S3E22: Cris Eddings with Chuck’s Fish and Five Bar

Transcript:

If you follow Blue Fish on social media, you know we have a favorite Friday lunch spot. Today we're pleased to have Cris Eddings, a partner with the restaurants Chuck's Fish and, our favorite, Five Bar. Cris gives some great insights into how this area was picked for their newest locations and what he loves about the area. And seriously, if you haven't tried the cheeseburger at Five Bar, go grab one. The Blue Fish team will see you there on Friday!

Cris:        My name is Cris Eddings. I am a partner of the restaurants Five and Chuck's Fish in downtown Mobile.

Marcus:        That’s awesome. I’m so happy to have you on the podcast.

Cris:        Thank you.

Marcus:        I’m going to start by saying this man represents Five and that they have the best cheeseburgers I’ve ever eaten in my life. So by all means, if you haven't eaten there and you're listening to this, make sure to get down to Five and have a cheeseburger and have a strawberry lemonade. Yes, contrary to what it sounds they are alcoholics strawberry lemonades. Thanks Abe for making me say that but they are delicious. So anyways, it’s great having you on the podcast.

Cris:        Thank you for having me here.

Marcus:        Good to have you here. So the way that we normally start these things is to get some back story of who the individual is because we like to kind of have an understanding of how you got where you are. So why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and where you grew up, maybe where you went to school, that kind of thing.

Cris:        Sure. Well, I’ll use brevity. The story is long but I was born in …

Marcus:        This not a brief podcast.

Cris:        I was born and raised in Tokyo, Japan, and my father was in the military. My mother is Japanese but I come from a line of restaurants. My family in Tokyo, they've owned several restaurants for generations. They’ve been fortunate to be successful there with the Japanese cuisine, which is not easy to do in Tokyo. So I was … when I was 12 years old, I moved to the United States in specifically to Destin, Florida which is when people ask me where I’m from I claim that as home.

Marcus:        That’s my favorite place on the planet.

Cris:        Oh it’s incredible there. There’s not many of us from there that call it home. Since then, I went and graduated from the University of West Florida which is right over in Pensacola and did a couple of odds and ends jobs in the internet field after I graduated, but ultimately in 2002 is when I got into the restaurant industry, and worked for who is a man named Charles Morgan at a restaurant called Harbor Docks in Dustin. That was gosh 2002. That’s 15 years ago and fast forward to today, Charles and I, we partner in 10 restaurants at this point.

Marcus:        So you have locations in Dustin here, Tuscaloosa. Where else are some of the other locations?

Cris:        We have locations in Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, Athens, Georgia, Knoxville, Tennessee, Chattanooga, Tennessee and Mobile and Dustin, Florida of course.

Marcus:        Are those all Five or they Chuck’s and Five or …?

Cris:        We have six of the Five locations and three of the Chuck's Fish locations.

Marcus:        Now it’s really cool. We've had a couple of people on that are restaurateurs that have multiple locations. So people on were Panini Pete as most people would know. He’s currently growing his empire. I can't believe I’m going to forget the name, five guys …

Speaker 1:    Oh Seth.

Marcus:        Seth, yeah. They owned all the rights to all the Five guys restaurants in like the southeast I think. It was a huge number but it seems like the model there if you’re really going to make it in the restaurant business because it isn’t … I know it's not an easy industry to be in is to get it down with a restaurant or two and then multiply that out, because having one restaurant you basically own your job. If you have multiples, then you got a business. Right?

Cris:        Yeah, and it's tricky. A good friend of ours Bill Norman who founded the Original LongHorn once told us of the most important restaurant … if you get into a multiple locations situation, the most important restaurant is your second one. That’s the only time you grow about 100%. It’s going to make or break what happens after that is your second one if you're into multiple restaurant type.

Marcus:        Shows all the weak links.

Cris:        It does. It also shows that if your first one just wasn’t a fluke. That wasn’t an anomaly. It’s been real interesting. The difference with us is although I say we six Five’s and three Chuck's, we individually own and operate all of them. We have no intention or even thoughts of franchising or anything like that. We just don't want to sacrifice integrity that comes with owning and operating something yourself and putting your heart and soul into each location. Hopefully having each location being accepted into that local community because we don’t just choose towns just because we think we’re going to make a lot of money.

We choose towns because we think they're great towns. It’s the people that come along with those towns, in particular, Mobile. This place is unbelievable. We knew about it before we opened restaurants in Mobile but it held true since we opened Five a year ago and Chuck's Fish just five months ago.

Marcus:        I’m going to put a little bit of pressure on you. What do you mean by that? I feel the same way. Obviously, we invest a lot. I mean this podcast is representative of our investment in this community. What have you noticed that's different compared to … and you don’t have to name any other areas but just in general compared to other areas?

Cris:        The sense of community that you feel in particular just downtown Mobile area. We've heard about the Mobile area ever since we opened our first restaurant Tuscaloosa 2006. Then we have two stores there in Tuscaloosa. We have two in Birmingham and throughout the span of opening those restaurants and operating them, countless times have we heard people say, “You guys need to check out Mobile. You guys need to bring this restaurant to Mobile.”

We’d noticed that. There’s such a connectivity between those three towns, Mobile with Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. That was apparent too when we opened in Mobile that having businesses in those other towns, Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, it was a very nice springboard to our business here because a lot of people seem to know about our restaurants already and we’re appreciative of that, is that it was such a warm reception and opening in this town because we’re the new guys. We wanted to be accepted as locals.

Marcus:        It's been a very cool to see over the course of the last couple of years. We’ve been downtown for two years, but before that, nobody would come downtown for …

Cris:        I’ve heard that.

Marcus:        [inaudible 00:07:03] people wouldn't come downtown to have a drink or go to dinner or anything along those lines. Seven miles across that bridge, man, that’s like forever. I say that jokingly but what I've noticed over the last couple of years is I think there's even a sign out on the highway that there's like 40 plus restaurants like locally owned restaurants like I would throw you guys into that hat, down here in the downtown area. So what it's really doing is it's creating this symbiotic relationship. Like, “I may not want a burger today, but I may want to go to Von’s and have something that she's got or I may want to go to Noble South and have something that they've got or whatever the case may be, but what it's done is it's made downtown a destination place for people to go and eat.

Cris:        It has, and you’ve named several people even since this podcast began like Panini Pete or Von, even our neighbors, everybody from the bike shop to Wintzell’s to you name it, Matt LeMond over with the O’Daly’s across the street. Grant from Moe’s. I mean the unbelievable support that we have received from these people. The hardest thing to do I've noticed since being around the Southeast open towns is when you go to a town that you’re new in, it's something simple that people take for granted.

Like, “Who do I call when my plumbing is shot or who do I call if I need electric clip?” To have your neighbors say, “This is who you need to call.” Just acquiring a list like that of things that take years to develop and things to find out … anyways, the support has been unbelievable from this town. I’ll tell you we knew it was going to be a gamble and it still is, but we’ve opened several restaurants in a short period of time. So we’re betting on Mobile but I’ll tell you from what I've heard the past couple of years and with the incredible leadership that this town has particularly with the mayor who’s so business driven, we just feel like the next however many years it’s just going to keep growing and be incredible.

Marcus:        So I mentioned Five and the burgers. I would be remiss if I didn’t neglect … like I have eaten at Chuck's and it is phenomenal. I know [Ren 00:09:24] loves the sushi there as well. You guys have done really a phenomenal job with that too.

Cris:        That's really two-fold. One is that we get all of our fish from … my partner Charles Morgan, he owns the wholesale seafood market over in Dustin. So Five and Chuck’s we get all of our fish from our own market which is a luxury that a lot of the restaurants don't get to have. So it's about as fresh finfish as you’re going to get. Snapper, grouper, trigger, year round … not seasonal fish but we get fresh fish year round. Also, just the fact that I’m from Tokyo and my mother is just a phenomenal sushi chef. She learned from her older brothers and father and grandfather on the art of sushi in Japan. So when you mix together the authenticity of my mother’s sushi and mix it with the fresh seafood that my partner Charles Morgan gets, I mean it’s a magical product.

Marcus:        I don’t want to make too big of a jump, but John Frye who is the connection that got us together posted some pictures when you guys were building out Chuck’s of an Asian woman. Is that your mom?

Cris:        That is my mom.

Marcus:        That is so cool. Does she have a part in Chuck’s?

Cris:        She’s is. She’s actually a partner at Chuck's Fish in Mobile.

Marcus:        That is so cool.

Cris:        Then how it all began was Charles’s restaurant Harbor Docks in 1989, my mother put our family sushi bar into his seafood restaurant. That was 28 years ago and since then, all the Chuck’s have sushi bars. Several other of Charles’s restaurants have sushi bars in them. So that was the connection. That was the initial connection anyway.

Marcus:        That is so cool. I don't know why but I just think that that is just the coolest thing.

Cris:        That’s not to say our chefs at our restaurants particularly this one here Riza unbelievable. What a personality but just a natural talent. For him to … and he, of course, has his own creations that are on the menu. He does a …

Marcus:        [Ren 00:11:28] shaking his head. For those of you that are listening to this, he’s a phenomenal sushi chef as well.

Cris:        I wish I would have taken on some of that skill from my mom. If I was back beyond the sushi bar in the kitchen, I don’t think we’d be able to get along.

Marcus:        Let’s be honest here. Did you get the business acumen but not the chef brain acumen?

Cris:        Yup. I have no shame in telling you that that’s a true statement.

Marcus:        That is funny. Getting back on track, so you mentioned getting started by working at Harbor Docks, but when you went as a partner to go out and start your own business. What was that like? What were some of the thoughts and lessons and stuff like that that you got from that experience?

Cris:        It’s incredibly challenging. To open a restaurant or bar or really any other business but to go through lease negotiations, to work with contractors on a build out, to budget and then to assemble menus, assemble a staff, get your restaurant to where you want it to look, getting your alcohol license which is a tremendous effort, an arduous effort in any town that I’ve opened a restaurant. You got to be organized. You got to expect problems and know that you’re going to get through them at some point. Then you get to a point where you get to opening day and you celebrate. I mean “All right, we made it!” Then you turn around and say, “Oh man, now we’re open. Now we got a lot of patrons.”  So the celebration time is very short.

Marcus:        Oh no, what do we do?

Cris:        You kind of celebrate, then you kind of get back to it the next day. It’s been a tremendous experience. I will say that it’s gotten easier as the years went by, but there still to this day new challenges that I hadn’t faced in the past. It's always a learning lesson. I hope and I do learn every single day. I know I will to the day I die. So it's a …

Marcus:        It’s a good place to be.

Cris:        Yeah.

Marcus:        If you were talking to someone that was looking to get started in running their own business or a restaurant, what’s the one bit of wisdom that you would impart to them?

Cris:        Keep things simple. It's easy to get caught up in … which Five is based on. It's based on keeping things simple because life is complicated itself. As I just mentioned earlier, you're going to face problems. If you wake up every day with a positive outlook, knowing that there's going to be problems, but not focusing on that when you wake up. Wake up and say, “There’s going to be problems today and we’re going to get through them when I go to bed at night. They’re going to be solved or they’re going to be not. If not solved, we’re going to try to figure them out the next day.” Things always figure themselves out.

Marcus:        I’m listening to Grant Cardone and one of his books and I can’t remember which one it is, but one of his books he describes he wants every single problem that people have with his company to come to him, because he recognizes that problems are a chance for him to make a raving fan. So it's all a matter of perspective with the problems. Well I may have a problem, but if I approach the problem from a positive aspect of I can make this person's life so much better whether it be something was wrong with the meal or whatever the case may be, you have a chance to really kind of make somebody a raving fan. Business is all about being able to pivot and solve [crosstalk 00:15:17].

Cris:        It is. Charles, my partner, just two days ago we were going through some issue and his father was a very prominent lawyer, Chuck Morgan Junior in the ‘60s who we named Chuck's Fish after. Charles said, “Hey, my dad always told me most of the things in life you worry about, you don’t need to worry about.” I have that problem. I stress out. I’m very OCD about a lot of things. I feel like I have to stress because somebody is going to stress, but he’s right. I mean a lot of the things that I stress about at the end of the day they get figured out or we down a road a say, “Why did I worry myself to death about that?” So businesses are challenging. To anybody starting off, all I would say is just take one day at a time. Take it all in stride, expect problems, keep things simple.

Marcus:        You’ve mentioned Five being the basis of that idea. I’ve never had anybody explain it to me, but I’ve noticed that there’s five things on the menu. Is that kind of where the name comes from?

Cris:        It is. It's based on a premise of doing a few things, but doing those things well.

Marcus:        Really well.

Cris:        Right. We’re at a restaurant one day and then there were so many things on the menu which there’s nothing wrong with that. People like options, but the thought came about, the conversation come out I bet you there isn’t five things on this menu that are just absolutely phenomenal. The ideas just go back and forth. When you only have five things on the menu, we’ve noticed that the pressure is high. Guest walk into your restaurant saying, “Hm they’ve got five things. They better be pretty good.” So while the pressure is high, also the menu is simplified enough to where we can focus on everything that we’re doing.

Marcus:        Pay attention to the details.

Cris:        Exactly.

Marcus:        The more you focus on the details, the better … in anything really, the better the quality of that item might be.

Cris:        Exactly.

Marcus:        What are the last two books that you read that you found helpful?

Cris:        I don’t know these are the last two books I read but I do note two books that I've read that I often refer to whether in life or business. I read the New York Times a lot which is a great newspaper. One of them is called Setting the Table by Danny Meyer. It's more or less a reference for me in a restaurant setting. Danny Meyer is a restaurateur from New York City. He started everything from Shake Shack to Union Square.

Marcus:        Okay, I was recognizing the name for a reason.

Cris:        He’s unbelievable, but it's something that I've purchased for all of our GM's and asked them to read it. It takes hospitality to a new level. So that's certainly a book that I try to instill into my own business every day. Another book is called Shoe Dog by Phil Knight. Phil Knight, of course, is the founder and CEO of Nike. I started reading the book and I was like, “Nah, we’ll see how this goes.” I ended up not being able to put the book down because it's … and that is something I would suggest for anybody wanting to start a business because it kind of goes through in the 60s when Phil Knight started his company.

Going to Japan, buying an Asics Onitsuka Tiger shoes, bringing them back to the United States and selling them out of the trunk of his car. So when you think of that and he goes through the whole deal to where he’s at today, it’s just an unbelievable story and it’s very inspiring.

Marcus:        You’re getting me excited because literally sitting on my nightstand at home it was like the next book that I'm getting to read.

Cris:        Shoe Dog?

Marcus:        Yeah.

Cris:        It was great.

Marcus:        To start. I don’t know how I happen across that but I am looking forward to getting to that one.

Cris:        Other than that, Malcolm Gladwell. He is an unbelievable author. He’s got great podcasts. I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts lately. So I spend a lot of time on the road so that's … it makes a five our trip seem like 10 minutes if you can find a good podcast and Malcolm Gladwell is a good one.

Marcus:        Last weekend I had to pressure wash my driveway. I have a circular driveway and another extension off of that so it’s quite large. I think it took me like seven hours to do, but it felt like it was like 30 minutes because I just listen to podcasts all the time. We call it … what is it? Driving university or what was the term that we came up awhile back? It was like something along those lines because you're actually learning while you’re doing something else. So whether you’re in the car driving like you're describing or working on the yard or whatever, you're learning something and not just doing the task at hand which I really like. What are some podcasts that you like listening to?

Cris:        Well NPR has one called … the podcast series is called How I Built This. It's sort of similar to Shoe Dog book by Phil Knight, but it talks to different entrepreneurs and they go through it within a 45-minute segment interview on how their business got started. Warby Parker, Patagonia, Airbnb, they interview the people that started it. So that's a good one. Another one is by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s called Revisionist History where he takes events that need to be revisited, that deserves another look. So any particular event in history, he goes back and what the outcome is viewed by everybody is not actually how it should be viewed.

Marcus:        [crosstalk 00:21:30].

Cris:        Yes. So it’s incredibly interesting.

Marcus:        It’s cool. For whatever reason a couple of years ago, I got stuck on podcasts and here we are recording one. I find it interesting because you can … it’s almost like sitting and having a conversation with virtually with someone. I very much enjoy that. Do you have any hobbies?

Cris:        Well I spend the bulk of my time between here …

Marcus:        [crosstalk 00:22:01] between restaurants.

Cris:        I spend the bulk of my time working. I try to exercise. I’m 41 years old. I’ll be 42 soon and so it’s not as easy to eat whatever the heck you want to eat and especially …

Marcus:        I was going to say you’re a very fit restaurateur.

Cris:        Well you got to.

Marcus:        So you must be running a couple of miles a day or something?

Cris:        Yeah. I try to get it in when I can but other than that, we have our own non-profit in town.

Marcus:        Please tell people about that. I think what you all are doing there is just incredible.

Cris:        Thank you. Yeah, I appreciate that. It’s called American Lunch. What we do is it’s a 501(c)(3) non-profit charity but it’s a food based charity that’s mobile in nature. So we purchase our own food trucks and self-funded and facilitated by our own restaurant. Our own restaurants actually donate 1% of their total sales to our own non-profit. Basically, to put it short, we pack meals, get the food truck loaded up and every Monday, Wednesday, Friday we drive the truck to impoverished locations around the communities that we have restaurants in. We feed the community free lunch from 11 to 1. It’s a no questions ask type thing.

It’s been … we started in 2012. We’re up to six vehicles now. We’ve served over 100,000 free meals. First of all, it’s a blessing that we’re even able to do this. Between Charles and myself and our families, we've been so fortunate to be successful selling food for a living that it's certainly not a big deal for us to be giving some of it away. We promote to our staff, this not only helps the people that get the free meals that needed it, we employ a lot of people, the younger generation who are still very impressionable. We’re in the clear understanding that 90% aren’t going to stick around long term.

We hope they do, but we know that this is a job that … a stepping stone for them. So if we have an opportunity for us to teach these people that in business there's more to that bottom line. It's more than about padding that bottom line. If you're in a position to be able to help somebody because you’ve been fortunate to be successful, you need to go and help those people out. So the fact that we’ve … it's double-sided. It's one, we get to serve people that need the free meals, but also it's a chance for us to really try to teach our own employees that if you’re in a position to do so, you need to help somebody. Our employees they feel good about it. They’re in a great mood after they volunteer with our organization. They put their head on their pillow at the end of the night and feel good about themselves.

Marcus:        I love seeing the posts on Facebook because we do some work for Prodisee pantry over on the eastern shore. Many people don't understand just how much poverty there is in this area. It’s one of the things that drives me because I would love to see that changed. I love seeing the changes that are currently happening to Mobile because there are a lot of opportunity, but somebody once told me that if people understood just how impoverished this area was, that they would never send any money to charities that worked overseas because there’s so much work that needs to be done here.

I know from talking Deann, Prodisee Pantry that those … it crosses all kinds of lines whether you would think young, old, black, white, even at times rich, poor because people that are well-off can at times find themselves in situations where it’s like, “What the heck happened? Here I am I have … I don’t know where my next meal is going to come from.” Deann tells great stories. Not great, great is the wrong word, but she tells stories of situations like that where people will show up and you would think like, “Oh you’re here to volunteer.” They’re like, “No, actually, I'm sorry but I’m here because I have no food and no way of providing for myself.” You hear the story of what has happened and it just breaks your heart.

Cris:        Yeah, it is heartbreaking. Like I said, our employees they’ve … it's such an eye-opener what a simple bowl of soup … I mean it’s really good soup.

Marcus:        If food is any indication, it’s not just a bowl of soup.

Cris:        It’s Gulf seafood gumbo. It's red beans, rice with sausage, sweet tea.

Marcus:        Oh come on!

Cris:        Yeah, it's garlic bread and so it's … but with that, what something that's taken for granted, the effect that you see that it has on somebody to receive that it’s unbelievable and we’re fortunate. Like I said, it's not a big deal for us to be doing this. We’re not giving back to the community. We don't really like to use that term. This is just something that we should be doing.

Marcus:        Be responsible.

Cris:        Uh-hmm.

Marcus:        Where can people find you? If they want more information about the restaurants and stuff like that.

Cris:        Sure. Well, both restaurants are located on Dauphin Street, right here. Chuck’s Fish is at 551 Dauphin and Five is a block down at 609 Dauphin. We’re on either side of Wentzell's. If anybody like to volunteer for American Lunch, we just call the restaurants and we’d love to get you on board.

Marcus:        That is something that you guys …

Cris:        We definitely love the community to be involved. Just this past Wednesday, Von at Von’s Bistro actually made this soup for American Lunch truck. Yeah. It's been incredible. Just the response and even not only to the restaurants but the response of the Mobile community to American Lunch just tells you the heart and character of the town, the people in this town. So we could not be happier to be here.

Marcus:        Well I want to thank you again for coming on the podcast. Wrap up any final thoughts or comments. You’d like to make.

Cris:        No. We look forward to being in this town hopefully for years to come. We focus on great food and great service. We’re excited about Southern National coming. You know what? It's only human nature to look at it as competition coming into town. No, let's get more great restaurants coming in downtown to the already wonderful restaurants that were here when we got here. Let's just keep building that synergy and put Mobile on the map as a foodie town and a cool down and a place everybody wants to visit.

Marcus:        Absolutely. We did an interview just recently with Matt LeMond and he said that there were … I want to say he said there were like 900 bars in New Orleans because people often times ask him. He’s from New Orleans. So, “Why don't you open your bars in New Orleans?” He’s like, “Well there are 900 bars there. I wanted to stand out a little bit.” My immediate thought was, “Well there’s enough business for 900 bars to exist.” Not necessarily that don’t focus on the bars but nearly as restaurateur like there’s enough for many, many restaurants to exist.

With all the merchant’s building that’s being redone, $30 million being invested in that and I would try to figure this out in the last podcast that we just recorded but there's another residential unit that's being put in down on Water Street. Can’t remember the name of it. There's lots of residential stuff that’s going to happen down here, but that only happens because people like you are bringing restaurants and other things that people want in close proximity to the residents. So thank you, because I think if you look at how cities change. The artist come in, they make it a cool place. We’ve had that for years.

The restaurateurs come in and they worked their magic and they make it a place for people to come and to spend time. Then the businesses start coming in and the residential units start coming and stuff like. It changes the face of the city. So thank you for investing in Mobile because I think you're part of what is happening down here and it’s very …

Cris:        Well thank you very much. We couldn’t be happier to be here and we’re humbled by the reception that Mobile has given us thus far. We’re thankful to be accepted as part of the community. Yeah, we look forward to the future.

Marcus:        Yeah. Well, folks if you’re listening to this, seriously, I don't know why these folks are not open every day of the week for lunch. I will give out Cris's personal email address. No, I won’t do that and bug him, tell him that he needs to be open, but in all seriousness, if you can get there for lunch on Fridays …

Cris:        Fridays and Saturday s for lunch. We do a Sunday brunch at Five.

Marcus:        Which I’ve heard is phenomenal as well.

Cris:        We get a good crowd, yes and thanks.

Marcus:        Then dinners most nights?

Cris:        The only day we’re closed is Mondays there.

Marcus:        So if you get a chance, go there and have the cheeseburger. Dadgummit! Tell them that Marcus sent you. They’re liable to treat you a little bit nicer or something. So Cris, man, I appreciate your willingness to sit with me and share your journey as a business owner and entrepreneur. It's been great talking to you.

Cris:        It is my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Marcus:        Absolutely.