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CEO of the Month Kam Talebi Of Kaskaid Hospitality
Seasoned With Happiness
By Haley Freeman
Tech entrepreneur-turned-restaurateur Kam Talebi knows a few things about assembling the right ingredients for a thriving, profitable company. There’s a certain, discernable flavor that stands out amongst the many mingling elements of his success – and that is the flavor of happiness.
“It goes back to the core of doing things the right way and believing in what you do,” Talebi said. “Success is not necessarily just about monetary rewards. It’s about creating happiness within your organization, making sure that everyone has great opportunities, and is working hard and having fun.”
Talebi’s genius for successful business ventures is not a one-off event. After earning his master’s degree from the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, Talebi went on to become the CFO for global computer-based testing giant, Prometric. He later co-founded a technology company called iCommunicate, which he and his partners sold to Microsoft only 18 months later. Then he started Network Remarketing and Technologies, a company that created automotive auction platforms, and subsequently sold that entity to Cox Communications in 2008.
Amid Talebi’s many triumphs, he also tasted disappointment when he and his brother, Keyvan Talebi, experimented as non-operating investors in a restaurant venture that failed. So Talebi proposed to his brother that they create and operate a restaurant of their own. “That’s how Crave was born. We came up with the name and concept, and the menu was designed in my dining room with an individual we had known in the industry for a long time. By late 2008, we had operated the restaurant for about a year-and-a-half. I still had my tech company, but was in the processing of having it be acquired.”
In the uncertain business climate of the Great Recession, many established restaurant brands were either downsizing or collapsing entirely. Even top brands like Starbucks were affected; they announced the closing of 600 of its stores in 2008. Undaunted, Talebi devoted himself to making Crave a grand success. “I decided to jump into the restaurant business full time in 2009, and during a very difficult timeframe, built two restaurants that year. When we started Crave, I knew very little about the restaurant business outside the fundamentals of starting and running a business. I hired talent that understood the restaurant side of it. Everybody brought their strengths, and we were able to leverage that combination to build a team that had fun and opportunities to grow.”
A Recipe for Success
First, measure trends and mull your options. At Crave, Talebi demonstrated his uncanny ability to spot trends, a quality that had previously manifested in his tech success. “I always see the glass as half full,” he said. “My instincts told me we had a solid brand and concept in Crave. I felt very comfortable in appealing to a market at a value proposition that made sense for the experience we were providing.”
“During the recession, when high-end steakhouses, seafood and fine dining restaurants were hurting, and corporate spending wasn’t there, we provided an upscale casual concept that combined a great menu with a vibrant atmosphere –it had sizzle. Crave provides an elevated dining experience at a more value-driven price point. We appealed to a diverse customer base including the higher-end clientele. During the recession, our restaurants provided an atmosphere for people to get away. It’s not just about the food and the cocktails; it’s all about the experience we provide.”
Assemble fresh ingredients. From inception, Crave was a food-forward model, and Talebi was on the front of the fresh food movement. “We wanted to be a fresh kitchen with no freezer. Our whole menu was to be executed from scratch by talented chefs who wanted to use their talent to make distinctive dishes for our guests.”
“Another way in which we were fundamentally unique at that point was that we incorporated a sushi component to an American-inspired menu. Sushi was not mainstream then, but I felt it was a trend that would continue to grow. It fit with our core menu of healthy and fresh foods. Our menu was deep enough to have something for everybody. It’s amazing now when I go to our restaurants, I see sushi at every table. And believing in sustainability, we began working with local farms early on to source our foods. We also had one of the first gluten-free menus.”
Fold in some care. Crave’s first slogan was, “The answer is yes, what’s the question?” Talebi and his team persist in listening to customer comments and requests, and then evolving to satisfy them.
“To this day we aspire to wow our guests. We’ve always felt we have to listen to the customer to put together a menu that allows us to be successful. We’ve built that into our menu strategy.”
The company’s philanthropic arm Crave Cares is at the core of that strategy. Each month, Crave supports a different nonprofit organization by developing a special menu from which a portion of proceeds are donated to the nonprofit. “We’ve done this since our inception. It’s our way of giving back to the community and listening to our customers at that same time. By offering different specials, we can gauge what people like and want, and keep our menu fresh. We’re constantly evolving, and we update our menu seasonally. If you went to Crave three years ago, you would not find it the same today.”
Stir to action; garnish with zest. As a leader, Talebi brings out the best in people and shapes a workplace that incites passion. He said he still gets goosebumps when someone says, “Kam, I love working for you guys.”
Although his organization has grown from 50 to more than 2,000 employees, it retains the same family atmosphere it had in the beginning. Talebi leads from the point of view that he has two customers: his guests and his employees. “The success factor is to have the right talent. You win with people, regardless of the business you’re in. I am blessed to work with incredible talent. That’s what makes it fun, and I continue to learn every day. We have respect for one another, and we’re a people-based company that runs on teamwork, family, integrity and passion.”
Happiness as the Spice of Life
Crave has grown to 11 locations in seven states and has become a platform from which to launch other successful brands. “Crave ended up being a great brand to build a hospitality company out of, and as the company grew and we developed talent, I saw other opportunities. Building different brands became another vehicle for me to provide another tier of opportunity for our team members, and I am very happy with the portfolio of restaurants we have.”
The most recent addition to the Kaskaid Hospitality group is Burger Burger, an on trend, fast-casual burger experience located in the Mall of America. The concept features a mouthful of goodness made up of locally and sustainably raised, hormone and antibiotic-free Black Angus beef that is 40 percent lower in cholesterol and 400 percent higher in Omega 3s. Choose from 11 different sauces for the fresh, non- GMO fries and add a tasty adult beverage from the full bar. “Burger Burger is about a year old, and we are incredibly pleased with how we’re doing and anticipating growth in the coming year.”
No matter his successes, Talebi attributes much to his parents. He was a young boy when his family came to the United States from Iran seeking breast cancer treatment for his mother at Mayo Clinic. Talebi’s father had been a very successful businessman in Iran, but at the time of his mother’s illness, the political situation in Iran was unravelling. The family ended up losing everything overnight and remaining in America. But they still had the most important thing – each other.
“As a young kid, I had experiences that allowed me to become who I am and understand what life is all about. Because of the language barrier my parents had, I became their voice. I experienced a lot of what my mom lived through hand-in-hand with her. She is an absolute miracle case who has beaten the odds and is still with us today. She has been an inspiration who puts everything into perspective for us – being able to take a breath of fresh air every day and having our health, the joy of being an entrepreneur and, ultimately, to provide opportunities for our family of employees.”
He continued, “My dad dedicated his life in a new country to his wife and his kids. He took on extensive work to provide for his family and ensure that his sons got a great education. He taught us loyalty, respect and integrity. I have also always been grateful for how our country provides anyone the ability to go after their dreams and prove that you can be successful if you work hard and do things the right way. That was always the core of what we were taught and what we practice.”
Talebi advocates a life well-seasoned with happiness. He said, “We live in a world full of stresses. Be happy. Be happy to be in a position to make a difference and be the best you can be. Smile and enjoy life with your family and friends. For those who have proven they are leaders and proven their successes, enjoy life and what it gives you, be there for people, and provide opportunities for the people who surround you. Let that be your business legacy.”