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Restaurant Finance: Pros Share How to Capture Customers

Sharing the secret sauce of their brands are (left to right) Milk Bar chef and founder Christina Tosi, Mendocino Farms co-founder Mario Del Pero, Cava Grill CEO Brett Schulman, and moderator Gary Levy of accounting firm CohnReznick’s hospitality practice.

“Create something that is unapologetically what it is,” says Christina Tosi. “Capture that lightning in a bottle.”

That’s what Tosi says she was able to do with Milk Bar, the hit bakery and dessert concept she founded in 2008 after building the dessert programs at David Chang’s Momofuku. Milk Bar, with its trademark Cereal Milk ice cream, Compost Cookies and Crack Pie, has locations in New York, Toronto, Washington, D.C. and Las Vegas. The newest, inside Vegas’ The Cosmopolitan hotel, is just a floor down from where Tosi is speaking at FSN sister publication the Restaurant Finance Monitor’s Restaurant Finance & Development Conference. 

Offering insight into how their brands are quickly growing and capturing the attention—and dollars—of consumers across multiple generations, Tosi is joined by Brett Schulman, CEO of Cava Group, and Mario Del Pero, co-founder and CEO of Mendocino Farms. 

At fast-casual darling Cava Grill, Schulman says the brand is an extension of the Greek roots of founders Ike Grigoropoulos, Ted Xenohristos and Dimitri Moshovitis, who in 2006 opened their first restaurant in Washington, D.C.

“Consumers are aligning with brands who align with their belief systems,” says Schulman, noting Cava’s culture of individuality and support of nonprofit organizations. “We use our founders’ heritage as a compass for what we do every day.”

Del Pero calls his 16-unit Mendocino sandwich and salad restaurant a “purpose-driven company,” touting its local farm-sourced ingredients and a focus on the “‘why’ behind everything we do.” 

“That ‘why’ goes into the DNA of every decision we make,” continues Del Pero, and is used to empower employees through training, wherein staff is “culturalized” to fully support the Mendocino experience. “Our team ultimately matters more than our guest because we have to provide that experience.”

On the topic of social media, Tosi says it took work to develop a defined brand position across platforms such as Instagram and Facebook, but it’s worth the effort to be able to engage fans of the brand and even control some of the messaging surrounding the brand.

“We try to use social media to respond to our customers before they go to Yelp,” says Tosi. “It’s almost a way to control your own press channel and use social media as that channel … you’re able to convey the exact message you want.”

“For us it’s how we convey our brand outside of our restaurants,” adds Schulman, also advising restaurants owners to “be proactive about listening to customers.”

While the popularity of their brands offers a certain competitive advantage in hiring staff, the panelists all agree it can still be difficult to find the right employees, making a well-thought-out recruiting plan paramount to success. 

Cava Grill recently raised its starting minimum wage to $13, says Schulman, and positivity is a key trait in the right hire. “It’s easy to teach a positive person anything, but it’s really hard to teach a negative person to be positive,” he continues.  

Likewise at Milk Bar, Tosi hires the person, not the resume. “Our people have to be a custodian of the brand first,” she says, adding that throughout the interview process potential employees meet with multiple people from the general manager to a shift worker to ensure they’re the right fit. “Without the foundation of a team, we’re nothing.” 

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