Executive Q&A with TaKorean CEO Mike Lenard
The Korean taco grill executive tells the brand’s story and reflects on growth goals.
1851 Franchise: Tell us about the founding of the brand.
Mike Lenard: I previously ran a kayak shop and paddling school called Potomac Paddlesports. It was wintertime in the shop, and as you can imagine, it was slow. The team and I would kind of sit in the little couch area in the shop doing our spreadsheets for inventory, our product buy for the spring and talking to reps and stuff like that, and I started bidding on this food truck on eBay, not really thinking I was going to win it.
I had this thing in the back of my head like, “Oh, maybe I’ll do a food truck,” and I remember sitting there, and suddenly I won it. I turned to one of the assistant managers and said, “Well, I might be leaving. I have to go pick up this truck.” The truck ended up actually being a disaster. It had to be rebuilt several times to stay on the road, but that's the truck that I got and what ultimately launched TaKorean.
So I started concepting it. I decided I wanted to do this mobile vending thing before I knew what it would serve, and I wanted to build it really as a business, not just as a passion project. So I did a lot of research on what I thought was lacking in the DC food scene or in the East Coast food scene, and in LA, they were doing Korean tacos, and I thought that that was really interesting. I started researching Korean food, started doing R&D recipe testing, ate out at a lot of places, bought tons of cookbooks and cooked a lot in my small apartment. I got the kind of original recipes which, you know, some of which are still being used today even though they've been tweaked a little bit over the years.
So yeah, I got the truck built out, and then we launched September 2010. Food trucks became a bit less popular over the years, and we transitioned to a brick-and-mortar, fast-casual model in 2012. In 2014, we were running two locations and the food truck. When winter came around, we decided to close for the season and just never reopened. It made money but was so much of a distraction to the other parts of the business; it’s much harder to operate a food truck than a fixed location. Now we have the two established locations in DC and more in the works.
1851: What makes TaKorean stand out in the market?
Lenard: There's not that much like us. I mean, there have been some Korean bowl concepts that also serve tacos that have opened over the years, but they can fall a little flat. So you know, I was inspired by Kogi BBQ in LA, which is a hot food truck that Chef Roy Choi opened probably in 2006 or 2007. That food is delicious, and I wanted to create a fresh, light spin on the Americanized street food take on Korean food. We still have those unique flavors, but everything is made fresh, and we’ve incorporated a Latin-American twist. TaKorean is an everyday food for an everyday environment.
I think we fill a significant void next to Sweetgreen and CAVA and those types of concepts where people want Korean food but in that format and at that level of consistency.
1851: Why should franchise prospects consider TaKorean?
Lenard: You know, if you're shopping for a franchise in the space, whether it's a bigger brand like a QDoba or a smaller brand, obviously there's a lot of differences, but the fact of the matter is, is that if you're looking for a ‘build your own bowl’ or fusion concept, this is the best. This is the best option. It just really is. Those other brands don't even have people who have worked there on their corporate teams. They're just franchise guys; they don't even know how to run the thing. With TaKorean, you're getting into a place where you've got good people, and we try as hard as we can to treat this as more than just a business. We’ve been running these restaurants day in and day out for over a decade. This is a passion we believe in and have invested in, and we’re really committed to it.
I'm not going to just bring in someone who's done franchising for a million years, just because. It's going to be someone who can really embody the brand no matter what.
We also have really simplified operations and can fit in smaller retail spaces. There’s very little specialized training and equipment required, which not only keeps training and staffing costs lower, but it makes retail selection and buildout easier. Our streamlined model doesn’t sacrifice anything in terms of flavor or quality, but it creates a lower barrier to entry for franchising with us than you would have with other options.
1851: What are you looking for in franchise partners?
Lenard: We definitely want someone who is a food and people person. Restaurant experience is useful, but it’s not absolutely necessary. They have to have some sort of service experience to understand what it’s like. It has to be a non-issue to work on their feet and serve people.
There’s a personality type that we want. If you’ve never stood and faced a customer, whether it’s at a shoe store, a car wash, or whatever, that’s something that’s really important. It’s a question of whether they really get it, like people and feel a sense of fulfillment in taking care of people.
There are things that are nice to have and things that are must-haves. It’s nice to have someone with a leadership mindset, but that’s teachable. It’s all about — a must-have is “coachable.”
1851: What's the future for TaKorean?
Lenard: Growing company stores little by little, continuing to grow, increasing our infrastructure, and then trying to sell franchises little by little. But you know, look, one thing you've learned about us is that operations are very important to us. If we could sell 100 franchises tomorrow, we wouldn't want to do that because, for us, we want to award them, we want to open them, and we want to set them up for success. The reality is that 100 that do horribly is never worth as much as five or 10 that can become an incredible foundation for a bigger business.