Native Grill & Wings Franchise Review: Michelle Kim of Mesa, Arizona

With the support of her restaurant-entrepreneur father, Kim already knows she wants to build her own ‘empire’ with Native Grill

Michelle Kim grew up with a father who was in the restaurant business. So when he presented Native Grill & Wings as a good franchise opportunity for Kim and her boyfriend, John Maderos, she trusted his instincts. Her first conversation with CEO Dan Chaon and the team sealed the deal, and they opened their first location in July 2019.

“One of the things you’ll love about Native Grill is the close-knit family franchise feel,” says Kim, who is already looking forward to growing more. “I want to build my own empire.”

She shares her story in this Native Grill franchise review.

Why invest in this brand?
From my first initial conversation with Dan and the team, you could tell that it was a very close-knit family, it wasn’t just a big conglomerate corporation. And for me, Native just sounded like a great opportunity on a very personal basis, because I’ve never been in the restaurant industry or even the franchising industry. It is a small enough brand that your voice is actually heard. I truly feel part of the team, part of the decision-making, which I don’t think you’d get in a larger franchising system. The culture is really what stood out to me.

Is your father working with you in this business?
The initial plan was for my dad and I to start this venture together but to eventually transition him out towards retirement and to help me gain experience in business and entrepreneurship.

My father has worked with me for the first year, to introduce me to the restaurant world and help me transition. I currently work in talent mobility and corporate relocations. Now that we’ve hit our one-year mark, on July 1st, we’re actually going through the transitioning phase-out now where my father is taking a back seat and I’m taking operational control.

How are you handling the management of your restaurant when obviously you’re so busy?
Fortunately, my job has always been a remote position, so I was able to move here from the Bay Area in California. It’s been an interesting balancing act with my different roles.It all somehow works out, though, where I’m lucky enough to be able to oversee a lot of the operations here and work closely with the Support Center while, of course, simultaneously working my day job.

So you’re really not an absentee owner at all, you’re just very involved in everything.
I try to be actively present as much as possible. I don’t want to have my job be a hindrance or an excuse. I want my staff to always know that I’m completely focused and giving my 100% here.

What’s your management structure like at the restaurant?
My partner, John, and I are owner-operators; we’re very hands on. John focuses on operations and my focus is on strategic marketing and people culture. I’m also part of the Native COVID task force team, which has really helped me gain a lot of valuable experience and learn a lot through the corporate lens. We also have our kitchen manager, a general manager, and we just onboarded an assistant manager! We’re slowly building up our team to where we truly want it to be and need it to be.

What size would that be roughly?
Ideally I want to get to somewhere around 35-40 to make sure we have enough people on our bench and have a solid, strong team. Over the past year, we’ve done a really great job of monitoring, seeing the dynamics of the team and re-training our staff to meet our standards and culture.

Obviously you have had a chance to do some recruiting. What are the secrets to attracting and retaining good labor?
I focus a lot on building good morale, great culture and personal development. We really want this place to be a great place for the majority of the people for the majority of time.

We don’t necessarily expect any of our employees to retire here. We’re very realistic, and we let our staff know that. I’m more curious to see what employees’ future goals are, whether it’s academic or it’s business, or even personal goals — what is it that you’re looking to develop? Then we can focus on honing in on certain transferable skills here that you can take onto your next journey.

I want people’s time here at Native to be valuable to them. I want people to exit here thinking, I’d love to refer a friend or family member here. I loved working here, I got something out of it. Anyone can learn tasks and duties on the job, but to really focus on that culture piece and building that good morale, especially over the past few months as we’ve been going through COVID and realigning, restructuring our staff, that has truly been the key for where we’re at today with our staff and where we’re headed for the future.

What was your partner, John, doing before Native Grill?
He’s been doing property management/real estate. That’s taken a back seat, of course, but that’s definitely something he still has in his back pocket and is planning on continuing to pursue as well in the near future.

What was it that made the two of you decide to branch out and get into owning your own business?
It stemmed from the partnership between my dad and me. John and I, we’re very ambitious people. We’ve always wanted to do something on our own, and this was just the right opportunity at the time for us to take advantage of.

What has been the most rewarding thing about opening a Native Grill?
Just being a new business owner and being able to truly run your own business. I’m learning, I’m growing with the business, with every decision that we’re making, where you can see the impact not only for our role or our numbers per se, but for the staff, for guests.

I’ve had nothing but tremendous support from Dan and the team. We’ve always been in really close contact. From the get-go, I just had a feeling like, man, this is going to be a great team, a great group of people to be around.

Are there any specific pieces of support that have been very valuable to you as a new business owner?
I think the biggest way that they’ve shown me support is by inviting me to be part of that COVID task force team, especially with me being the youngest and one of the newest franchisees at the time. I was invited to be part of that team along with the most tenured and experienced owner, and that just spoke volumes to me. They’re not only listening to what I have to say, they’re truly valuing my perspective since I bring such a different viewpoint to this team. They just really receive my feedback well, and I can tell that they value it.

Have you been interacting a lot with other franchisees in the system?
This is such a tight-knit family. Everyone is constantly asking questions or offering tips, tricks and best practices. People know how new I am to the restaurant industry and they have been nothing but welcoming and great mentors from the start. John and I have gone to other locations to do hands-on training just to see what processes are like at other locations and what we can do to implement those tried and true processes here.

Great customer service is rare these days. How do you instill in your staff that guest experience is important? How do you make the guest feel valued?
I try to get them to think of the “why.” We instill a sense of ownership within our staff, because it’s truly our staff, especially our servers, who are the face of this Native location. It’s not the owners, it’s not the managers, even. We tell them, “It’s truly you guys, the people who are interacting with the guests every day, you guys are actually the reason why they’re coming back.” It’s not even the food per se. I mean, it’s given that a restaurant should have good quality food, but truly what brings people back is based on the relationships built and quality of the guest service..

Is there anything else that you think would be important for a prospective buyer to know?
The Support Center is absolutely wonderful and they get their jobs done. And with Native being so unique because it is such a small brand, I think it’s important to understand that you will have a lot more leverage in this franchise system than one would think.

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