ahead of our competition, and we will continue to use this approach as we build for the future.

What do you think makes you and your brothers a great team?

We trust each other completely. There are some tough times when you work with family, but we have been able to use it as our strength. 

If you could tell your younger self one thing about entrepreneurship, what would you say?

Have more fun. I have always focused on work too much and not been able to enjoy my success. Learn to slow down and enjoy small victories while working on the bigger plan.

Conclusion

Alan Jackson and Sonu Chandi (along with his family) both found gaps in a seemingly complete industry, then filled those gaps in ways that have excited California foodies for years. What industry needs do you strive to fulfill with your business? How can you entice customers who seem like they already have it all?

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