S3E14: Chakli Diggs with NoJa and Saisho

Transcript:

In this episode, we have the pleasure of sitting down with a pioneer of the Mobile restaurant scene. Chakli Diggs started his first business back in the 90's because he saw the potential for a renaissance. That renaissance is something we are just now starting to see, and it has us excited! Chakli has a story filled past and those experiences undoubtedly have impacted the food scene here in Mobile through his restaurants. If you haven't had the chance to check out NoJa or Saisho, they need to be on your list! Now let's jump into our conversation with Chakli.


Chakli:    Okay, my name is Chakli Diggs and I've been in Mobile now for 26 years, actually.

Marcus:    Welcome to the podcast Chakli. Now, I know you have a couple of restaurants here in the Mobile area. Why don't you go back and tell us how that all started?

Chakli:    25 years ago I opened my first restaurant called Bienville Bistro in that little 900-square-foot building on Conception Street, and things were very, very rudimentary back then because Mobile was very new and really beginning to emerge, at the time anyway, and that was my perception. That's why I stuck around and decided to open a restaurant. I actually came here because of family reasons and saw the opportunity to open a restaurant. I worked for corporations for 30-some-odd years before that with Hilton and Pepsi-Cola in Europe, well specifically in Germany. I was born and raised in Ethiopia. My dad was an American from Texas, Waxahachie, Texas. He was a surgeon in the Second World War, went to Ethiopia, met my mother on the boat on the way there. She was from Madagascar, and they came to Ethiopia, and my sister and I were born there.
I was there for 22 years and I left there because of the unrest that was happening at the time. I went to Michigan State, did my degree, came out, worked for Marriott. After that I went up to Germany for another seven years. Before that, actually, after coming out of high school I went to Germany to work for Hilton as an apprentice for three years. When I got out I worked for Marriott four years and then went to Germany, was there for seven years, came back and as I said, decided to open a little restaurant here. I had opened a second larger one called the Bienville Bistro, which did not work out too well because I moved too fast and Mobile was not growing as fast. Then I went back into the hotel business for a couple years, worked with Adam's Mark at the time which is now the Riverview Hotel. Then I came back and opened up NoJa in 2005. And right after opening NoJa in 2005, of course, Katrina hit in August ...

Marcus:    Your timing wasn't that good.

Chakli:    So I thought, "Well, my goodness, let's see." But NoJa was a hit from the get-go and we grew, and grew, and grew up until 2015 actually, and then in 2016 Mobile started to feel a transformation in the restaurant scene. One thing that didn't happen in Mobile as much as I would've liked to and I think other people as well, is the demographics did not grow. We had all these new companies coming into town, all these folks coming into town and they shied away from Mobile a bit and went over to Eastern shore, It's eye candy over there, obviously, and the realtors were very aggressive in recruiting all these folks over. And being European, and me being influenced by Europeans I can understand, because you go over there and it's very practical, very easy, very [crosstalk 00:03:23] it's a suburban so ...

Marcus:    The schools are good and it's not so far so [crosstalk 00:03:31] I get it.

Chakli:    They are experiencing an overcrowding and some sort of inconvenience and traffic so some of it is starting to come back. Our new mayor for the last three years has done a tremendous job of really instilling the confidence. I was going to leave two years ago and go to Pensacola. Pensacola was one of the cities I looked at when I first came here. I went down there and took a look at it because my sister used to live down there, and it was shambles. There were shacks all over the place, and now that place is just like something like Rosemary Beach or some [Carmel-type 00:04:06] atmosphere; very beautiful. 
Fairhope, another thing that just came and it just grew. Mobile has some challenges and once they break through that I think it's just gonna blow up. So I plan on opening up Saisho, pronounced "sigh" like a relief and "show" like a movie. It's a concept that's very, very new and kind of a challenge to bring to the people because in a way it's deemed Japanese but it's not your typical Japanese like you have around here. It's not sushi.

Marcus:    So pause for just a second.

Chakli:    Yes.

Marcus:    An immigrant ...

Chakli:    So to speak.

Marcus:    Madagascar and Ethiopian influence opens up a Japanese restaurant. I mean that ...

Chakli:    Well, it's a good question. It is kind of interesting but I'm in the food business and when I opened up NoJa, it's called "MediterrAsian." So Mediterranean, which really Mediterranean [crosstalk 00:05:14], not Middle Eastern. People still confuse Middle Eastern and Mediterranean. Middle Eastern is totally different [crosstalk 00:05:21]

Marcus:    Completely different, yes.

Chakli:    So NoJa Mediterranean serves as a foundation and we influence and look for the health part of it, and in the Mediterranean, which is also very savory, very saucy, very oily and also a healthy type, and that's what we bind to.

Marcus:    So where does that influence come from now? That's interesting to know.

Chakli:    Well, my mother, of course, being Madagascan they moved to France a lot, so we were in France a lot, in the south of France. In the south of France, the cooking and the wine, the spices, the fish, the sauces and all that which is very savory, rich but not fat. And then the Asian part was simply the healthiness of it, the simplicity of it, the use of very fresh ingredients such as seafoods and root vegetables, which actually merges well with Mediterranean. So it's not a fusion because you can distinguish the items on the plate, so it's not all thrown together and smothered. That's one of the things I saw when I first came here. We went to fine dining and you would get food that is tasty but it was all kind of ... lumped together.

Marcus:    Yeah, it becomes overwhelming because nothing can be distinguished from ... in itself.

Chakli:    Correct.

Marcus:    But I've had the chance in Saisho, I was actually at an event there for a mutual friend, and your lamb chops were just out of this world.

Chakli:    The lamb ribs.

Marcus:    The lamb ribs, yeah, [crosstalk 00:07:06] I'm sorry, the lamb ribs were just out of this world. I mean, the flavor was just absolutely incredible.

Chakli:    And that's the thing. See you get whatever it is on the plate, and you pick up, let's take three or four items on the plate, and you will distinguish the flavors. It will be distinguishable, and that's what the Japanese call "umami" where you put something in your mouth and you can actually taste different ingredients or flavors in there, whereas if you take a dish that's more like the English where it's all stewed-together overcooked vegetables and everything else and then just put it on a plate and smother it in, and you just-

Marcus:    Nothing's distinguished but together they make their own [crosstalk 00:07:48].

Chakli:    Correct. Yes, exactly. Which is good, for instance, in the fall when you have comfort foods. Those are more unified flavors than separated flavors. But anyway, decided to open that up plus in this one here, I partnered up with a couple that used to be with me at NoJa, and we experimented a lot in the Asian food because Alex's wife is Japanese, so that kinda reinforced the notion that, "Hey, there is a reason why we have Japanese flavors available here." And we wanted to really show that the kitchen here is really based on the kitchens and bars of Japan.
So this is a gastropub, meaning its food and booze is on the same level. So you can eat and drink or you can drink and eat, and the food will determine your drinks and your drinks will determine your food. And you can actually put things together as opposed to NoJa, where you come in, you'd say, "I'd like this steak," and then everything else is automatic. Here, you say, "I'd like a steak," and then you can add whatever, and then you can pick this dish, this dish, this dish, and make one meal out of it.

Marcus:    Now it's good. I'm familiar with the concept of gastropub just because to my knowledge there's not another one here in Mobile.

Chakli:    Not in that sense.

Marcus:    Okay. So I've been to Chicago and DC and Atlanta and stuff like that where you might go ... It's always fun because the food in bars and pubs has always been less than.

Chakli:    Correct. [crosstalk 00:09:37]

Marcus:    But when you go to a gastropub, the expectation is, "Man, that food, it better be dynamite," to go along with that craft beer that was brewed two blocks over or whatever the case may be. So I think it's really cool that you've kinda brought that idea, that concept to Mobile and it helps that your food is just absolutely, ridiculously, good. So people that have listened to this podcast know that I'm a little bit of a ... I have an inner fat child who just loves to eat. But I like to eat really good food and that doesn't necessarily expensive, which I don't view Saisho as being [crosstalk 00:10:12] terribly expensive.

Chakli:    No, no it's not. It's pretty competitive. [crosstalk 00:10:17]

Marcus:    So it's nice that there is good food that can be paired with a good beer or a good glass of wine and is approachable to folks. But you went into this .... I mean, you are a chef, correct?

Chakli:    I was trained as a chef, yes. And when I first started I was in the kitchen cooking and then I decided ... my business sense [crosstalk 00:10:44]. When you're self-employed, you want to make sure you become dispensable, not indispensable, because if something happens to you the whole concept, the whole business goes down. So, immediately, the first thing you do in any business I think, is to train and mentor people that can step in and just continue. I did that with my first restaurant and I was able to go on vacation within a year. Same thing at NoJa. NoJa I worked a little longer to make sure it was very solid because it was a totally different era. There are different eras in Mobile. When I first came in 1991, I came here with ... If I knew now what ... back then, I wouldn't have opened restaurants. And it's the same thing. If I'd known what was going on now, I wouldn't have opened this but that's typical [crosstalk 00:11:41].

Marcus:    Hindsight is always 20/20.

Chakli:    So NoJa was really a trailblazer because we did open up something totally different and it was really something that people just couldn't understand that was in Mobile. And we even had this guy from the New York Times come down from the food section and he was doing Mobile a little bit, and he kinda made fun of Mobile, and then he came to our place and we were sitting there with Alex. So he was saying to Alex, "Why Mobile? Why don't you go somewhere where you can really be known and grow and stuff like that?" And our answer back was, "Why not Mobile?" [crosstalk 00:12:24] He was making remarks about Wintzell's, about the fresh seafood that's then fried and dried up.
And then he was talking about our salmon that we import from Tasmania and all that kinda stuff, and making it like, "This is weird," that something like this would happen in Mobile. But still, though, for us it's good because the expectation level when somebody came to Mobile was kind of modest. So when they came to NoJa or saw anything else it's like, "Wow." I mean, even today, when you speak of Mobile. So today, Mobile is doing a great job of putting themselves out there and attracting more and more people.

Marcus:    Well, I've read somewhere — and I wish I remembered where the source was — that anytime you have the revitalization of a city, typically it is the restaurants and the artists that enter in first. And then, those are the reason why people come back, and by coming back they realize, "Well, that's not necessarily a bad place to maybe live." So what we have happening right now is there was a billboard on I-10 that said something to the effect of that there are 43 independently owned restaurants downtown right now.

Chakli:    Correct.

Marcus:    And that just blows me away. Like ...

Chakli:    That is a [inaudible 00:13:46]

Marcus:    I live on the Eastern shore and I still talk to people that have no idea what is happening downtown but when you talk about the food and just the transformation that's happening down here, I can't imagine ... Honestly, even five or six years ago, I don't know that I would have located a business down here, so the fact that 20-something years ago you had the balls to open up a restaurant in downtown Mobile — a fine dining establishment — just blows me away. But you obviously had something that was good, because you still have a really great name with NoJa and still have a very thriving business. So obviously there was something there. But hats off to you for that. Because sometimes you just don't know [crosstalk 00:14:36]

Chakli:    Well, I mean it's the ... Even now, if you look to see, there's a lot of people from out of town who have come here and done it, because they do see the potential. Mobile has been known as a perpetual potential city, and now I think it can drop to perpetual and get to the potential. I do think there's a lot to be done by some of the folks that are responsible to promote the city, and they need to be a lot more aggressive, and they need to get up a little sooner and stay a little longer. That's my thing about them, is that they need to really get down and dirty and highlight what's really special about Mobile. Like Food Network came down and stereotyped the shows, I think, because they went to places that were ... When people come to the hotels and stuff like that, the hotels, people are trained to send them to the typical places. Great places, but they also need to let them know that there are options as well.
It's pretty much Wintzell's and then the Causeway because that's what they want. And then we have people coming to restaurants, several times actually, at NoJa, and all of a sudden we'd see them get up and leave. So I'd go after them and say, "I'm sorry but ... " "Well, we didn't see any seafood." Now, we have seafood galore. So what they were meaning is, they wanted to see oysters, [crosstalk 00:16:10], stuff like that, which is a regional item and staple. So the city advertising or the hotels need to really explain what it is. Then the other phenomena which is interesting is, our location here, I thought we would really boom but it's still kind of ...

Marcus:    There's a no man's land in-between [crosstalk 00:16:33]

Chakli:    So people walk from the hotels and they've been told go to Wintzell's, to Moe's, Chuck's Fish, because all that is very familiar. So they come by and see our restaurant and they look in and go, "What's this?" How come we don't [crosstalk 00:16:52]. So they come in and we had a couple of people put descriptions in there that blows your mind because it's exactly the description I was saying, even more so. So we use that as a testimony. And it's really that what they described, it's really great.

Marcus:    So going back, what started you down the path of even going into being a chef though? Was there something that influenced that?

Chakli:    Yes. I wanted to be a fighter pilot actually, and I really went into training. I took flying lessons, I'm a ... a private pilot license up until a few years back, and in Ethiopia we flew by the seat-of-the-pants like crazy. So my dad was a doctor, we had farms, we had friends that were pilots and flyers. I flew with the military in backseat flying and all that, but we also had a friend of family that was the best friend of our family who was a Swiss hotelier in Ethiopia. He was the boss of all the hotels in Ethiopia, and back then in the 50s when we were growing up, they always partied.
On weekends everybody partied and they didn't leave us with babysitters. We came along. And we just fell asleep on the sofa chair or in the corner somewhere, and that's the way it was. I was a rambunctious little boy, bothered everybody, and got under the table and tickled everybody and raised holy hell, wouldn't let them alone. So this guy here, after a few, I guess months or something like that, my parents noticed that after a while I was no longer there. I was just gone, so they'd find me asleep somewhere. So this guy here, later on, when I was 17, he told us he was slipping us a Mickey. "What do you mean, Mickey?" And that's why I'm an alcoholic today, because I don't like the [crosstalk 00:18:46].
But he was basically like a babysitter, so when my parents were busy or something like that, he would drag me with him, and we walked all the hotels, the back place, and it kinda stuck with me. So the time came for me to make a decision when I came out of high school. "What do you want to do?" And I said ... My dad was was hating the fact that I wanted to become a pilot. And then finally, I went and say, "Okay, I'll be a pilot," and he says, "That's terrible. You're gonna be a bus driver in the sky. I want you to be an engineer. I want you to be ... " this and that and the other.
So one day I sat there, I went to the Hilton hotel, had an interview there, I went to the airlines and had interview there, and this one guy says, "You know, you can be only a pilot. Once you're a pilot, you're a pilot. But if you're in the hotel business, you can be in the hotel business and have your own plane and you can fly anywhere." I said, "Okay. I'm going in the hotel business." So I went in the hotel business and that's it. I had a lot of influence because at home in Ethiopia people cooked in the open, and the flavors, and the smell, and what I always remember is garlic, onions and ginger. And then the heavy Ethiopian spice which is very spicy and fragrant. And that just stays with you. And I liked to cook and I said, "Okay."

Marcus:    My parents are from Brazil and so I get it. I mean I very much get it. My father pretty much raised me, and I just ... early influences, of course my father cooked a lot and, again, garlic, onions, a lot of meats, feijoada, which is the national dish is a lot of meat with a little bit of black beans. Everybody calls it black beans and rice, but the truth is there's a lot of meat and the sauce and stuff like that. But I certainly get it; I love cooking as well, although I would never call myself a chef. Go back for us, and the Bienville Bistro, right? Was the name of the first [crosstalk 00:21:10] Do you remember opening that and what that feeling was like the very first-

Chakli:    Oh, absolutely. [crosstalk 00:21:17]

Marcus:    Take us through that.

Chakli:    Well, that was my first restaurant on my own. It was an undertaking but I came here and my sister was already here and my mom was here. My mom was the reason I came back here from Germany, because she was ill. SO I walked around, I looked around, and I saw that Mobile ... Well, first, I used to come here from college to visit my sister and I said, "You need to get the hell out of this little city and move away." And then when I came back ... I used to come back here from Germany on vacation, and I think the weather over there just kind of made me appreciate this one fact even in the dead of the summer. So anyway, when I came here I started to notice that things were being cleaned up and beautified, and the building, One St. Louis, was a brand-new building; very modern, very nice. And that caught my attention and that area there just looked good and I thought, "Well, maybe I should open a restaurant."
And my thing was a tiny, little restaurant, $10,000-dollar budget, and just open a little bistro, like a real French bistro. And back then, people could not pronounce "bistro." They didn't know what it was and ... same thing. They go "bristo," "bystro," and all that. Now, bistro is just a [crosstalk 00:22:32]. So we're thinking Saisho and all that in a few years are gonna be the same phenomena. But anyway, so we're looking around, looking around, looking around, and all of a sudden my sister says, "Hey, there's this building. You need to look at it." So we drove by and we saw something and I called the number, went on there and looked at it; 996 ft.², 36 seats. It was a little pizza place.
So I went in there and we did it, and the budget was $20,000. For $20,000 I opened that restaurant, and it did good for three or four years and then I got cocky and grew, because then all of a sudden another nice restaurant came, and the city started to really grow, and I got too, and just couldn't handle it. A few other things happened, but when we opened the place it was interesting because it was myself, another guy as a waiter, and another person in the kitchen that helped me; three of us. And in the beginning, advertising, I had no idea. And everybody said, "Don't go downtown," because downtown back then was really [crosstalk 00:23:33] rogue.

Marcus:    It was rough.

Chakli:    It was rogue. But every day I drove down here at night just to see what was going on, but that building just kept calling, so we opened it up, and we did lunch and dinner. At night time we'd stand there and wait, and wait. Nobody would come because ... of course not, because they didn't know. Slowly people would come, and more people would come, and then the lunches were good and they started to get good, and I stood in the kitchen and cooked with another guy. There was one server outside and we'd go back and forth and help. One day, Kathy Jumper from the Press-Register, on a Friday, while I was cooking in the back kitchen, she came in and started talking to me and took pictures and this and that and the other.
And the picture even, was a picture of me holding a plate with basmati rice, a chicken breast, and freshly-cooked vegetable, well, vegetables. But the chicken was not cooked, the rice was not cooked, and the vegetable was not cooked. It was just kind of ... you know ... because we hadn't ... So anyway, she talked, blah blah blah, that was a Friday and I didn't know what she was going to do with it. And back then, the Press-Register was a big paper and it had a business section. Every Sunday, a business section featured people. 7 o'clock in the morning my sister wakes me up. "Wake up, wake up, wake up," and she had this paper. "Look, look. Look."
And I was on the front page of the page as a feature, and then in the business section a huge picture of me with that thing there. I said, "Oh my gosh." And Monday for lunch we had two lines out the door. Now, member this place was a 36-seat restaurant. And we turned the place over about two, three times. And we went berserk, and I went nuts. And then at nighttime, it'd get so busy that at nighttime we closed Tuesday and Wednesday and we were open Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday for lunch. And dinner Thursday through Saturday. We were busy. So I expanded to the back and added, and it gave us a total of about 60 seats, and it was crazy. It was really fantastic. That's when I thought, "You know what?" [crosstalk 00:25:40]

Marcus:    There might be something to this.

Chakli:    When we grew, two things were against us. One, people that loved that little, tiny place ... It was a tiny place, 36 seats, like I said, they just loved that coziness there. And they came from all over even though they knew that downtown had that kind of rogue perception. Well, I made that mistake and, you know, the Peter principle.

Marcus:    That is the plight of a business owner, right? I mean sometimes you make decisions and they're great and sometimes you make [inaudible 00:26:13].

Chakli:    You know what? It's always the same story with everybody. You do something, and at some point you got to fail to really learn the next step. And when we opened NoJa, I had a 49-page business plan and followed it to the T, and that place was instantly a success. It was really great.

Marcus:    That line right there, we could just de-segment that line, like that's so perfect. I do believe that you just said a very special truth. Sometimes as a business owner you have to fail, and the learning that comes from that failure is what helps propel you to success is basically-

Chakli:    It does, it does help. Nowadays, really, with all the information you have, you can avoid that. It's just like diseases in the past. You did trial and you treat it. Now, you prevent them, so when you sit down and do all these models and we have people like you that know the marketing area, so I'll come to you and say, "This, this, this," and you'll say, "Well, you need to do this, this, this." With Saisho I made a mistake there. I should've marketed right from the get-go because of what was happening. So the next time around, marketing is going to be big. I'm not a big marketing fan, never was, but now it's necessary.

Marcus:    You gotta make some noise. The world has changed, and I don't want to get into it too much, but it certainly does not hurt to make noise nowadays.

Chakli:    So let me ask you this. Why did you come downtown?

Marcus:    Well, the story really goes like this. I wish I could say that, oh, I had this vision of what Mobile was going to become. But the truth is, I live on the Eastern shore and I have had offices on the Eastern shore for seven or eight years before moving the business downtown. I wanted to find some space in Spanish Fort that I could convert into an office space, and couldn't find anything. So my wife, as a realtor, I got upset with her and said ... that there it is for posterity sake, right? Forever she'll be able to play this back. But I got upset with her because I was like, "I can't understand why we can't find something. Could you please figure this out?" because I knew I needed some space.
She said she was going to open it up to Fairhope, but I knew what was happening on 98 and 181. The traffic has just gotten horrible, so I said, "Well, if you're going to do that, then open it up to downtown, because I wouldn't mind being downtown. The drive is much easier than going to Fairhope even from Spanish Fort." So when she did that the space opened up and I have seen some of the changes that were taking place. I'd been a member of the Mobile chamber, I knew what they were trying to do down here. So just on a whim, I decided to rent this space and I was hopeful that things would work out, and that this would actually be worthwhile, and it has. Being downtown and being part of the business community has been phenomenal.
The people that we've met have been ... And I don't know that it's necessarily ... like not all of that is business, but it's just the relationships that you build with people and getting to sit down with business owners like yourself and talk to them about their businesses and stuff. I just like that. I don't care if you and I ever do business together. I mean, it would be great if we did, but if we don't, I'm totally cool with that. Having the opportunity to be part of this community and understanding where other people have come from, and what they've seen and stuff like that, that's the benefit of being down here, has really been that. So, it's been great. But ...

Chakli:    Well it's encouraging to, I think us as well. I wish scenery like that would more quickly improve [crosstalk 00:30:19].

Marcus:    Sure. For those that ... because this is audio you can't see that he's pointing. There are some buildings across from us that are abandoned and boarded up and stuff like that. It needs to go away. But it'll happen. There's so much going on down here that I think over the course of the next year or two, I think a lot of that stuff is going to disappear [crosstalk 00:30:40] because we're looking for space. So, yeah. I just see that that's going to change. So, this is a business podcast, so other people that listen to this are entrepreneurs and business-minded people. What are some resources that you've used, say over the last 12 or 24 months? Books, or chamber, or anything along those lines that you found helpful, that you'd point people to?

Chakli:    Well, one of the first things of course in business is ... well, in my business anyway, you really need to find great people. The second thing is, of course, since the get-go I always looked to other restaurants to see what they do very well, what they do very bad, and what successful restaurants do, and what bad restaurants did. So from that, obviously we study that and try to do the best we can out of that. And even then, it's not good enough. So it's always a fluid situation because the business is very competitive, there's always somebody new coming in with new ideas. And especially down here, the demographics, we also look to the demographics and talk to people.
For instance, we have an advisory board that are outside people, that we sit down with, because they give us their side, their view, their perception, their feeling about how they look into the building. We always look out. They look into, and we are big on walking around the tables and asking them: Are they from Mobile? Why did they come here? How did they come here? How did they find out? And what do they think about the concept? And we put them at ease and get this feedback that is tremendous. We're only as good as the last meal served. You could be as good as you can be, somebody walks in and has a bad meal [crosstalk 00:32:48] or bad service-

Marcus:    They're never coming back and that is their last [crosstalk 00:32:50].

Chakli:    Either they don't come back or their confidence is shaken very badly. We have tremendous following at NoJa and we get a lot, a lot, a lot of leeway. We get a long leash, but if we snap that leash at one point, even they will be disappointed and-

Marcus:    Yes, there is a restaurant on the Eastern shore that I used to frequent quite often, and I was talking to my father last night, because my parents live here now, they live in Historic Malbis, and I won't name the restaurant because I wouldn't want to do that to them, but he said, "Well, we went there again and had another bad experience." That was two strikes. He's not going back. It's a difficult industry that you've chosen to go into but kudos to you for the success that you've had.

Chakli:    That's why we go from table to table. At the very least, you want to minimize, and I think people will appreciate it very much, and you're concerned, you come there. I mean, things happen, which shouldn't, and any of those mistakes we make is just a negligent thought process. It's not a mistake. It's just very stupid, but at least when I come to you and say, "Marcus, how is your steak? Is it cooked well? Is the temperature proper? Is the sauce good? The vegetable's tender?" Not, "Is everything okay?" Because if everybody comes around and says, "Everything okay, guys? Everything good?" "Well, yeah. It's okay." So we read the faces, and that's how we train our folks.
And then we go, "Mr. Marcus, how's your steak?" And you go, "Well, you know, now that you asked me, my steak is not quite cooked. It didn't have the flavor ... " or it's too tough or something like that. "Let me get you another [crosstalk 00:34:35]." "No, I don't feel ... I don't want it anymore. I'm done. I just can't eat. I'm disappointed." But then you'll go away and say, "You know what? I had a bad steak. I had a bad day, but at least they tried. They came, they understood, they knew what was going on, they wanted to fix it and they're going to fix it." And then we'll give you a gift card or we'll call you back, and come on in and ... you'll go, "You know what? Let me go back there." Then we'll make sure that you get served right, and that's what it is.

Marcus:    That's applicable in any business, checking and [crosstalk 00:35:10] making sure things are going well, making sure that the client or customer, depending on the business, is doing well. And if not, doing everything that you possibly can to rectify that situation. So ...

Chakli:    But doing our job today is becoming exceptional rather than normal. Not too long ago some gentleman called me from Montgomery, and I thought for sure he was going to complain because he mentioned something about trying to get in before 9:30. We close at 9:30 and a lot of times, places, they start putting chairs up or they have this, "Well, we're going to be closing in 15 minutes, but we can take you," kind of thing. And he said, "Yes, we tried to get in and we saw that the place was empty ... " and I thought, "Oh my God, what's gonna happen now?" He says, "I just want to tell, when we got there, your managers and servers said, 'No, come on in.' They insisted that we come in because we didn't want to impose on them." And I thought, "Wow. Whew."
Yes, because he said, "I didn't want to impose on them." I thought to myself, "Oh my God, what do you mean 'impose'? We're open 'til 9:30. That's our business." So the manager and the server asked the kitchen to stay, they stayed, they opened and served these people to the fullest. And he calls me to tell me that, and I thought, "How shall I feel about that?" On the one hand, I'm grateful that they did get in, but on the other hand, I thought, "What's going on today?" Anything good becomes the abnormal. Like when somebody saves somebody out of the river, all of a sudden they become a hero-

Marcus:    But that was their job.

Chakli:    ... but that is something you do. And in the food business, to let somebody in 15 minutes before we're closing, oh my gosh, that is ... What do you mean? We even let people in right at 9:30 because we're open until 9:30. So, that part I think is easy for us because business people, people that are in high-stress situations come to a restaurant or a bar or something, called on, take me away. And we try to do that [crosstalk 00:37:14].

Marcus:    They're there for the experience as much as anything [crosstalk 00:37:16]

Chakli:    At the same time, you gotta take care of your internal customers, which is your employees, and that is very difficult, especially nowadays with the new generation. They have a very, very, very, short attention span and very, very, low threshold of motivation ... reward. Because you can reward them and that reward goes really quick. They want the next stuff. In the olden days, when you gave me a bicycle, that bicycle lasted five years. You gave me a chocolate bar, my God, thank you. You [inaudible 00:37:48] somebody today and you give them a chocolate bar and they go, [crosstalk 00:37:51] "What the hell is this?"

Marcus:    "Why'd you give me this?" Yeah.

Chakli:    You have to give them an iPhone or maybe a car or ... you know. When I turned 16 I got a bicycle, not a car. But anyway, so those are the things that we look at and stay on, and of course, we always look to people like you that have the pulse on the trends and demographics and what makes people tick. So ...

Marcus:    Well, lets kinda wrap up by ... Where can people find you? So tell them the website addresses, maybe Facebook pages. Also where the restaurants are located.

Chakli:    Okay. Well, Saisho is two doors down, which is on Dauphin Street, which is the main street in downtown Mobile. We're at 455 Dauphin Street, which is three blocks from the Cathedral, west, and one and 1/2 blocks south of Wintzell's and Chuck's Fish, which is all brand-new. Wintzell's is a fixture of Mobile. [crosstalk 00:38:57] The restaurant is called Saisho. Again, pronounced "sigh" like a relief and "show" like a movie show, meaning "the first of its kind or premier" and this befits it. NoJa is located about three, four minutes east on North Jackson and it's [crosstalk 00:39:21] been there ... right off of Dauphin.
We've got a nice sign and everything there. It has a great patio that people don't know about, and we're doing a lousy job marketing. The patio is absolutely ... it's full wall includes, but it's way open to the top, nice vegetation. Typical Mobile vegetation there and very "New Orleans-ey." That's what people say it is. We have 14-foot doors, wooden doors, original ones that go to the outside. We're open Tuesday through Saturday in both places, only for dinner right now.

Marcus:    I'm going to work on you. You need to change that for Saisho, [crosstalk 00:40:03] but we'll talk afterwards.

Chakli:    So, NoJa's been there 13 years and still going strong. Saisho's been there two years. Well, it's going to be two years in November, and we're working hard at it.

Marcus:    Nice. And they can find those by just Google searching and finding you on Facebook and stuff [crosstalk 00:40:28].

Chakli:    Saisho, gastropub, Noja Mobile. On the website we are Instagram, we are Facebook obviously. Just type in the name and it just [crosstalk 00:40:37] pops right up.

Marcus:    Yeah, they're pretty unique so ... Well, I want to thank you again for coming on the podcast. To wrap up, any final thoughts or comments you'd like to share?

Chakli:    Well, thank you very much. First of all, I don't think I've ever done a podcast, this is the first time ever, and I'm really pleased that you actually have come downtown because it says something, especially living in the Eastern shore because a lot of people just consider it to be God's country, and once they leave they don't come back. But I think they have reasons to come back for more, just the restaurant [crosstalk 00:41:09]

Marcus:    Well, the food down here is incredible so move your business down here just to have cool places to eat but-

Chakli:    And to live too. I mean, it's gonna be great.