The biggest piece of advice I can give is to be more agile in your approach to dealing with adversity. I witness when bigger companies make adjustments to the overall brand — whether it be in operations or design — it takes a lot of time. I picture what it would look like to turn a cruise ship around 180 degrees; it requires traveling several miles just to change the direction of the ship. In contrast, our approach in the beginning was more like a speed boat, making turns left and right as needed. A couple years in, we now see ourselves as a midsize boat, where we can’t just turn on a dime, but can make adjustments in relative, efficient speeds. We are in a competitive and difficult business, in which adversity comes to everyone. Your ability to adapt to change is the most important part of being successful.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Tosh Berman. CEO and Co-Founder Tosh Berman oversees The Madera Group portfolio, playing an integral role in the overall footprint of the brand and its innovative restaurants, Toca Madera and Tocaya Organica. An industry leader with more than 15 years of experience in hospitality, Berman guides the chef-driven concepts to rapid expansion — both nationally and globally — with an ethos that enhances a traditional dining experience. “Our brand is rooted in the impact that you put on society, the environment, and the way that you affect individuals,” he explains. Berman reimagines his restaurants with wellness-driven, quality Mexican cuisine and emphasizes key touchpoints for design and brand expression. “It all started with a mission for better eating, but now encapsulates much more,” he states. “We reimagine a fine dining environment with an emphasis on temperature, experience, sound, lighting, and atmosphere (TESLA) to provide guests with a space to form meaningful connections.” Aside from curating a high energy experience at the restaurants, Berman manages all negotiations and development logistics of The Madera Group’s properties, while putting together a team that complements his knowledge of the enterprise. “My strength lies in building a progressive, intellectual, and groundbreaking team to change the way that we look at a business and offer guests a distinguished sensory experience,” he says. Raised on his family’s organic farm, Berman appreciated from a young age the importance of sustainability and the effects of eating quality, non-GMO ingredients. Motivated by his father’s resilient work ethic, Berman worked his way through college and graduated from both the University of Colorado Boulder and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He then developed his first hospitality group — EDL Management Group — which included notable nightclubs, bars, and restaurants throughout California, Arizona, Hawaii, and Mexico. Shifting away from the nightlife scene, Berman sought a venture that transcended the niche lifestyle and expressed deeper impact on society. Melding his roots in health-conscious farming with the energy of hospitality, he partnered with Co-Founder Amrou Manaseer to form The Madera Group in 2015. Under his creative direction, Toca Madera and Tocaya Organica continue to thrive on a culture of innovation. Fond of nature and the outdoors, Berman enjoys an active lifestyle inclusive of travel, hiking, heliskiing, and spending time with his two dogs, Loki and Trash Panda.
Thank you for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I began my hospitality career path in high school, where I started out as a dishwasher. I was immediately hooked on making my own income at night while not letting it effect my studies during the day. I then continued on that path through university to supplement my income, working my way up from dishwasher, busser, and bar back to then waiter, bartender, bar manager, then general manager. The combination of starting at the bottom, with being able to truly understand all the different facets of the business — both front- and back-of-house — I was hooked. It was quintessential experience for someone who wasn’t sure what their career path would be. I found something that clicked for me, both financially and emotionally.
Can you share your story of grit and success? First can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
I get asked this question quite a bit by my employees, most of whom are starting out in their adult lives and careers and are picking my brain about what drives me, how I started, what allowed me to break through and ultimately create this company. I wish there was a secret formula or short cut… but there is simply no replacement for good old fashion hard work. It doesn’t matter how intelligent you are, how much experience is under your belt, or how great of an idea you have. It always comes down to who is willing to commit the hours. From a grit perspective, I took the approach of thinking ‘I’m going to be the hardest working person in the room at all times.’ There’s no doubt I had some fumbles along the way, too. One of my biggest mistakes early on was not recognizing the importance of my team. I made the mistake of building too quickly without having the proper infrastructure of hardworking colleagues that could support my endeavors. Owning one concept is difficult in itself; once you start expanding, it really requires having a super strong network of people around you. Your value is only as great as your ability to lead. Building a company is like building a house — you have to build a strong foundation, do your site work, build your retaining walls and lay your pad before you start going vertical. Many entrepreneurs make the mistake of not recognizing that one of the most expensive parts of building a company is the investment in human capital.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Once I fully committed myself to the world of hospitality, there was no turning back. You take a couple of hits in this industry, but you’ve got to get up and keep fighting. My growth as an entrepreneur only truly developed when I stopped believing that I was good at everything. The real value is in dropping the ego and discovering not your strength but your weaknesses, and then bringing in professionals who can fill in those areas. When I was in my 20s, I had some success, which gave me an overinflated sense of self-worth. As I matured, I learned it’s not just about me; it was about my team. I needed to acknowledge the weak places in my business and bring in teammates that could supplement my endeavors, ultimately making this company and its overall strategy exponentially greater.
How are things going today? How did grit lead to your eventual success?
Grit today is the same it was 15 years ago when I started. I still like to believe that I’m part of the hardest working group in this hospitality landscape. My team and I get up early and stay late; we fight it out. We leave no rock unturned, keeping the pressure and momentum, and it’s a hard a pace to keep. I’m never on vacation — I make every meeting, no matter where I am in the world. Some could argue that that’s an insufficient work life balance, but I’ve found that at least in this expansion and growth phase, you don’t have the luxury of taking off time or ignoring what’s going on in the day-to-day. You have a responsibility to know every detail and stay in the trenches, and that’s the approach our C-level team has maintained. As Toyota’s Japanese work model says, “if you want to know what’s going on in the business, go back to the factory floor.” I can proudly say that our corporate team works with this mentality, with a concept we’ve aptly named as “Factory Floor Fridays,” during which the entire corporate team spends time working in the restaurants the 3rd Friday of every month, whether it be as a busser, greeter, cashier, etc. This has led to more connectivity between our corporate and in-store teams, as well as provided an important knowledge and awareness of what goes on in our restaurants on a regular basis.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I first started, I always treated the idea of naming a venue as being that one moment to grab someone’s attention, which can be the determining factor of whether or not they will come back. When I was in the nightclub business, I chose some relativity risqué names, one of which was “The Pink Kitty” in Cabo San Lucas. As much as it was a great venue (beautiful design, performed well as a business), the name was off-putting for some audiences. The mistake I made was not recognizing that even though a name can be an identifier that grabs attention, it should not be offensive or alienating to anyone. The takeaway was that a name is less important than one might think, and that it’s more valuable to be memorable in a different way, and to attract a wider audience. For example, Tocaya Organica casts the widest net possible, making sure the all demographics are represented and feel welcome.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I categorize it in a few different ways. First, we are the only all-organic, fast-casual concept that’s growing nationally. We’re already incredibly unique in that aspect, as we’re owning a few different, key markets: gluten-free, vegan, and plant-based. Secondly, we have a strong commitment to the environment. With our low carbon footprint, we strive to have a positive impact on the way companies (both in hospitality and otherwise) can be run in the future. Lastly, we take a wellness approach to our brand, both internally at the corporate level, as well as what we’re serving in the restaurants. We cater towards people who not only have food discerning elements in their diets, but also who care about their bodies and their overall health and wellness. We have a strong culinary honesty program, letting customers make the decisions on what they consume.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
The biggest piece of advice I can give is to be more agile in your approach to dealing with adversity. I witness when bigger companies make adjustments to the overall brand — whether it be in operations or design — it takes a lot of time. I picture what it would look like to turn a cruise ship around 180 degrees; it requires traveling several miles just to change the direction of the ship. In contrast, The Madera Group’s approach in the beginning was more like a speed boat, making turns left and right as needed. A couple years in, we now see ourselves as a midsize boat, where we can’t just turn on a dime, but can make adjustments in relative, efficient speeds. We are in a competitive and difficult business, in which adversity comes to everyone. Your ability to adapt to change is the most important part of being successful.
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?
I was fortunate enough to have support from two very different sides. One is my father, who has been incredibly encouraging of my endeavors from the start; not by giving me things, but instead by always rooting for my entrepreneurship. He’s been a big supporter in having me explore my creativity in the industry, something I was lucky enough to begin at a young age. The second credit goes to Andrew Sasson, owner of the Light Group in Las Vegas. He’s been a friend and mentor of mine in the industry for a long time. As someone who is rarely impressed by things, Andrew tells you how it is — the good and the bad. Having someone who is constructive makes you think through decisions more intensely, and therefor with more weight, which I’ve been grateful for. Having the support from these two sides has made me a more well-rounded hospitality owner.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
The philanthropic arm of our company, Tocaya Life, is really the genesis of what our long-terms goals are for bringing good to the planet. It’s 100% rooted in taking care of the environment. As we continue to grow the number of restaurants we operate, the more we plan to reinvest back into the planet. Every element of our restaurants is incredibly forward-thinking, from the reclaimed wood during construction to being LEED certified, we place our benchmark as being a zero-carbon footprint restaurant group, and Tocaya Life takes this to the next level. For example, we’re working with a group of professors at UC Davis, who are working on a new program to introduce red seaweed into cattle feed, which has been tested to reduce carbon emissions by 99%. As a restaurant that carries animal proteins, we want to be an active contributor to taking care of the environment, having a hand in efforts that will have a lasting impact, such as cattle farming, protein production, and dairy farming. Outside of that, we’ve done some great work with Surfrider Foundation, as well as the local communities in which our restaurants reside.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Develop your team, your team is everything. The idea that two heads are better than one has never been truer. It’s crucial to have the right people involved, the right leadership, and the right dynamics from the very beginning. Investing in what I call “the bench” is the most important, as your team becomes your family.
2. The importance of having amazing financial controls. We in the industry oftentimes don’t put enough emphasis on how important this is early on in the business. Many hire a bookkeeper or outside accountant right away. However, I think it’s much more important to give information in real time to your assets on the ground, providing them with a true understanding of how the stores are actually doing. Most companies don’t figure this out until much farther down the road.
3. Invest in and acknowledge the importance of technology. We are living in a very different world from even ten years ago, especially in the ways we communicate and disseminate messages (both internally and externally). Now, it really takes the right platforms for companywide integration. Having control dash boards that give you real up to day information — whether it be customers experience, Yelp reviews, purchase orders, or inventory — all of these areas play a crucial role in the company’s performance and communications. Technology is especially important in the fast-casual space, where nearly 40% of our business is from 3rd party delivery such as Postmates, Grub Hub, UberEats, etc. Developing a strategy of how these intricacies all play together will make everything more seamless in keeping up with how people experience hospitality and communicate today for customer facing and to your employees.
4. The importance of social media. The platforms, especially for start-ups, can be utilized in a way to immediately build a customer base and share your company’s ethos with the public, essentially developing a team of cheerleaders and tastemakers at the very beginning. User Generated Content (UGC) is also a crucial aspect of social media. So many businesses think developing content and posting on your own social is doing enough. However, having others, most specifically your customers, develop the content for you and share it on their pages to new audiences that you don’t have direct access to, can actually be a more efficient way of disseminating the marketing strategy of your brand.
5. Whatever you think it’s going to cost, it’ll be at least 30% more. In the beginning, I spent so much time budgeting things out and never hitting the right mark. Making sure you have the proper budget and are sufficiently funded is one of those things that can make or break a company. This also goes back to owning the financial aspect of your business. Knowing your prime costs and managing your expenses will make or break any hospitality company.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I think Tocaya Organica itself is a movement. I’m truly surprised that there isn’t another group or concept that has come up behind us to replicate what we’re doing. We publicly lay out our strategy front to back; we talk about what we care about, what we believe in and support, and the aspects of the company that drive us. So far no one has taken the bait! Part of me hopes that I inspire others to recognize there’s an opening in the market, at least in a different food genre, for more restaurants to follow people’s lifestyles and accommodate how they’re food choices today.
Thank you for all of these great insights!