Hi everybody, welcome to podcast Episode #2 of Season 2 of the Mobile Alabama Business Podcast. My name is Marcus Neto and I’m your host. This is a podcast about the people behind the business community here in the Mobile area. I’d like to thank you for spending time with us today.
In this episode we had a chance to sit down with Von Larson from Von’s Bistro. If you have not eaten at Von’s then I would highly suggest you move it to the top of your list. Von is an incredible chef and her daily specials are ridiculously good. And no, she did not pay me to say that.
Anyway, in this episode we talk about where von learned to cook. What some of her early influences were. How she just jumped straight into being a restauranteur. And what suggestions she would have for someone thinking of going down that path.
So let’s dive right in with Von Larson
Marcus: Welcome to the podcast, Von.
Von: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Marcus: Yeah. Well, before we get started, I just wanted to say and I don't do this with everybody. I am your biggest fan. I think what you conjure up in kitchen is magical and I have become known amongst a lot of my friends that I'm the resident foodie even though I am not anywhere near a foodie. I may lose a lot of my seats at a lot of the restaurants down here by saying this, but by far, you are the place that I am telling people to eat at because I think it's just phenomenal what you're able to do.
Von: Thank you so much. That's a huge compliments.
Marcus: Yeah, and that's not just me sucking up.
Von: I love it that you bring new people each time because I just don't do any advertisement. Most of the people that I get are people that bring other people like their friends and their family. The next thing you know, their friends and family bring other people. Then I'm just meeting everybody.
Von: It's just great because I've met some really great friends throughout the process of just cooking for people. It's like you're just coming into my house which initially is my restaurant but I did it to where it's an open kitchen to where you would come in and I could talk to you, I could see you. I'm not behind this big blocked off wall.
Von: In case I'm jammed out and I'm crazy, you can still wave and say bye and I'd nod at you. It's just a great thing we've got going on.
Marcus: You and Paul have a very neat thing going on down there. I would just say, if you're listening to this podcast and you have not eaten at Von's Bistro, then by all means, get yourself down there as quickly as possible because it is really some good food. Tell me a little bit of back story. You and I have talked quite a bit. You were not born in Mobile but your lineage is much further away than that, so why don't you tell us the story, your bio and where you came from.
Von: I'll tell you how I got the southern accent. Originally, I was born in Laos and I was there for a year. My parents are both very educated, an engineer and an accountant. Of course, everyone knows Laos is a communist place to live. On the whim, my dad woke up one day and said, "We're crossing the borders to the Thai refugee camp." My mom is like, "You're crazy. We have a 10-month old daughter." He is like, "Well, just give her something to where she sleeps through the night." He paid off some guys to get us through to the boarder.
Then when we were in the Thailand refugee camp for I want to say about two years. Then my dad's brother who we consider my grandpa because my dad's dad passed away, sponsored us. He got us with a church. He was a guy named Mr. Jay. He sponsored us and we came off Port Arthur, Texas is where we landed. We were there for a year and then we moved to Balabatry because of the sea food.
Marcus: Very good.
Von: Then we eventually worked in the sea food town since I was 10 years old. This is completely against child labor laws, but that was normal. Everybody worked since the age of 10. If you can sit in a chair, you're going to work.
Von: I worked every weekend, every summer, and it was crop process and plants, oyster plants, whatever. That's how we made a living. We did that for a good I want to say 10 years and then we eventually bought a sea food company. Then after we bought the sea food company for about five years, Katrina came, 14 feet of water. We just decided not to rebuilt. It just went south, everything was import sea food. That's why I promote gold sea food as much as I do. After that, I started getting into adjusting work. I bought a building in Balabatry and I just held onto it because it was a good investment.
Then one day when they wanted me to move from my adjusting to Texas, I was like, "I'm not moving. I'm going to setup some roots." I turned an old Diesel machine shop, which my husband said he wouldn't even let cats live there, into a restaurant. That was my first restaurant in 2012.
Von: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Marcus: No real experience in the food industry?
Marcus: No fancy smancy CIA degree, no offense [PDP 00:04:25] who was a former guest.
Von: Actually super funny, the super funny part was whenever I was building out my restaurant, I was like, "You have to have a hand sink. You have to have a grease strap." I never knew any of this. These were all outside expenses I didn't know. I've never even stepped foot into a kitchen of a restaurant, never served, never was the dish boy, never washed dishes. When you grow up poor, you watch your parents cook whatever they have in your kitchen, that's like watch and shop. They give you that basket and you have 10 ingredients and you're going to make something of that.
Von: That's what I learned to do. Then when I was 10 years old, I learned to cook, do laundry, do everything at the same time so everything was done before my parents came home because I had a younger sibling I took care of. Then I grew up in this ... When you live in a low income apartment complex, you have your neighbor who is Mexican and then you have another neighbor who is Italian and you go and eat in each other's houses. You watch their families cook. That's how you learn to cook. My food is just ...
Marcus: Your food is home-cooked food.
Von: It could be Asian and Southern/whatever, just whatever I'm feeling at the moment.
Marcus: I always get the impression that it's home-cooked food but it's home-cooked food made by the Italian mom or made by the Thai mom or made by the Mexican mom.
Von: Yes, exactly.
Marcus: That's why I'm just so fascinated by it because it's not often that you find a restaurant that's going to do that array.
Von: Because most people want to stick into this box because they want to be known for the box. I just want to be known for great food. You come in Monday, you get a hamburger say, and a [flay-ma-lan-minian 00:06:07] [fo 00:06:07] which you love.
Von: Tuesdays, lasagna with usually chicken thighs and your Thai's chicken thighs. Wednesdays butt roast. I learned that from one of my other friends, moms. It just goes on and on. Thursday is pork chop with another Asian dish. You get two things, most people trust the chalkboard which is awesome because they trust me as a chef.
Marcus: I don't that I have ... Maybe a handful I have ordered off the menu.
Von: See? There you go. I love that. To me, that's the biggest compliment someone can give me where they would come and sit at the bar and they were like, "Whatever Von wants me to order, that's what I'm going to order." Especially at night time because we have the four dinner specials as well.
Marcus: Yeah. It's awesome. Obviously, owning a restaurant, I would say if there is any line of business that is rough, I mean the failure rate for restaurants is pretty astronomical.
Marcus: Kudos to you for not having any experience at all, going into that. You've transitioned from the restaurant in Balabatry, I don't know. Do you still want to?
Von: We own the vicinity. It's complement paid off. We own the building, the land, everything in this entity. We are trying to sell it at the current moment because it's just too far of a stretch to go back and forth. You'll hear a lot of companies say this, they can't find quality people to help them run it. I'm not going to have a fabulous restaurant and one that's three-star. I'm going to have a five-star all the way or I'm not going to do it. I just couldn't find good help to help me do it.
I was making great money there. It's a small town. There wasn't much competition but I couldn't put certain types of menu items and them eat it. I had to stick to this genre of food and then I got bored with that. As a career, you never want to hit this wall. You want to keep on going. That's why I opened downtown because I knew people downtown are just a little bit more of a foodie. If it's a little bit crazier, they want it.
Von: That's the reason why I hit downtown. Then also the food truck and the catering in itself is another entity. That is enough to support one family on its own. I wanted to do that really really well also. I'm currently looking for someone who wants to use it. I'll even own or finance it. I want to help somebody in their dream starting off too. It's a turn key. It's got a full kitchen. It's completely setup.
Marcus: Let me ... Because I actually have a question for you in regards that, I want you to imagine this, okay. Imagine there is a person right now listening to this who absolutely loves to cook. They don't have the fancy degrees or anything along those lines. They don't have a degree from culinary school. They don't have experience in fine dining establishments. If you were talking to that person and wanted to encourage them on the journey to being an entrepreneur, a restaurateur, what would you say to that person?
Von: The biggest thing is lead, lead by example. I'm in there sweating, cooking, prepping. If you lead by example, usually the people ... If you get good people in, they'll follow you and they'll respect you for that. You'll have a heck of a crew. If you have a really good crew that respects you and it flows, it's just this positive energy, it's just one big family, then you can make it. You can make it. If you don't get good people in that will help you oversee your dream, you won't make it no matter how good you are because I had to learn that. Eventually, you have to delegate some and you have to teach them to be as good as you are because you'll see a lot of people in the restaurant business and they'll burn out within two or three years because they're trying to do everything their selves.
They'll never expand. They'll never expand because they are too scared to teach somebody their ways of doing it like it's a secret or something. It's cooking. It's just spreading, while if you tell somebody a method, they're either going to get it or they're not. Within a week of teaching somebody, they're not going to get it, then let them go. Don't just keep trying to teach somebody who is not going to make it. That's the first thing. Then make sure you have plenty of money. That's another thing. Ask business. I'm self-funded. When I did adjusting work, I made $300 a day, saved, saved, saved. My dad helped me out. He gave me a $50,000 loan which I've repaid. It's hard to get a business loan especially for a commercial restaurant.
Marcus: Restaurant, that's like a big X stamped on the file.
Von: Denied. Boom. That's reason why, like I was saying, if someone came along and they had a little bit to put down, I will work with them because I know how hard it is because really a lot of blood, sweat and tears. I didn't even sleep the whole night before. It's just one of those things that you do need a business plan but more than anything, you need to be fully prepared and be willing to work the long hours and lead by example because if people see that, if people see your passion, they'll be willing to wait an extra 10 minutes or understand that you're training someone new and something gets messed up. Don't sugarcoat it. If you're understaffed, be like, "I'm so sorry. I'm a little bit understaffed. We'll get it out to you."
People just hate being lied to. That's the biggest thing. You come into it and you're just like, "Sorry, I'm training someone new," they got you, another five minutes; or make it right. If you do send out something that's wrong, apologize and make it right. That's the biggest thing.
Marcus: Absolutely. Yeah.
Von: Because you will mess up no matter how many times I cook something. I finally burnt something. In all my years, it is sealed to this. I did it I think Wednesday because I accidentally turned it 500 degrees. I was like, "What is that smell?" I finally did it. You will eventually mess up.
Marcus: No, it's cool. Wise advice from somebody that's in the trenches for sure. I think we've already established owning a restaurant is not an easy line of work. Are there areas of the business that you're putting a lot of effort into? What are you, as a restaurateur dealing with right now? Is it staffing or marketing or expanding? What?
Von: Right now, I'm trying to staff a little bit more. I'm getting into my busy season. Usually spring, summer, I have a lot of extra food truck events, weddings. Because everyone, whenever the weather is nice, they want to book the food truck. Then everyone is getting married in the month of March and May.
Marcus: May, yeah.
Von: In that type, and then, I'm getting bigger in like I do drop offs for pharmaceutical companies in the morning. I rent out my place Monday through Wednesday night for pharmaceutical dinners. Even though I'm not open Monday through Wednesday night, I'm still doing gigs. If I'm not doing gigs, I'm preparing quotes for gigs. I can go every night home and I'm doing two or three quotes to get potential gigs. It's always going and always going. I just really need people to help me in the process because I never want to send someone out on gigs because for every gig that I do, every even that I do, I get at least two more events.
With that being said, I always want to over staff. Sometimes I'll even send out a little bit more food than what they paid for just to make sure that it's a great experience. If it's a food truck event that I know I'm going to get killed on, I'll send out four people because my line would move so much faster and they will remember that my line is the fastest moving line. Because at the end of the day, you're not going to stand in the hot sun for 50 minutes to get something from a food truck.
Von: You'll stand for 10 minutes.
Von: I have a whole system. I have a system of getting food out. I can turn my restaurant three times over because I had a system.
Marcus: For a lunch?
Von: For lunch. Yeah.
Marcus: That's pretty insane.
Von: You never usually ... Even when you come in, you never usually wait more than 10 minutes.
Von: You might have to wait 5 to 10 minutes to get seated but by the time you walk somewhere else, you could have already ate by then.
Von: We have a complete system on everything that we do. Right now, we're just trying to staff a little bit more so we can send out ... For example, Thursday, I have a drop off at Morgan Stanley. Then I have a food truck event for 150 people for lunch and my normal lunch, which Thursday and Friday is usually my craziest lunches. Then I also have to prep out for dinner because we're doing doubles those days. I just need a little bit more help. That's fine to say.
Marcus: A little ... She is just making it seem like it's so simple. You just named off a bunch of stuff and you're making me tired just thinking about all this.
Von: Yeah, exactly. You have to do all this before 11:00
Von: We make everything from scratch. We're cutting chicken. We're cutting beef, cutting vegetables, cutting fish, filleting fish, making sauces, making sure we have enough of all the American specials. My cooks get their 8:00 in the morning, 8.
Von: Sometimes 7:30. It's not like one of these places where the cooks just come in at 11:00 and open up because everything is out of the freezer. We're there at 7:30 to 8:00 in the morning.
Von: When I drop my kid off, I'm at work.
Von: That's what it takes to make everything fresh though.
Marcus: One of the questions I always ask is what does a typical day look like for you? I know it changes from day to day but you mentioned you're normally getting in at 7:30 or 8:00. What does the rest of that day look like?
Von: Well, usually, sometimes I don't get there until 9:30 because I go work out at the YMCA because that's my personal time. What we usually do the night before or the afternoon before is we'll make a list. I have two other chefs that are with me. They divide and conquer until I get there. Then once we get there, we make sure everything is done. The line is completely done. We have a talk with the ... We have an outside manager who helps me out a lot. We talk about whatever events we've got going on. We have a little meeting at 10:45 on the specials because sometimes they change. I really blog in big into social media. There is a usually a picture of what you're going to get so your mouth is watering before you get there.
Von: I try to make sure that's posted by 9:30 to 10 so it gives people more time. Just to make sure everything is settled, the dust is settled. I have four servers on the floor at all times. I have a hostess, I have an expo person and I have a manager. I believe in cutting a little bit on my payroll for everyone to have a good experience if that makes any sense because that continues my journey of staying there, stability in my business.
Von: Because you'll go into a business and ... I've heard people walk out of other restaurants because it's taken them 15 minutes just to get their drink.
Marcus: Yeah, I've had experiences where it's taken a long time. It's amazing ...
Von: You try to be patient but at the end of the day, you're on a timeline.
Marcus: Well, you know me. I'm a fairly patient person but there have been times where that patience has been tried. The last thing that you want to do in today's day and age with social media and the reach, I can at the push of a button, reach thousands of people.
Von: On something that you don't like.
Marcus: And something I don't like.
Von: Most people will post something they don't like rather than something that they like or a good experience on. We've been lucky to have 88 reviews and they're all five stars. All of our reviews, people are actually writing a full paragraph, adding my name, adding Paul's name, adding my server's names. They're taking the diligence to do that. I mean I've never in my whole life even post a review about anybody. It tickles me that they're writing anything at all. Then we have really good reviews on yelp and some other places. Every time someone comes in, I always thank them for coming in even if they come in three, four times week. I always thank them for coming in just because they could have chose anywhere else to eat. Then I always ask them how they found out about us, and usually, that's through another family member or a friend or ... Usually, it's never through social media or advertisement or anything like that.
Von: So that's great.
Marcus: That's cool. Is there resource or anything that helped you get started especially with this location downtown. Was there anything that helped you make that jump from the restaurant that you had in Balabatry and it could be books, organizations like school or the mobile chamber. Is there any kind of resource that you can remember that has been really helpful to you
Von: Well, the reason why ... Honestly, downtown was pure mistake. Whenever we have food truck Friday, remember some of these things, we did that?
Von: We were just wrapped around the fountain and it was just ridiculous amount of people in ... For the two hours that I went there, that was the whole day I did in [balu 00:19:45]. I was like, "This is pretty cool." Out of curiosity, I told my real estate agent just to see if there is anything out there because I thought it was just ... I was like, "There is no way I'm going to be able to afford rent," blah blah blah. She is like, "Well, there is this place." She showed it. I loved the exposed brick walls. I'm a sucker for old midtown. I'm actually in a midtown right now. She showed it to me and I met with the landlord, the landlord actually came out to my restaurant and we negotiated a really good lease. It's cheaper than my house now, put it that way.
Marcus: That's cool.
Von: It was off the beat and pack. St. Michael's is not Dotham Street.
Von: It's not anywhere around restaurants. My husband is like, "I'm not sure if we should do this because it's off the beat and pack." I was like, "Who eats lunch? Business people. You see that RSA Tower right there?" I said, "If you get 10% of that RSA Tower, we're good to go. That's all we really need. Our place isn't quite that big anyways to accommodate more than 100 people." He was like, "Okay, I trusted you in the first venture. Let's just go with this one again."
When we talked to our landlord, he really helped us out because he believed in our vision. He wasn't greedy about what we could do. He saw that we had a future there because it was abandoned for a little while. We put $100,000 in that place. We made it look like Old Mobile. We made friends with Fred with the Mobile Alliance. We made friends with a lot of people in the process to help us through because from the day we signed our lease to the day we opened, it was six months. Somebody said, "Von, who were you sleeping to get opened in six months?" Because that never happens in the restaurant business.
Von: It's usually about a year. You can ask anybody that does it because ...
Marcus: Which is a long time to carry all that, yeah.
Von: Yes. You have to carry a load of funds. Then I would say, if I anything, they would streamline the permit process of it. It would help so many more businesses. You've talked about this because we have a lot of friends who tried to open businesses in Mobile. It's just like if you went to Disney World or if you went to ... Me being an adjuster before, that was my trade. I had a file of people that I was responsible for. I feel like if you go downtown, Fred is going to be responsible for this district of Mobile. You go talk to Fred. If you're on this part of Mobile, you go talk to Susan and she is going to take care of you. My only downfall was when I went there, I was talking to someone different.
Marcus: There was no historical context.
Von: Yeah. They didn't know with my process and there were no notes about it. That's why I always sent my husband because he can talk to anybody and make them feel like they're on the same track. I never went downtown and talked to anybody. I tried to stick to the same person, that's the biggest thing is when you're trying to do the permit process and the building out process, make sure you make friends with one person and stick to that one person.
Von: Make a relationship because they will help you through the process because the process is not easy compared to building in the county and building in Mobile. You can ask for an inspection, especially with the restaurant, there are so many inspections. There is your fire and there is your hood. There is the Mobile County Health Department. There is the actual building permits. There is so many people, electrical, plumbing, everything. You have to ask for an appointment for them to come strategically so you can move on to the next trade. You will get so backed up if they don't come or if you're not there or you don't strategically line them all up.
That's the only reason why we're opened in six months. I was down there getting my business license Friday afternoon, before I opened up Monday. That's how close I was. I worked all throughout the weekends, opened up on Monday. You just have to ... Don't take no for an answer. People tell you no, and I always take three bids, take three bids on everything.
Von: Talk to them about your business. They will probably help you out a little bit. A lot of people that I deal with are the same people I deal with in the [Baliu 00:24:10] because they know that me and my husband are such advocates for them. They might cut me a couple of grand off of electrical or a couple grand off of plumbing. I send them business like hand over this, and they tell me all the time, "I'm not charging you for coming out to look at your house AC because you don't send me five people."
Marcus: That's awesome.
Von: It's just a rotation of helping each other out especially other small businesses because it's such a hard ... Who goes into the business for themselves? You have to be mentally crazy to do it sometimes, I feel like, because you're never ever off.
Von: Like my husband says that I have to take melatonin just to go to sleep at night because I'm always thinking of ideas for recipes or just something else.
Von: He is like, "Sometimes, you just got to turn it off."
Marcus: Now, it's not easy. With my wife and I have our own businesses, so I definitely understand what you're saying because I mean you're ventures, you're talking about the business.
Marcus: What happened and when you go away on vacation, oftentimes, you're brainstorming or reading a book for the business and so on and so forth. Yeah, there is never any real downtime. There is an old adage and I don't remember what the source of this is, but it says, "If you knew everything that you needed to know in order to be a business owner before you got started, you would never go down that path because it is such a crazy wild ride." You have to have a little bit disillusionment, a little bit of craziness and maybe just a touch of arrogance to go into business for yourself because you have to just learn things as you go and just be really adaptable.
Von: I read somewhere because me and my husband read a lot too because we have the old school bookshelves and stuff like that in midtown. Somewhere, it was called, "Success is lease and rent is due everyday." You got to go in with that mindset.
Marcus: That's good.
Von: There is people who are already successful but they're challenging their selves on other ventures just because they like to keep their mind going all the time. There has been days where I'm not that busy but I don't ... I try to pep up my crew because I got to let them know that, "Hey, you got to still keep busy mentally and not let people know that you're not busy." Because it'll come back around. I don't know the downtown spectrum yet of how many months it's not so crazy or what months are super crazy. I'm just not getting that full force of what months the convention comes. I'm not quite there. Does [anger 00:26:59] have an event or something? I'm just like, "Be prepared." I'm always prepared no matter ...
Marcus: Because you never know what's going to walk through the door.
Von: Never, never ever will you know what's going to happen, so I'm always prepared for two days on prep. They're like ... They're looking at me like, "Why are we doing all this?" I was like, "First of all, I'm paying you. You need to stay busy the whole time. Second of all, you never know what's going to happen."
Von: When you work for me, you get paid more than most people. It's not Waffle House pay or Crackle Bill will pay or whatever. I gave raises twice since I've been there but you're going to stay busy the whole time.
Von: There is not a question if and ... You can talk and move your hands at the same time. I talk and move my hands at the same time. I'm taking phone calls, sending your quote out. It's just what it is. My vendors know to come in before 11 or I'm not talking to them.
Von: That's just my business.
Marcus: All right, so switching gears just a little bit. I think we weren't recording at this point in time. We were talking about when you go into the Asian restaurant and you see the family over on the side and they're not eating what's on the menu, okay.
Marcus: You said you don't really usually eat what's on your menu just because you've probably been around it and eating it so often that you're wanting something different, right?
Von: Correct. Correct.
Marcus: What is your idea of a great meal? If you were to go home tonight and it was just to be laid out in front of you, what would that be?
Von: Oh my gosh, we were just talking about this. It would be authentic Laotian food, authentic. It would be stuff that my dad would cook. When I was pregnant, my dad was probably like, "You're so crazy," because I would always give him this list of stuff I wanted him to cook throughout the week because I didn't want to eat nothing but his cooking because that's what I craved.
Marcus: What is that like? Because most people aren't going to know what that is.
Von: Okay, so first off is like a Thai salad, it's called larb. I don't know if people ... I think I gave you a little bit that one time.
Marcus: That was good, yeah, it was really good.
Von: Yeah. It's light and fresh and you can use chicken, pork, or whatever. You saute it and once you saute, add a little bit of fish sauce because Thai food is savory, spicy, acid, sweet. It's like a little bit of everything. It's a little bit of lime, a little bit of fish sauce, a little bit of palm sugar, a little bit of Thai pepper's cut up into it, thinly sliced red onions, whole bunch of herbs, mint, cilantro and everything is thinly sliced. Then actually you roast some rice. That's the texture in it. You just mix it all in.
Then a traditional Laotian meal is always accompanied by sticky rice which most people don't know what sticky rice is. It's steamed rice that you can buy from the Asian market. It's the worst thing that you should eat because most people get diabetes from it because it's sweet steamed rice.
Von: Everything is eaten with your hands. You don't use any utensils at all. The rice is your barrier, like your fork. You go in and use it to get your larb. Then another thing is I really like spice, so it's a green papaya salad. You actually use an old school mortar and pestle. You start that off with garlic, peppers. You shred green papaya, you put that in, grate tomatoes, fish sauce and the same thing, the whole pungent sweet, sour, spicy, that's what you try to get. That's the flavor you try to get. Now, it's not the best thing for you to eat if you're fixing to go somewhere. It's a house dish.
Von: Because breath-wise and everything, it's just all this stuff going on. Then I would fry something like some chicken wings or something. I would do a light dredge. Most people can do this at their house, most people don't know this but if you take chicken wings and you marinate it and then you just do straight in to just corn starch and you let it freeze, don't touch it, let it freeze, and then do your oil, it gives this crystallization on the chicken wings, amazing, the best wings that you ever eat.
Marcus: Is that ... We can cut this out if you don't want to share it. Twice cooked chicken that you all do, is that how you do that?
Von: No. I actually don't do that because you don't really need it but I do it if I have time to do it.
Von: Does that make sense?
Von: That's what I actually want with the food truck event. At the food truck event, and I cooked that, and David Holoway was like, "How the heck did you get that chicken?" Because he is a big foodie too. It works actually a little bit better with wings than it does with thighs because thighs have a little bit more meat. If you have the time do it, do it with wings. It would change your world. You don't have to twice cook it if you do it that way.
Marcus: Because your twice cooked chicken, make you ... Yeah, that fresh.
Von: I love chicken thighs and wings because I like dark meat.
Von: We actually grew up to where we didn't waste nothing. When he was cutting my chicken breast and stuff, he would save the fat and make the homemade chicken cracklings.
Von: I would eat that with sticky rice too and it was like, oh my god.
Marcus: How are you not 300 pounds?
Von: Because I have to work out in the morning, I told you I go to the Y, I work out just to eat. Me and my husband would be 300 pounds without a doubt.
Marcus: Which is my next question, what do you like to do in your free time? What hobbies do you have?
Von: I actually like to work out.
Marcus: I do, yeah.
Von: I actually like to work out. I run with my dog in the morning. He is a 100-pound white golden retriever and he has to be exercised or he gets crazy. I'm live in the town so I run with my dog 30 minutes before I come to work. When I come to work, I lay out my crew. I go across the street to the YMCA and I do weights. I just zone out with my music. I actually believe it or not like to entertain. People think I'm crazy for that just because, "Why would you want go in the cold for other people?" It's more of the socializing thing, I like to drink, not as a drunk but I like to drink like flavor.
Marcus: Nice wines or something.
Von: Yes, because the way I pair my food at dinner time is I pair it with wines or with beers or with different liquors and stuff. I like having dinner parties and everyone can tell me their thoughts about it. It's like an experimental thing and everyone loves it because they're just like, "Wow, this is dinner and drinks and everything at the same thing." We play board games. We're old school. We'll even play Taboo, Clue and stuff like that.
Marcus: I need to get on that dinner party list.
Von: Yeah. You get on that dinner part because we are on the nice sun room and we do that. We're big into that and then fishing, go in the boat, being at the beach because I've always ... Laos and Thailand has beautiful beaches and beautiful waters. It's crazy that out of everywhere I landed, I landed in Texas and Alabama and we have beautiful waters too as well.
Von: I like to go fishing and be in the water.
Marcus: Just to wrap up, where can people find you?
Von: 69 St. Michael more towards Water Street across from the YMCA.
Marcus: I think that wraps it up. I just want to, again, I know this seems like I'm gushing. Gerard will vouch for me.
Von: I felt like I should have brought food. I'm so sorry.
Marcus: You should have. No, not at all.
Von: But I told you, I can't go to ... I don't know if I told you this, I tell people this all the time, I can't even go to people's parties empty-handed. Then I went to one party and I only brought half a pan of bread pudding because somebody ordered a half pan while I was cooking at the restaurant trying to get to this graduation party. I'm still to this day, people are like, "You know better to bring half a pan of bread pudding to a party," because people were already putting it away so nobody else can get it.
Marcus: That's too funny.
Von: It was the craziest thing.
Marcus: Her bread pudding is pretty stellar.
Von: I bordered out that stuff.
Marcus: Actually I'm going to say this on this podcast so that it lives on in infamy or whatever you want to say. Your chocolate kian crème brulee is just absolutely the most ridiculous thing I've ever tasted. It is so good and I am so upset with you that you don't put it on your menu more often.
Von: Every day? I might, I might ...
Marcus: Actually it's probably works out to my favor because if it was on there every time I went, I would probably 300 pounds, but yeah.
Von: That's another thing that if you're an aspiring chef or someone that's cooking, don't be afraid to experiment because who would think chocolate and kian would go together.
Marcus: It's so good.
Von: I mean there is a lot of things that I put together that people wouldn't think would go together but food is just like anything. It's just like art or music. It's just about layering and finding a common ground for someone. This past weekend, I did Mahi-mahi who was on top of pineapple fried rice and amahi was pan-seared and blackened. It was topped with a mango salsa and it was like curry cream sauce around it. It's like all these different things but logistically, you broke those down into four categories, you would never put them together but that doesn't that they don't go together. Another thing is if you're an aspiring chef, know your food cost. Look and see what's around you. Look and see what's local. Look and see what you can use. I use a lot of local people, Bill with Bill's Bacon. I'm sure he has been on here.
Marcus: Yeah. We know Bill.
Von: Use stuff that people can promote. When table goes and promote something, I have a buy-me taco and I use his pork belly. They say, "Hey, this is Bill's pork belly from [Fair-he 00:37:19]." People are more likely to support it because they know they can support someone else in adjacent to supporting me by eating this meal.
Marcus: Right. There are a lot of local artisans, if you will, that are helping restaurateurs like yourself, chefs like yourself.
Von: Yeah, another shout out John Gibson, with I think Bill's Beach by the Sea or something, a restaurant out there. He called me and was like, "Hey, I want to get all these chefs together so we could support this local farmer and tell him what you want him to plant." In that way, he is not having waste the crops. John went out of his way to actually deliver it to me. It was beautiful squash, bell peppers, some tomatoes, all these local stuff because we need to support all these entities. If we tell them what we want, they can do it because at the end of the day, I got to buy a squash and tomatoes and all that stuff anyways, I would more be inclined to buy from him. Then when my servers go into the table, she is like, "We just got this squash in today." You could taste it.
Marcus: From a local ...
Von: From a local person.
Marcus: Yeah, from a local person, so not only is it fresher, you're supporting another local business owner and all the other environmental aspects of not shipping something.
Von: They're supporting my daughter's dance lessons, not another CEO, his fourth beach house or something. You're supporting me and my family.
Von: It says a lot. You definitely don't get in this business for the money at all. There is a lot of overhead that you got to put in before you see it in a bit back. If you're smart about it, you can put a menu together that is cohesive or you can use local stuff and it's not too big. It's not too big of a menu and you could do a chalkboard. You could maximize your profits that way. That's another big thing, some people will get into this industry and they'll try to please everybody and have this four-paged menu. People don't even want to look through a four-paged menu. People know that that stuff is not made fresh. Then your inventory and your overhead is so high because in the restaurant business, margins aren't that big. You have to make sure your food costs are certain amounts. You have to make sure your labors are certain amounts. You just have to make sure everything line up a lot more because you don't get ...
Most people don't have what I have, like they have catering and they have a food truck. They have ways to make extra income if they're slow. Most people don't have that. I have that because I made that. I knew that, hey, there would be slow days. You always have to know things. You always have to make sure you stay in business. That's your goal. I tell my employees all the time, "Hey, if you want a job, you have to make sure I stay in business. You want me to do well."
Von: You want me to have a big house. You want me to have a car.
Marcus: I want you to stay in business because I want to continue eating at your restaurant.
Von: More than anything, if anybody is listening to this and they want to contact me and they need advice, I'd be more than happy to tell them because I went through a lot of trials and tribulations to get to where I am today. I'm still far away from where I need to go but me and my husband, we just have that entrepreneurship mentality. We're young. We're 30, 32. We've always worked for people who either had that or had really good managers or we've had other businesses so we knew what to do. By far, out of all my businesses that I've had, this is the hardest. I want to make sure that goes into saying. This is the hardest thing I've ever done. It's one of the most gratifying that you can get a response everyday from somebody. If I'm behind a desk, I don't know what's going on. I don't hear nobody. Nobody tells me I'm doing a good job. As humans, we want the gratification.
Marcus: We need that positive affirmation, yeah.
Von: To tell your employees that too. As much as you tell your customers how much you appreciate them, tell your employees how much you appreciate them. Don't beat them down whenever they do something wrong but say, "Hey, good job." I let my chefs come up with recipes. Now, I might not use every single one but I give them the forte to do that. Not many people will do that and not many people will ... Because the only reason why you get into this industry is because you're artistic and you like to put stuff together because you don't get into it for them money. Most chefs don't even top out at $40,000 a year.
Von: If you're supporting a family, that's not very much. They get into it because they're artistic and they want to provide a service and they like that gratification of food. If you're an owner, even if you're a sole owner of whatever restaurant you are, you need to come through and give them some type of freedom to explore that because if you don't they'll leave you. They'll go somewhere where they can do that.
Marcus: They want to be heard.
Marcus: They want to voice. Yeah.
Von: Yeah. Even if they are trapped in that little kitchen and they're not like my kitchen where it is an open kitchen where they get that instant gratification, I've had my chefs tipped out. That will tell you something.
Marcus: That's awesome.
Von: It's just one big thing that the restaurant industry is not made for everybody and not everyone should get into it. If you don't have great food and you're not willing to get there at 8:00 in the morning and provide a great service because the only reason why people come to eat is the food more substantial than what they can cook at their house. If it's something that they could cook at their house or get off their freezer, then why should they come out to eat with you? Why should they spend that money? Because one of the most indulgent things we do in life is go out to eat.
Von: Because it's not a necessity, it's something that we indulge our self with. It's a celebration, someone getting married or something getting graduation or somebody's birthday or something. We make it super special because even on our menu, when we take a reservation, we're like, "What are you celebrating?" We put happy anniversary or happy birthday or we put out flowers. We make sure that server, whoever is serving you acknowledges that. If you're having an anniversary or a birthday, you get a free dessert.
Von: We don't even check your ID. Now, everyone is going to come and lie about their birthdays.
Marcus: No, not at all. Be honest people.
Marcus: It is really cool to see the successes that you all have had over the short period of time that you've been downtown. I think it's very cool of you to offer to answer questions if somebody out there has a desire to follow you down this path as far as starting their own business, starting their own restaurant or something along those lines. Anyway, to wrap up, I just want to say I appreciate you coming on.
Von: Thank you for letting us be here.
Marcus: Yeah. This has been phenomenal.
Marcus: Just, yeah, I'm completely messing up my normal outro, but I just think it's phenomenal. I appreciate your willingness to sit with me and share your journey as a business owner, an entrepreneur. It was great talking with you.
Von: Awesome. Thank you, Marcus.