Season 1 Episode 13
Kevin Lee, Renowned Chef and Food Network ChampionCreating culinary excellence — from concept to reality
Chef Kevin Lee, a curator of culinary excellence, is no stranger to the ins and outs of the restaurant business. He’s an expert at scaling his techniques from the kitchen to perfect the operations side as well. Running a successful restaurant is certainly full of risks and challenges. But with an eagerness to learn, a bit of self-awareness, and some guidance from trusted mentors, it’s possible to get from concept to creation without compromising the dream.
We all love good food. But successful restaurants don’t thrive on good food alone. From the menu to the atmosphere to the location and price point, running a great restaurant takes a lot more consideration than what’s on the plate. Chef Kevin Lee, a curator of culinary excellence, is no stranger to the ins and outs of the restaurant business. He’s an expert at scaling his techniques from the kitchen to perfect the operations side as well.
We sat down with Chef Lee to chat about his experiences as an entrepreneur and hear about his latest venture, Birdies, a fusion with Korean fried chicken and Southern comfort food. Follow along and you’ll learn all about the risks and challenges of running a successful restaurant without compromising the dream, from concept to creation.
Want to be alerted when we drop new conversations? Visit theentrepreneurs.studio and SUBSCRIBE for notifications and other exclusive content from The Entrepreneur’s Studio.
Chef Lee launches a new fusion concept, Birdies
Chris Allen: Hey, first of all, I'll speak for everybody in saying, Hey, welcome, Kevin. Super glad to have you here.
Kevin Lee: Thank you for having me.
Chris: And for two reasons, I love talking about entrepreneurship, but I also love food.
Kevin: Everybody loves food.
Chris: So super glad that you're here, and I think as a founder, right, being on the Food Network, we were just chatting about you having a brand new restaurant concept, fried chicken, fried food.
Kevin: Fried chicken, so the Birdie's concept is a Korean fried chicken concept. It's inspired by Korean fried chicken, but when you go to Korean fried chicken or a fried chicken restaurant in Korea, we literally have fried chicken, and we have beer. There's nothing else on the menu. So, to me, it makes sense... We have pickles also. Pickled radish is something we complement our fried chicken with in Korea, but that's all we have in a fried chicken restaurant in Korea. So it made sense to me like, "Hey, I'm going to pair Korean fried chicken with all the accouterments that Oklahoma people love to eat, right? Like fried okra, biscuits, mac and cheese, coleslaw, so everything that we all love to eat fried chicken with, but paired with the Korean fried chicken.
Chris: So it's a Korean fusion with Southern food, comfort food.
Chris: That is so cool. I love that idea. Well, you're just a couple steps away, yeah?
Kevin: Yes. We are very close. We're about a week or two out, just waiting on a couple inspections. So it's been a stressful, stressful time, but it's getting close, so we're all excited to get this business going.
Chris: Well, the good news is, this isn't a first time for you. So, tell me a little bit about your history as a chef, right, and how you came to stardom with Guy Fieri.
How it all started: The road from hospitality management to culinary chef
Kevin: To me growing up, I always loved food. Food is something that I always looked forward to, that always excited me. It was always something I always enjoyed. Right? When I'm eating breakfast, I ask my mom, "What's for lunch?" When I'm eating lunch, I ask my mom, "What's for dinner?" I'm always looking forward to the next meal, so food was something that I always loved as a kid and that I always enjoyed.
Kevin: But being a chef was not something that never crossed my mind because when I was, I'm not that old, but even 20 years ago, if you wanted to be a chef, it's something you couldn't tell your guy friends. Like, "Hey, I want to be a chef." That's something you just don't say, just something you kind of kept it to yourself and secretly working on some recipes at home, and when nobody's home, pulling out the steak that's been in the freezer and just playing with it. That was something I enjoyed, but it just never crossed my mind that I could be a professional chef at one point in my life. It just never crossed my mind.
Kevin: And when I went to Vegas, I went there as a hospitality management undergrad over there, and cooking class was one of the requirements because being in a hotel, you had to take a cooking class. When I took that class, I was like, "Man, this is so awesome. I get to do this. I get to use a knife," and I got to do all these things I was seeing on Food Network that Emeril Lagasse was doing or Rachel Ray was doing. I was so having so much fun, and it just blew my mind.
Chris: Guilty pleasure of showing up at school.
Kevin: Yeah. But then, I walked into the restaurant like, "Can I be a busboy? I'll do anything" The chef at the time, June Xie, who used to be the executive chef at Beverly Hills, Nobu Beverly Hills in California, he offered me a giant, "You should be a prep cook. I'll pay you $900 a month." As an 18 year old, that seemed like a lot of money.
Chris: Seemed good.
Kevin: But it wasn't, but I showed up every day, and I really enjoyed it. I could have made more money being a server, being a busser, but something about being in the kitchen and being in the trenches every day, I really loved being there, and I really truly enjoyed it. So I just kind of took that, and from there on, I just never stopped.
Leaders grow leaders
Kevin: I became an executive chef at Mandalay Bay at the age of 21 because Japanese food is very, very simple. Right? You learn a technique, and you basically use that one technique to do a lot of different things. I was always very good with my hands growing up, and Japanese cooking is more about hand technique more than actually being able to cook. So I really thrived in that setting, and even though I was young, I was responsible, and I was working hard. So I got an opportunity to take that job, and I really enjoyed it. But, once I got to a point, I realized I'm not learning anything. I'm too new at this to be-
Chris: You need the progression.
Kevin: I need the progression, and being in Vegas, I just knew that was not where I wanted to be.
Chris: And you can explore a lot of food in Vegas.
Kevin: And my cousin at the time who lives in Oklahoma city, he's in the real estate business, but he was like, “Move to Oklahoma. This is where it's at." It's a growing city. There's a lot of opportunities, so I moved here and opened up a small little burger place in the Robinson Renaissance building in Downtown Oklahoma City. It's in a basement, so a food court in a basement, and I was selling soft-shell crab sandwiches. I was selling mozzarella stuff, like pork cutlet sandwiches and burgers. I was doing all these things that, people were just like, "What are you doing?" It's like, it's Oklahoma.
Chris: I'm trying stuff.
Kevin: But, doing those things, I got a little bit of recognition from local writers and eventually joined the apprenticeship program at the Coach House in Nichols Hills, which is, Kurt Fleischfresser is kind of the godfather of Oklahoma chefs. A lot of chefs trained under him, and I've been lucky enough to work as an apprentice under him, but also work with him as an executive chef at Bass after my apprenticeship program and kind of helped me guide me through my culinary career.
Chris: Oh, that's awesome.
Kevin: After that, then joined the Jones Assembly group, being a culinary director for fast casual taco concepts and Jones Assembly concepts and little cheesesteaks. I got to experience a lot of the business side of things and see-
Chris: Yeah, they're a great restaurant.
Kevin: Yeah, and see how operations should be because chefs are great at making food, but we're not always the best at the business side of things. So I got to see how business works and what makes a restaurant successful, right, because I feel like a lot of people just don't really even understand what makes a restaurant successful because they feel like, "Oh, I have a set of skills , I know how to make great food, or I have a great concept." But you have to be great at so many different things for it to come together.
Chris: Yeah, it's good. A lot of lessons along the way.
Chris: So what lessons did you learn from Guy Fieri?
Kevin: Guy Fieri is a great, great guy. You see him on TV, and that's exactly him in real life.
Chris: That's amazing.
Kevin: And Guy Fieri, when I first went on Guy's Grocery Games, I honestly was like, "Do I really want to do this?" Guy Fieri has become this iconic guy on Food Network, but he always wasn't a serious guy. He's always supporting mom and pop restaurants, but he wasn't getting a lot of respect from serious chefs.
Chris: Yeah, it's not like how Wolfgang Puck shows up or Emeril shows up. It's different.
Kevin: Yeah, it wasn't like that. It's different because he's a chef, but he's not a chef at a level where fine dining chefs are working at. But, during the pandemic, he did so much for the industry. I mean, he raised 20, 30, 40 million dollars for just the restaurant industry, and that really changed everything, and people really got to see who he is as a person.
Chris: He's a member of the community.
Kevin: Who he is a person and what he did for the community, and now you see Food Network, I mean, Tournament of Champions, they have chefs from French Laundry. Every top chef alumni you can possibly think of, they're all Guy Fieri's guys now, and they're all coming together and building even bigger community now, and it's really great to see it come together.
Chris: Well, there's caring about food, right, there's caring about business and entrepreneurs, and then there's actually doing something about it. That is where he really showed up during the pandemic. Well, so two time Food Network champion.
Kevin: Beef Battle champion.
Chris: Beef Battle champion.
Kevin: It's ironic.
Chris: What does that feel like? Do you have trophies?
Kevin: I have trophies. I got a little bell, but because we're in Oklahoma, we're one of the biggest beef producers in America. It's cool to say, "Hey, I'm from Oklahoma City down the street from the stockyards, and I'm the beef champion." It's just something that I think is really cool, and I've been lucky enough to be the beef champion of the Food Network.
Chris: Has it got you into cool places?
Kevin: Not yet.
Chris: Do you carry the belt around?
Kevin: No, no. My friends know me, but to me, I'm still a small guy. People don't recognize me. It's nothing like that yet, but it's been fun just to be the beef champion in Oklahoma.
Chris: Yeah. It's cool. I mean, those accolades matter, and hopefully you'll be able to translate some of that into with what you're about to do with Birdie's. It's a big deal.
Kevin: Thank you, thank you.
Restaurant basics, it's more than food
Chris: Well, let's talk about the restaurant concept and talk about entrepreneurship because I do think you're talking about something that a lot of talented, skilled people go through where they're like, "I have a passion to do X. Cook, I have a passion for food. I have a passion for retail clothing. I have a passion for all of these different kinds of things," and we're consumers, and we experience all these businesses.
Chris: But I think that the gotchas and the surprises are in the behind the scenes of running the business, right? So I do think it would be important to just kind of, I don't know, hear from you about some of the struggles, some of the lessons, some of the surprises, right, that you've kind of had along the way in your entrepreneurial journey. I'm a marketing guy, so branding's a big deal. Right? So what are some of the surprises that you're like, "Hey, here's some things to watch out for, some things you didn't maybe think about"?
Kevin: To me, the most important things when it comes to restaurants is, first, what the concept is. What price point are you going to be at? What is the branding going to look like? How's the branding going to integrate with the interior design and the location? All these things matter so much. Some locations do well in downtown settings where it's a destination restaurant, right? You have a fancy steakhouse. You want to be in an area where there's other bars around and there's other things to do because they're going to go do something after dinner.
Chris: That's true.
Kevin: But, when you're doing a family restaurant, you don't want to be downtown because no parent's going to go pick up their kids from school and go back down to downtown and eat. So, depending on who you are as a restaurant, it really matters where you are. If you're a quick lunch spot, you want to be next to hospitals, big corporate offices, and that kind of area. But it all depends on who you are, and I feel like people just see, "Oh, high traffic count. That's a great location." But sometimes those cars never stop. They're just going by.
Kevin: So just really knowing what you're going for and who you are as a restaurant, what price point are you, so all those things really matter. If you're in a family area, if you're a family restaurant, you want to have affordable items for your kids because you want it to be affordable. When you're going out as a family of four or five or six, every dollar counts. Between $12 and $15, it's a huge difference because you multiply by that six, it's a $20 difference. And then, for a family who are in the middle class in the suburbs, that's a lot of money if you're eating out all the time, so recognizing what the needs are and all those things all play together.
Kevin: I just think, to me, those five things are things I've missed in the past with my previous restaurants I've opened or consulted, and just learning along the way just every little thing that you've made mistakes in the past and fixing them and being aware of those things because a lot of people, I feel like, "My business isn't doing well. Why is that? Oh, it's tax season, or it's the weather, or it's this or that," and not really looking at themselves as a business and, "Hey, there's kind of smells in here, or there's cords hanging down from the ceilings."
Kevin: Every little thing counts, right? You're trying to make everything perfect, but always making excuses for the business, for the people, and you just got to have a lot of self-awareness and make quick changes. Not just, "Hey, maybe it'll happen," but you got to think quick on your feet because when the restaurant starts going down, it's hard to turn around.
Chris: Yeah. I mean, I would say a big lesson, right, and what I'm sort of translating some of what you're saying is, first impressions matter. Don't make assumptions and rushing based on an assumption and designing a concept around something that you believe without being objective. Right, and if you can be objective, that brings out the self-awareness and the self-reflection about, "Hey, instead of just trying to prove that my restaurant's great and trying to convince everybody of that, why don't I actually do all of the things that are required to get people to have the right impression?" That's good.
Create the restaurant experience people crave
Chris: Well, let's break down branding for just a second because I think a lot of it is, you talked about... We can talk about brand for just a second. It's a passion of mine, but you got the logo, the website, right, the way things look, the way things feel, right? The concept needs to be a reflection of the brand, right? So what are some of the gotchas there? How do you kind of go and get that work done? Do you have people around you, or is this something you kind of originate on your own?
Kevin: I think there's definitely people who are capable of doing that on their own, and I think that's a whole other thing of self-awareness of like, "Hey, does this look professional?" Anybody can really draw, make a logo, right? Just make it look a good and make it colorful and a little bit unique, but there's a reason there are professionals who do branding and marketing because it's a trade. It's not something that anybody can do, and it's a profession. To me, when it's a profession, there's a reason it's a profession.
Kevin: And so, I have a guy I use, he's a branding guy. He's done a lot of great local concepts. But branding, it's not just a logo, right, because a lot of people think branding is just name and a logo. You're just paying for the name and a logo, but it's just so much more than that. How do you integrate that through packaging, the interior design, even silverware, what kind of cups you use? It all ties in together as a brand.]] It doesn't look like you slapped it together, just made just quick decisions because every little detail counts. To me, even the to-go menu, the website, it all has to flow together.
Chris: It's got to feel like it's the same thing.
Kevin: It's all the same thing, even the sign on the door that says, "Open hours." When you do it right, you put yourself in a different level from people who are taking shortcuts or not spending time to even think about those things because when somebody walks into a restaurant, it has to feel like... To me, even if you're a local brand, it should feel like a chain somebody created, like, "Hey, this is something-"
Chris: Somebody curated the whole experience.
Kevin: Created the whole experience, instead of like, "Here's your food, and here's your water."
Chris: Yeah, it can't just be transactional.
Kevin: If you don't like the food, I don't know. It's got to be the whole experience because is just a small part of the restaurant experience, and it is a big part of it, but people want to feel welcome. People want to feel the vibe has... If the people who are serving you are having a bad time, how can the guests have a good time when they're there? Like, "Oh man, they're being really rude when they're taking my order, and it just doesn't feel right.” So it's like, when people go walk in, you instantly start judging. "Man, I've been waiting three minutes for anybody to just even say hello." Or you get sad, and you don't even get a menu for five minutes, and you're already turned off by it.
Chris: Yeah, there's a lot for us to compare because we have these experiences all the time.
Kevin: Because you eat every single day. People go out, especially these days. I feel like after COVID people go out to even eat more because they realize, "Man, I can't cook."
Chris: "Let's not do it."
Kevin: So it's just, people have so many things to compare to, so it's a hard business, but it's a very honest business, right?
Chris: Oh, that's great.
Kevin: If you really know what you're doing, if you really recognize and you look at yourself in honest ways, it's a very honest business. If you're really on top of your game, people are going to come back. People say restaurants are hard, but I bet you McDonald's don't think it's hard. I bet you Olive Garden don't think it's hard. I bet you Chick-fil-A don't think it's hard.
Chris: They love it.
Kevin: They love it. They're making billions of dollars doing it, so if you really know what you're doing, and you can replicate it, if you can do it repetitively, consistently, that's so, so important.
Connect identity with reality
Chris: That's good. Well, something that we're kind of hinting at, right, and something that you're talking about is this branding to identity, and one of the ways that I try and articulate this and the way that we do marketing is, it's kind of like a pulse. You got what you believe, how you think, how you act, how you speak, and then how you show up or how you appear.
Chris: And a lot of people think that the branding is kind of how you appear and how you speak or the name and stuff like that. But, as it relates to identity, there's the concept, which is the food, the pricing, right? The customer, really understanding that customer, and stitching all that together with that brand pulse, what you believe, how you think, how you act, how you speak, and how you appear. So talk to me about how that translates to the concept and the overall vibe in the way that you kind of design businesses.
Kevin: So Birdie's is, to me, it's more of a family restaurant, right? This is where you want to go, take your family out, and just kind of have a good time because fried chicken, to me, is a family experience. KFC commercials back in the days, right? It's all about sitting together as family, passing the chicken bucket around, passing the bread basket around. That's what fried chicken is all about, so I want to really create that family environment, right?
Kevin: So it's more colorful where kids are inviting, a lot of fun colors and big murals that could represent community and family, and just really tying it all together, make it feel like where you want to take your family and just hang out. It almost feels like a picnic, but it's very modern and fun and somewhere you just want to hang out.
Chris: Yeah, it's awesome, the togetherness factor. I like that, and that's an overall vibe, right, as it relates to the identity. Well, and so that matters for the price point. So, if you decided on your audience, which is family, you were like, "Okay, am I going upscale? Am I going downscale?" It's probably not upscale, right?
Kevin: It's definitely not upscale. We're a very casual restaurant, and my biggest goal was, as a fine dining chef, I could never tell my friends, "Hey, come check this dish out and pay 70 bucks for it." It's not something you can do. I want to be able to offer my set of skills to the masses and that where they don't have to feel they have to pay money for it, so we have $10 chicken baskets. On our lunch menu, nothing's more than $12. Everything's $10 to $12.
Chris: That's awesome. So awesome.
Kevin: And when they come in for dinner, it's more about almost, you think of it as a steakhouse experience. You can get your small drumsticks, which will have like three pieces, right, and it'll be 10 bucks, but if you want fries or okra, mac and cheese with that, you can order as a single side or a shareable side. So it's more of a sharing experience, but you can come in and spend little as $10 if you want. But, if you want to have a full experience and have a good time, we have champagne on the menu that you can
order, and we have all these different things. But I want to be able to give an opportunity for everybody coming and enjoy what I've created.
Chris: That is a super cool experience, and it seems that you've really threaded it all together. It's a departure from being a beef champion to cooking chicken though. Let's just be real about that, but let's just talk about location. We talked a couple of minutes ago about high traffic and all that kind of stuff. What are some of the surprises or some critical considerations on that?
Kevin: Parking is huge because in Oklahoma, smaller city people don't like to walk. Parking is something, when you're downtown in that area, it can be very challenging because if you can't park, you're not going to come in. Something people like, "We're going to be so good that it won't even matter," but just something as a restaurant owner, to me, parking is huge.
Kevin: But, also, depending on who you are, like I said, you want to be in different areas. For us, we're more family casual, so we're in the suburbs where it's close to residential homes, but a steakhouse could be downtown. But, location-wise, it also matters of who's around you because it always creates that synergy when you have more restaurants that are successful around you.
Kevin: Most people think that actually hurts you, but you really want to be in an area where everybody is successful because it really creates that synergy. That's where I want to go hang out. Hey, they can come in and have an appetizer at my restaurant, but go have a drink at the other restaurant and come back for desserts. But it kind of creates that synergy of where people want to go hang out.
Chris: That's why these clusters happen with retail shops. And then, you've got restaurants nested throughout there. These clusters really matter. If you're sort of off on a corner lot in the suburbs, it's a special drive, and people aren't necessarily thinking about you, right? You've really had to design a brand or have to have multiple locations for somebody to go, "Oh, let's go to the one that's kind of farther away," so that's why the clusters really matter. Yeah. That's really good.
Restaurant design is an efficiency matter
Chris: Well, talk to me about restaurant design because you're in the midst of this new concept coming to life. There's the experience when people arrive, and then there's the employee experience as well, so talk to me about some of the design work and how you get things to kind of flow together.
Kevin: To me, restaurant design matters so much because it's an efficiency matter because you have to be efficient as you possibly can because restaurant business is not a big-margin business, right? It's a very small-margin business. You're trying to maximize your profits every way possible, but if you have an inefficient space, you're just shooting yourself in the foot because it might take two or three more employees to operate that business if you don't have it efficiently designed, and that's a lot of money. Even if that one person makes 30,000 a year, that's a hundred thousand dollars at the end of the year. So every little-
Chris: For a design mistake.
Kevin: For a design mistake, so the way I designed the Birdie's is, where the servers come into the kitchen and how they go out is very important because if the dishwasher's in the corner of the kitchen, they have to go in and take 20 extra steps just to drop off of dirty dish then come back. Then, you're going over there to get the to-go bags, and you're going to multiple different places just to do one task.
Kevin: So, to me, it's just all about putting the dish area where it's in going into the kitchen, so the dishes get dropped off immediately, and putting the server stations right around the corner, so as soon as they drop off the dirty dish, they go to the refill of the sodas or refilling the ice, then on the outdoors where the expo is to pick up the food to go out. So the way I have it designed in Birdie's is, you go in this little circle, and you're in, drop off, pick up stuff you need, and you go out, so you don't really have to go anywhere else that's unnecessarily time-consuming.
Chris: You got to tell all of your employees, "Hey, consolidate your trips," and if you're consolidating your trips, they know that they're going to do two or three drops on the circle, right? They're going to grab food on the way out and things like that, and the outcome of that great design is really table turns. You get more table turns, or you have low wait times, right, and things like that, which means you can fit more people in the restaurant. But then, turn them, and you don't have these long cues or people waiting to get in the restaurant, so that creates a customer experience where they are like, "Hey, wasn't a long wait. It actually went really well. The food was really good," and they want to come back. And so, then you get a repeat business, so that flow really matters.
Kevin: And it takes less employees to operate, then I can pay my employees more instead of having to pay three more people, you know what I mean? So, the less employees I have, the more I can pay also to my guys. To me, even the kitchen is, you design it so everything's within reach. If you're in a station, you shouldn't have to ever leave, take more than two steps from that station, and design it exactly where it needs to be so three or four guys can operate a $2 million a year restaurant, and you can only do that with efficient design of the business and efficient design of the space also.
Kevin: There's restaurants who have a hundred things on their menu. Well, you're going to need a lot of people, and that's the only way to achieve that. But, when you have a simpler, more efficient menu that you specialize in, it takes less people to operate it, and it's better for the business, better for the staff, and you get a better quality product because you're putting all your focus on one thing instead of a billion things.
Kevin: You're baking bread, you're making pasta, you're making burgers, you're making, fried chicken, you're making tacos. When you have all those things, it just takes so much more effort to get it to that level of perfection. When you have one thing, it's a lot easier to do it.
Chris: And then, once you've tweaked it out, you're like, "Hey, I can go stamp and repeat this in a similar location for a similar vibe in a similar way to get a similar result," and then you've got kind of a thriving business, right? That's amazing. Well, I really respect one of the things that you said about self-awareness, and I think that objectivity and people being able to just be real, and I like how you described it as this being an honest business. Talk to me about some of the things where you've either seen or experienced or recognized in yourself that you're like, "I wasn't really self-aware enough."
Be self-aware: Adapt, learn and know when to ask for help
Kevin: As a chef, you feel like you can open up a restaurant and be successful right away because I'm a chef,but chefs are actually the ones who fail more than anybody else in the restaurant business because they let their pride get in the way, or they let, "I want to use the best of the ingredients." Just because you're a chef, you feel like you have to do these things because you're a chef.
Chris: It's a creative outlet.
Kevin: It's a creative outlet, but that doesn't always equal profits in the business, right, and you got to learn the business side. If you're not good at it, you have to be able to adapt and learn. If you're not good at social media, you need to be able to adapt and learn instead of just saying, "I'm not good at it," or, "I don't know how to do it." If you don't know how to do it, pay somebody to do it or learn how to do it. There's ways to do it. You have YouTube these days that teaches you everything you possibly can, right?
Kevin: You have to be able to adapt and also know when to ask for help. I've been in this business a long time. Throughout opening Birdie's, I mean, I've had probably five mentors. Every day, I'm calling, asking questions like, "Hey, how do I do this? How do I do that? I have this menu made, can you look at it?
Kevin: What do you think about this price point?" Just picking brains. There's people all around you who've done this before, who have been successful before. Don't be afraid to ask because there's no stupid question. You're not going to look stupid. Don't be too prideful to ask for help.
Chris: Oh, that is so good.
Kevin: And some people are just too prideful of that, and I've learned that, as a businessman, you got to be able to adapt. You always have to be able to learn and keep learning because things keep changing. Foods change. The trends change. Everything keeps changing, and if you don't stay innovative or stay with the trend, you got to keep digging. You can't just say, "I'm done," and be done with it because you know what? If I do that, this restaurants will be gone in five years. Then, I have to do it all over again. Why do that? You got to keep on going and stay on top of it, and that's the only way.
Chris: So something that I think is a self-awareness issue that a lot of business owners, not just restauranteurs, but business owners really struggle with is deciding what their job is versus what somebody else's job is and when to keep it in-house and when to outsource it. How do you kind of create those thresholds and make those decisions?
Kevin: Sorry, what was the question?
Chris: Yeah, so we can repeat it. Yeah, so one of the things that entrepreneurs really struggle with, and not just restaurateurs, is what is your job versus someone else's because you can have your fingers in all the pies. And then, the other one is when to hire somebody to do it, or when to use an agency or somebody else or an outsourced, like uniforms, for example, or getting carpets cleaned out, and hiring the Cintases of the world. It's like, "Oh man, no. I'm going to wash these instead of replacing them." Those are some of the struggles that people face. So what are some of the thresholds that you have in your mind?
Kevin: You got to kind of pick your battles, right? What is the most important thing to me or to the business because a lot of people do it just to feel better for themselves. You know what I mean? For selfish reasons, like "I'm going to do that because I feel better when I do it instead of you doing it. "But that's not always the most important thing for the business because for me, if I'm sitting there frying chicken on the line, that's the worst thing I can possibly do because that's a $15 an hour job. If I'm, me as a business owner, sitting there frying chicken, there's a problem because there's so many more other important things in the business than frying that chicken. That means I've done a horrible job training or something is not right.
Kevin: So it's just knowing what's important to me. So, to me, for example, when I was a chef at a fine dining restaurant, I can't cook everything, right? But there are certain things I can control. What's important? Breaking down the protein myself is important because you're going to save money by having less waste, right? I can make the stocks because that's the foundation for all the sauces. If the stock is wrong, the sauce is going to be wrong, so those picking what is important that I have to do and consolidating those work that you know what your team can do.
Kevin: But, also, it's all about awareness. What is your team capable of doing? If they're not capable of doing it, you should probably outsource for that job. But, for me, it all kind of comes back to awareness. What is your team capable of doing, and putting in the time to train those people if they're doing the job, and really taking the time training them because training is everything. Once you train them, it's not done. You got to go back and retrain and constantly stay on top of it because those are the people who are cooking your food and operating your business.
Chris: Those are the things that slip.
Kevin: Yeah, those are things that slip.
Chris: What was one of the things that you sort of woke up and said, "I shouldn't be doing this. Someone else should be doing this"?
Kevin: Because I'm a chef, my natural instinct is go towards the kitchen, but that is just my natural instinct because that's where I feel comfortable. I know I can operate it, but that's the worst thing you can do as a chef because if I'm there cooking the food, who is managing my staff? Who is managing the pace?
Kevin: Who's managing the food waste and everything that is so much more important than just that one dish, right? To me, that was the hardest part because my natural instinct just always pushes me back to the kitchen.
Chris: Go to the kitchen.
Kevin: But I just have to take a step back and make sure my team's trained well and that I trust them, but also make sure we follow back and reassure every once in a while that it is going in the same system that it created.
Rapid fire questions
Chris: Okay. Well, that's good. Well, I have some rapid-fire questions for you now.
Kevin: All right.
Chris: What was the last dinner you ate out, and how would you rate it?
Kevin: Last dinner was last night at the Bull in the Alley in Tulsa. I had a porterhouse steak with some shrimp cocktail and crab cakes, and it was delicious. I don't know if you've ever been there, but Tulsa next to the Tavern. It's called Bull in the Alley. It's literally an alley. There's no sign. There's a gold bull that's hanging on top of the door. It's a small little steakhouse that seats about 50 people, but it is delicious.
Chris: How would you rate it?
Kevin: 10 out of 10.
Chris: All right. Way to go, dude. Well, what are the first three things I'll always find if I open your fridge at the house?
Kevin: I'm Korean, right, So I don't know if you guys know what kimchi is. Kimchi is a fermented spicy cabbage dish, and that's something that's always in there. Topo Chico, I love Topo Chico, any kind of sparkling water because I used to love drinking soda, and I could never break it, but Topo Chico changed my life.
Chris: There you go. Love that.
Kevin: What else do I always have in my fridge? I love apples.
Chris: All right. I love that. Well, let's talk about sushi for a second. What's your opinion of cream cheese and sushi?
Kevin: Cream cheese and sushi, I think it's delicious.
Chris: You do?
Kevin: I don't knock it at all.
Chris: You don't?
Kevin: To me, cream cheese and salmon, love it.
Chris: Love it?
Chris: What about, do you ever eat the ginger and the wasabi?
Kevin: I do.
Chris: You do?
Kevin: I'm a big wasabi guy, big wasabi guy.
Chris: I love it. I've never heard somebody say, "I'm a big wasabi guy." That's really good.
Kevin: Really? Yeah. I mean, literally it's half wasabi, half soy sauce.
Chris: Okay. I love that. Well, let's say I have one night in Vegas. What restaurant am I going to?
Kevin: One night in Vegas...
Chris: And what should I order?
Kevin: There's a restaurant called Hobak, and 'hobak' in Korean means pumpkin, so I don't know why it's called Hobak, but it's a Korean barbecue restaurant. It's a Korean steakhouse experience, so you go there, there's a set of like, you can basically pick from A, B, or C, and they'll have a marinated shore rib with some ribeyes, with some pork belly and all these different things on there. It comes with 20 different sides, side dishes, lettuce wrap, some stews, and egg soup filet, but it's an experience, and my goal eventually is to bring that kind of a concept, the Korean steakhouse concept, to Oklahoma also.
Chris: I love that idea.
Kevin: That is my dream restaurant, and hopefully we can do that here pretty soon too.
Chris: All right, all right. Couple more. What's one thing that I can cook or do to impress my friends the next time I have them over for dinner?
Kevin: That you can cook?
Chris: Yeah. That anybody can cook.
Kevin: Anybody can cook?
Kevin: Let's see. Pasta, tomato basil sauce pasta, but it is all about time. Making sure you use fresh garlic, making sure you use fresh herbs, fresh basil, fresh tomato, but it's all about just sitting there and stirring. You can literally throw everything in a pot and stir, stir, stir for hours, and it'll turn up awesome.
Chris: That's great.
Kevin: Anybody can do that.
Chris: What was the thing that most confused you about Oklahoma?
Kevin: Most confused me about Oklahoma?
Chris: When you moved there.
Kevin: The flat land. I'm from Seattle. I mean, we got hills everywhere, mountains everywhere, and they told me the Wichita Mountain was a mountain. I was like, "No, that's a hill," but I love Oklahoma. I love people here. I love everything about it. I really enjoy living in Oklahoma. I wouldn't live anywhere else in America.
Chris: Oh man, that's a big statement. All right. Last question. This is a non-food question. Let's say that I'm able to call Kevin Lee on the phone right now, but it's Kevin Lee 2002. Okay? What do you want to tell him and warn about?
Kevin: I grew up playing competitive golf. I was pretty good at one point, but I wish I had a little better direction. I wish I would've knew more about life at the time. I think I would've had a better chance, but just work hard. Put your head down and work hard.
Kevin: Just work hard because at the end of the day, to me,I never switched my career throughout my whole life, and I've always kind of stuck to one thing. There are times that are really hard, but at the end of the day, when you do one thing for a long time, you get really good at it. There will be light at the end of that tunnel,
Kevin: And I feel like generation these days, younger guys these days, they're too quick to change their career all the time. "Oh, I did it for two, three years. Eh, I don't like it," or do this for a couple years because I think that's a job, right, and there's definitely better jobs than others. But I think if you really stick to one thing and if you duke it out, at the end, there will be light, and you will be very successful at what you do.
Chris: Pick something and commit to it. Love it.
Kevin: Pick something and commit to it.
Chris: Well, I don't know what to say. I'm super thankful that you came on the show and having a conversation with us. I have to say, I'm super hungry now, but as we kind of sign off here, tell everybody where to find Birdie's.
Kevin: Birdie's will be on the corner of NW 150th & Penn in Edmond, Oklahoma. You'll see a big, old light shining. It's not hard to find, but it's a fried fried chicken concept with great food, great people, good environment, fun environment, so you guys can all come out and enjoy some good fried chicken.
Chris:There you go.
Kevin: Fried fried chicken.
Chris: Okay, double. Well, what's next after that?
Kevin: I don't know yet. Hopefully we can open more Birdies. We really want to focus on this first location obviously. It's been a long time coming. I was talking to my wife a couple days ago. She's like, "You talked about this when we first got married," and it was 10 years ago, and it's finally coming together, what I've envisioned, and it's really exciting. I'm nervous obviously, but I think it's going to be fun. I think it's going to be great, and I'm ready to work to really make this work.
Chris: That's awesome. Well, best of luck to you.
Kevin: Thank you. I appreciate it.
Chris: Thanks for coming.
Kevin: Thank you.