We here at GOBankingRates want to help get our nation’s small businesses back on their feet after the COVID-19 pandemic. To do that, we’re highlighting readers’ favorite small businesses around the country, and shining a spotlight on what makes them special to their customers and their towns.
In this edition of our Small Business Spotlight series, we’re featuring Fukuburger, a Las Vegas-based gourmet food truck and fast-casual restaurant, serving all-American burgers with a Japanese twist. Here, we chat with founder Colin Fukunaga about his history in the restaurant business, why he believes the customer should not be a business’ main priority and how his company managed to thrive during the pandemic.
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Was there a particular moment or experience that inspired you to start your business?
I’ve been in the restaurant business for 30-plus years. My grandfather was in the business — it skipped a generation with my parents, but I always gravitated towards the restaurant business. After college, I started waiting tables and eventually, my manager recommended that I try managing.
I started with a company that went from four locations to a publicly traded multibillion-dollar concept. I was with them for 12 years. [It was] great training — I learned so much about the theory of the restaurant business from some great mentors. After a 12-year stint, I became an operating partner for the company, [but when they went public], they got rid of all the operating partners.
In 2008, I had to figure out what I was going to do. I’d always been playing with backyard cookouts with my staff and my friends, and I would add Japanese ingredients. Everybody was like, “This is so different. You should have your own restaurant.” After hearing that so many times, I was fantasizing about the idea.
I got really motivated after I got let go, and I started putting together a business plan. It finally came together and I went to the Small Business Association and submitted it to them. That was probably the first time that I heard someone say that it wasn’t a good concept. The name — the prefix is my last name, Fuku — means a lot, it means luck. My SCORE mentor said he didn’t like the name and he didn’t “get” Japanese burgers.
I had to go back to the drawing board. I went back to waiting tables so that I had more time to work on the concept. That actually got me more motivated because I was really hating my job, but it gave me a little inspiration, a lot of fire under my butt to get this moving.
My parents live in L.A., and that’s where the food truck movement started. My mom was like, you gotta check out what this Korean guy is doing. He’s making a restaurant out of a taco truck. So I drove out to L.A. and I was like, I’m an innovator, I should have thought of this! I’m going to copy this. I’m going to bring this to Vegas.
The cool thing about the food truck is that nobody else was doing it and we got so much free press. We were on the Travel Channel, we were on the Cooking Channel, Food Network, New York Times, L.A. Times, but the cover of the Las Vegas Weekly is what helped us the most. We had so much notoriety from that one. It gave us instant business. Our local Las Vegas supporters are the ones that got us off the ground.
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What did you take from past experiences or jobs that you knew you wanted to be a part of your new business?
I talk about this every day, and it’s something that a lot of restaurants promote or preach, but they don’t really follow through on it — the No. 1 most important person inside your restaurant is not your customer, it’s your staff. They’re the No. 1 most valuable asset. How are you taking care of your co-workers, teammates, to make them want to stay, to make them want to do a great job when you’re not there, to make them want to make the guests feel like a guest, not like a customer? [When employees aren’t motivated] to do this on their own, it’s one of the major factors why, not just restaurants, but businesses fail in general. You have to make the employee experience paramount.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of being a business owner?
When you’re your own business owner, you can make snap judgments and decisions based upon your moral compass or whether you think something’s right or wrong, as opposed to according to the handbook. That’s been the best.
How has the pandemic affected your business?
When the pandemic first came to fruition, the governor ordered us to only have delivery and takeout. That month was really bad, but I had an all-hands meeting with my staff and I said, “This is your first crisis. And I know people are going to say a lot of things and scare you, and there’s going to be a lot of panic, but what I want everybody to concentrate on is being on the right side of history.”
We had just hired some new people and they were in training. Everyone was afraid that they were going to be let go. I’m like, “We’re not only going to not let you go — because we see way beyond this — we’re going to double down and we’re going to give everybody a bonus. The most important thing is when we’re intersecting with guests for takeout or carryout, let’s give them the best experience that’s possible.”
You can’t imagine how well this played out because of the reviews. Thank god we got the first PPP loan — that helped us recuperate all the losses for the labor — but after that, we were allowed to open at 50% [capacity]. Our numbers beat pre-pandemic numbers by staying open.
It’s crazy because I already knew from before that if you don’t slack, it will bode well for you. As soon as we were able to open up, we were able to rock and roll. The comments on the reviews were all like, “We’re in a pandemic right now. It feels so good to go somewhere where everyone was so calm.” I don’t think our employees knew how much they were affecting the guests. It was cool to see that.
How can people continue to support your business during this time?
Just buying our product. But that’s up to us to make sure we’re maintaining our level of service and maintaining our quality of food and don’t ever let that slip.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to open their own restaurant?
The reason why the failure rate is so high is that there are so many factors that can fail — being underfunded, level of experience. There are a lot of restaurant concepts where the owner is an amazing chef, or there’s a really good concept where the person who’s starting was an amazing operator or front-of-the-house person. You have to have a blend of both for restaurants. It has to be a balance of both.
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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.