I had the pleasure of interviewing Thomas Nguyen, a co-founder/CEO of Peli Peli, a South African fine-dining concept currently ranked in the top 10 in Houston on both Tripadvisor and Yelp, and Peli Peli Kitchen, a South African fast casual concept that was featured on CNBC’s Restaurant Startup. Thomas is a 2015 Houston Business Journal 40 Under 40 recipient, 2016 Houston Asian Chamber of Commerce Entrepreneur of the Year and 2017 EY Entrepreneur of the Year Finalist. Thomas is also a freelance food writer for the Houston Press.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us about your journey to becoming CEO?
I co-founded Peli Peli in 2009 without any experience in the restaurant industry whatsoever. No marketing, branding, PR education or experience. I started an the General Manager of our first loca on and was just thrown into the fire. I oversee all marke ng, branding and PR for Peli Peli and have helped mold our concept into a top 10 rated restaurant in Houston with appearances on the Food Network and CNBC’s Restaurant Startup. I’ve learned every aspect of running this business from the bottom up, and took over as CEO officially this year. But I have always been the business “face” of the company (with Chef Paul being the “face” of our cuisine), so it was only a matter of me that my knowledge of operations met the expectations.
What is your definition of success?
It has evolved over the years, but right now my definition of success is two-fold. Putting a Peli Peli in every city in America and creating a viable, national franchise. The other, which is more personal, is to continue to create impactful events for the community through our non-profit, Happiness Heroes.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
One of my favorite memories involves convincing a handful of older ladies to try out our South African cuisine back in our first year when no one wanted to try our food. You got an asian guy telling them about South African food, so maybe I should have expected this. They came in and within 5 minutes, left. I asked my server what happened and she proceeded to tell me that the ladies became upset when we didn’t have dumplings. When told that we didn’t have dumplings, one lady replied “What kind of Chinese restaurant doesn’t have dumplings?”
What failures have you had along the way? How have they led you to success?
We have had more than our fair share of failures. First was building our company without a focus on creating the right company culture. Second was expanding without the right capital in place.
The first one was a game changer. Prior to 2013, we ran our restaurants with fear. Yelling and screaming at our employees to get their work done. But Paul and I were burnt out, and we knew we could not expand that way. So we switched gears and focused on building people up, building a work environment that is full of love, support and room for opportunities. This has allowed us to grow to four locations with two more coming within the next year.
The second one was difficult to overcome as well. We never ran our business with a focus on profit and loss, instead focusing on revenue. As basic as that sounds, we have been able to change that focus and make sure our business runs by the numbers and not on a feeling or simplistic view on revenue.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We are trying to be more than just a restaurant. We want Peli Peli to mean something more to our guests. So not only have we created our own non-profit, Happiness Heroes, but we always try to give back to our community in interesting ways. During Hurricane Harvey, we helped the Red Cross serve over 20,000 meals and every year, we help organize proms for the patients receiving treatment at MD Anderson Cancer Center and for the special needs students of Austin Independent School District.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
Peli Peli Kitchen is opening its second location on August 22 in Houston’s first 365 by Whole Foods Market. Very exciting opportunity for us if we can successfully execute.
Can you tell us about the initiatives that your company is doing to become be more sustainable? Can you give an example for each?
● Be more than just a restaurant — We created our own non-profit and started creating events for the community such as our annual prom for the teens receiving treatment at MD Anderson Cancer Center and for the special needs students of Austin Independent School District.
● Make building a company culture a priority — Almost all of our managers are former servers and do not have either a degree or typical experience. In order to grow and have passionate people behind the concept, you must create a company culture that builds people and allows them to grow.
● Focus on profit and loss, not just revenues — Revenue sometimes hides inefficiencies. We now have become a P&L-driven concept and want to be profitable even if revenue isn’t high. Make it as streamlined and efficiently run as possible. Then when revenue is there, you maximize profitability. We did this backwards for 9 years!
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
● Spend me with them outside of the office and let them into your world, warts and all. From my experience, our strongest employees have been ones that believe in us, even more so than the company itself. They know our real struggles and want to work together with us to succeed.
● Let them make important decisions some mes even if you know its probably not the best decision. There is a lot to be gained from that experience from teaching what might have been a be er choice to giving them confidence that you trust them.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My business partner, Chef Paul Friedman. I didn’t have any experience in restaurants prior to opening Peli Peli, and Paul taught me everything I needed to know about the restaurant industry. Without having been the General Manager of our first location and having him teach me throughout that process, I don’t think I would have been as successful in marketing and branding Peli Peli nor in my capacity as CEO.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
That is my biggest motivation actually, using our ever-increasing platform to create an impact in our community. The proms and events that we have done for MD Anderson Cancer Center and Austin ISD, to events that we have created for the homeless clients of the Star of Hope Mission, to the carnival we have done for the Sunshine Kids. We want to continue creating events that encourage our customer base to volunteer their time and shine a bit of light in a world that can be quite dark at times for many people.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why?
1. Being a successful entrepreneur means always being “ON” — You cannot have a 9–5 mentality and shut off when it’s 5pm. You are a CEO, so therefore your mind always has to be thinking of ways to improve the company. You don’t get to be off at 5pm like everyone else.
2. Become an asset to everyone on your team — Similar to a point guard on a championship basketball team, you need to make everyone around you be er so that you bring out the best in everyone on your team.
3. CEO is a tle, whether or not your company follows you determines if you are leader — I’ve seen CEOs that company employees hate. Its an inefficient process. Doesn’t matter what title you have, the key is, will they follow you?
4. You have to walk the walk — talk is cheap! People won’t follow you unless they know you are able to back it up with ac on.
5. Make sure all of your fellow executives are smarter than you. I don’t want to be better at finances than my CFO. Smart executives will challenge you and make you a better CEO.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
A Pay-It-Forward movement. I would want every single person to volunteer for one day, just six hours at an organiza on, event, or charity of their choice. Spending that me is so much more valuable than dona ng money. Seeing the faces, the smiles, and witnessing the difficulties other individuals in this world have to deal with, it can plant a seed for growth that affects the rest of your life. I am a product of this.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?” This quote has literally changed my business and personal life and its perspectives. I think a lot of people, myself included, focus a lot of making sure we are right in our comments, thoughts and ac ons and making that more of a priority than the actual result itself. For example, if I win an argument with my wife but as a result she’s unhappy, did I really win? I try to focus now more on the end goal. Did we achieve the end result that we desired regardless of whether we were right or wrong about it?