Davies Allen Accounting Firm Interviews Mo’ Bettahs Hawaiian Style
D+A: Tell me about your business. How did you guys get started? You’re originally from Hawaii, is that right?
Kalani Mack: I’ve been here since 1998 when my family moved here. We only had two kids back then, and we had just moved here to have a better life, and to be closer to my wife’s [Sarah Mack’s] family. Her family is originally from here [Utah]. Her mom and dad are actually from Sugarhouse. I just wanted to get off the Island and try something different.
Kimo Mack: We didn’t actually open the restaurant until 2008. Originally, the plan was to move here and finish school. I was actually a bus driver for the city of Honolulu for OTS. I did that for 15 years. I had this thought like “Wow, I better get my life in order.” [laughs] As I started pursuing that, I realized I had out-of-state tuitions, and I had to claim residency. There were all these obstacles that kept coming up, so I started thinking maybe my life isn’t to do that. We [Kimo Mack and Kalani Mack] started chatting. He [Kalani] was already living here, so we started kicking around ideas and came up with the idea to do the restaurant. I thought “Well, we’ll do this for a year, and if it works out, great, and if not, then I’ll go to school.” I didn’t want to come up here and do the same job I was doing in Hawaii [laughs]. That’s what I was trying to get away from. So we opened the first store here.
We had a rough go the first 6 months. We opened in June, 2008, and come Fall, the economy starting tanking. January rolled around, and things started bouncing back and becoming profitable again. By the time we made a year, we were already opening a second location. It was crazy how quickly things turned around for us. I realize now how blessed we were and the opportunities we had. It was the first time we had ever been in business, and we didn’t know how long you’re supposed to go before you pull the plug, you know? [laughs] We had a decent summer, and then when October, November, and December rolled around, it was pretty bleak. We started working Facebook and social media a little bit, trying to get some kids in here.
D+A: How do you feel like social media has contributed to your success?
Kalani Mack: We were working in the restaurants, and then my daughter wanted to get on Facebook. This was when Facebook really took off, 2007 or 2008. She was in high school, and I told her, well, I’ll get on there with you. We got on, and I quickly realized that we could use it for the business. We started to push some things through social media on our page, and that really helped. It helped us reach a demographic around our area here, and it started pulling people in.
Kimo Mack: We started tapping into the high school kids. We had this little special set up for the high school kids, and they would work the social media for us. These kids were great. I still see some of these kids. Some of them are married with kids now. They would come into the store and buy two specials! They had money. Then their parents started to come in, and would say “My son eats here every day.” It started taking off from there.
When we opened our second location, we kind of had to go through that growth again. We weren’t marketing really, at all, so it was a slow start. [The first store] sort of held it up for a little while until it got on its feet.
D+A: What kind of advice do you have for people who are interested in starting a restaurant business?
Kimo Mack: Just go get a good job. [laughs] Don’t do it. [laughs] If you’re in your right mind, just go get a good job somewhere. I’ve learned that if you don’t see return customers, and that you’re always having to find new customers, it probably means that your product isn’t good. [laughs] We’ll know if the product is good if people come back. The restaurant industry likes a return customer every 30 days. We wanted them in once a week, if not twice a week. We quickly realized that it’s not just a product, but there’s the cost. At first, my idea of managing costs was “Are we overdrawn on our bank account? No? Then we must be making a profit then.” [laughs] Really, it was that simple for me.
Kalani Mack: No, there are a few things that we’ve learned. I think you’ve got to have a good product and believe in it. We totally believed that this was a product that we could share, that people would like. We tied it to our culture, and so it was coming from home. It’s the stuff we liked, so we figured if we like it, there’s gotta be other people who like it. I think that’s a big one.
We’ve had to do very little-to-no marketing because we have a good core customer group. We don’t have to discount our food or settle for less than what we think it’s worth, and they’re not looking for a deal. Our customers want us to stay in business so that they can keep getting their food.
D+A: What kind of systems did you put in place to manage yourself financially?
Kimo Mack: When we first started, we hired a bookkeeper. I don’t try to go learn everything. I know what I know. We know the food, I know what customers want and I stick to that. I don’t try to reinvent the wheel. That’s the reason we’re in the partnership that we’re in with Four Foods Group. To go beyond what we’ve done, I’d have to build a company to support the company. I don’t know how to do that, so we went and found a partner. Same thing with our CPA.
We found J.W. [Davies]. We’re always trying to improve, not necessarily learn, so we go out and find the people that we can put around us and make us successful. It has to make financial sense too. I can’t expect to learn everything there is to learn. Our managers know so much more than I did when I started. I keep telling them, you know ten times what I know when I started. The only difference between you and me is that I made the financial investment to start this thing. Really, I want them to feel like they can go out and do great things. Take what you know and apply it. Some of them, they have a hard time in their personal lives, but I want to tell them to take what they know from the stores and apply it to their personal lives [laughs]. Maybe you’ll break even at the end of the month. Some of them don’t realize that they already do a great job with us, and if they’d do it in their personal lives, their personal lives would turn around too.
D+A: Could you expand on how you outsource?
Kimo Mack: Our managers, and a lot of people, when they go into business, have a lot of trouble trusting people, and I get it. Here we are, we’ve built this business, spent all this money, and I hope we have a manager that is going to carry out our vision, but you eventually have to trust them if you want to scale. You have to trust somebody. I can’t possibly manage six stores. Our new partners want to build 75 stores. I have to believe in the system and believe in the people, and work it the way it’s been successful for them. Before they [Four Foods Group] acquired us, they had a hundred stores already. Something’s working. And so I just have to have faith in them that they are doing something that’s working. I would say people going into business- if they’re control freaks, get a job somewhere. If you can’t trust others to do jobs on your behalf, you’re not going to be happy. Some people want the perks of being in business, the free time, being able to dictate how much money they make, this, and that… but if you’re a control freak, it ain’t going to happen.
Have faith in people. When we thought we were going to do it on our own, I thought “Well, I’ve got to bring a CEO on I trust, and knowing what I know now, there’s always a learning curve. Chances are, the person you hire isn’t going to be the person that gets you there. I didn’t want to take that chance with our entire company. All of our managers right now started with us as cashiers, washing dishes, and we start seeing the right attitudes in people and we nurtured it. We’re trying to instill this culture here where you learn the job that you want to get to before you’re actually in it. Especially in this demographic, our employees don’t have educations, high school degrees, stuff like that. I’m trying to teach them to think about where they want to go.
D+A: How do you nurture your employees, and how do you train them?
Kimo Mack: We do monthly training. All of our managers that are here, we meet with them weekly. We go to each store and we talk a lot to people at each store. We talk about people who they are seeing that is growing. We keep tabs on these people. I use them to do that training. Even then, each of these guys operates three stores each. They started off washing dishes and cooking. Both of them have now finished school and have degrees now. They understand training, they know how we operate.
D+A: Do you have any advice for someone who is looking to start their own business?
Kimo Mack: For me, it would be to just follow true principles, follow and do what’s right from the very beginning. This is such a little thing, but it makes such a big difference. From the beginning, we decided that our families and us, we would pay full price. So if our family comes in, we pay full price. It’s not your own kitchen. You can’t just go in and eat for free. Somebody has to pay for that, and it’s the customer that pays for that. So just that little principle makes a big impact. It keeps our employees honest as well. They see that the owners don’t come in and eat for free. It keeps everyone honest.
Thank you so much to Kimo and Kalani Mack, and to learn more about Mo Bettah’s, visit their website at mobettahs.com.