John Cassimus, former University of Alabama football star is best known for taking a single restaurant, Zoë’s Kitchen, started by his mother Zoë and father Marcus and founding the current company that operates over 180 fast casual restaurants in the U.S.
David Lamb: Today’s entrepreneur tried his hand at clothing and music but those weren’t his golden ticket. It wasn’t until he return to the home of his youth that he found the opportunity that would make him a wealthy man. Hello and welcome in to the blueprint podcast, I’m David Lamb. Sometimes great entrepreneurs have to go far and wide to find their pot of gold. For John Cassimus, our guest today on the blueprint podcast, it was right under his nose. All he had to do was find his way to his mama Zoe’s Kitchen. Well, that’s sushi for breakfast as we’re hanging out with entrepreneur John Cassimus at one of his many endeavors. We are at Maki Fresh. John, good to see you.
John Cassimus: Good morning, David.
David Lamb: Thanks for having us here. We got the place all to ourselves.
John Cassimus: Hopefully we get to finish so we don’t get more of that tornado.
David Lamb: Yeah. It is interesting, so we’re at a sushi place, bright and early this morning and there are tornado warnings everywhere. A lot of dynamics at work but we do appreciate your time, because I know you got a lot going on. It’s my pleasure. Let’s just jump right into it. You’re best known for places like where we are, Maki Fresh. Of course, Zoe’s Kitchen. But your story in terms of your entrepreneurial endeavors and pursuits. It started, was J Rag the clothing line, was that your first endeavor?
John Cassimus: It was. It was. The first time I really actually went to business for myself was in college. One summer I was playing football in Alabama and a coach had put together a program up in Nashville, it was part of the southwestern company which was a book, bible salesman and they have a really incredible company that employees are young people during the summers.
They started a program for college athletes and we sell fire extinguishers basically on an appointment basis and built a business, and you deliver them, and sold them, and you ran your own little company and I did that one summer the first time, and I won the national sales award the first year, and was the number one guy, and quickly realized that if you could work really hard and you could time management, and could sell something that you had a really unique opportunity to make money and work for yourself, and so that was my first foray into being an entrepreneur.
David Lamb: Was it a surprise to you that you did so well in that or did you know you had a knack for that?
John Cassimus: No, I wasn’t surprise because I said when I went into program I was going to be number one, and I went to outsell everybody. I’ve always been really super competitive. When I was a kid, I had a lawnmower and went down the street, cutting grass when I need the money. It wasn’t a super surprise but it’s always nice and you can set your mind to something, set goals and to be successful and to follow through and be able to control yourself, and your own destiny, and your time, and I like that, and so ultimately got out of college, and sold insurance and securities for about three years.
I did really well with that but it just is something that I wasn’t passionate about. It just didn’t fit me. I’m unique from a entrepreneur standpoint that I have that right side, that’s really driven motivated guy, that’s the typical, I’m a Capricorn, if you believe in that kind of thing, I’m just that person.
On the left side, I’m very creative so that makes me a little bit unique and that I can design, I can create food, I can do all these different things from a creative side, but then at the same time I’m also extremely right brain side.
David Lamb: In terms of task and discipline.
John Cassimus: Task and discipline and motivation and those types of things. That makes me a little bit unique, but really fit well with the restaurant industry.
David Lamb: The timeline was you played ball at Alabama, and after that is when J Rag.
John Cassimus: Well, I did three years in the insurance business with [crosstalk 00:03:45]. David Pitman was my boss here in Birmingham. A lot of people know David, and then I did three years. I started a company called J Rag. It was basically a sportswear company in the cycling and the outdoor retail industry. That went really well. It wasn’t a huge moneymaking deal but it was a very successful business.
We sold product in almost every state in America and big retail chains like REI and performance-wise, catalogs and had an opportunity at that point in time. I was married and going through a divorce, and I decide a life changing moment in my brain, had a good friend die, here in town, he was like a second father to me and I just realized at that point in time it was something I didn’t think that I had the ability to take it the way I really wanted to take it.
I sold that business and it’s still operating here in town and then I did a couple years working for a publicly traded insurance brokerage firm and I ran a subsidiary of theirs over in Atlanta Georgia that was just basically a consulting business. I was working crazy amounts of days on the road. We grew the business. We had tremendous amounts of success in a very short period of time.
I had no long term contract and I didn’t have any equity in the business and at that point in time, I just knew that if I was going to work that hard it wasn’t just about money, I wanted ability to really have some kind of liquidity of that down the road and to own my own deal and so I took some time off about six months off and went out West, learn how to snowboard, met a girl who was a champion in snowboarding, a musician and starter a small record label, and that was fun, and exciting and I learned a little bit about the music business for a few months.
I came back and I had a couple mentors, and I think it’s really important for young people or anybody that’s an entrepreneur to have people they can talk to, and I get these speeches in colleges all the time. I tell the young children, I’ll say, hey your mom and dad are not usually the best people to give you advice because they pretty much have an opinion of what they think you should be doing versus what that you really are passionate about and what you want to do, so find somebody that you can get some really good advice from that doesn’t have a skin in the game.
The guys that I leaned on, I remember it was [Conrad Grayfield 00:05:55] here I Birmingham and then Corbin Day with Jemison Investment company and they both said you should take your mother’s small restaurant concept and go and try to build a brand.
David Lamb: That’s the whole [crosstalk 00:06:06].
John Cassimus: What happened in 1994, a lot of people don’t know this, my mom and dad fell on really horrendous financial times and were literally bankrupt and living in a one bedroom apartment and figuring out how they’re going to restart their lives and what they’re going to do and that’s how ultimately Zoe’s kitchen started, my dad begged my mom to go out and do a small lunch place.
We’ve been talking about it for years. My mom and I had been talking about it and had some plans to do something that was like a brown bag take out chicken spot that we didn’t end up doing, so it pushed her to do it and they went out and that’s how Zoe’s kitchen started in 1995 in Homewood.
David Lamb: That was the place in Homewood. The white. [crosstalk 00:06:45].
John Cassimus: That’s right, it was converted travel agency, and we also had a little sandwich shop in there that a Greek person actually owned and my dad went there and they started that business for about $40,000 in 1995, and immediately they were making money and they had their friends coming, and they were not having rough times anymore.
They’re late 50s at this point in time and were never going to do anything with it and I came in and my mother said it won’t work, you can’t do this, you can’t replicate this food, who could ever produce this, it just won’t work. Don’t do it. I said well I want to do it. They said well if you want to do this, you’re doing this on your own and we’re going to have nothing to do with it.
I went out by myself and started with one store out in Birmingham and then over the next seven to eight years, I built my 18 restaurants in five states and built a very unique regional brand that had leading unit economics meaning that the profitability of each of those restaurants at that time was probably the highest in America for a chain even, no matter what size it was, we were doing really really well, and I’d grown completely out of, without any capital.
I grew it out of cash and which is very difficult. Nobody would lend me money. Nobody give me any money. I begged and begged and begged, and so we just had to shoestring it together and then in ’07 when time is really good. I went out there and shop the deal around the United States to bring in a private equity partner to help me have the resources to grow and have a really great liquidity event in Halloween in 2007.
I sold 90% of my equity and then I retained 10% and then I worked for one more year and left to pursue my other concepts that I’ve got and then six or seven years later my partners set the company public in ’14 and I’m still a big share, I’m the largest individual as a person shareholder in the country.
David Lamb: I feel like we should let folks know. Since we’ve been talking, they hear some things. That is thunder and lightning you’ll hear and it’s an interesting weather day here in Birmingham and your crew is getting ready for the day, so you can hear the voices in the background and the knives, they’re getting ready for the big day here at Maki Fresh.
John Cassimus: Right here in the restaurant. [crosstalk 00:08:52].
David Lamb: I’m cool with it. Just wanted to make sure the folks were up to speed. From the jump, your idea and your concept for your mom and dad’s restaurant, the Zoe’s it was always much bigger than just one restaurant, one community restaurant.
John Cassimus: For sure, my mom when she asked me, I told her. I said hey I’m not going to be happy, we’re just going to build a couple of these in Birmingham. This is not what my goal is, my goal from when I was old enough to understand about business especially when I was in college in Alabama and I was a finance major.
My dream was to build a company, take it public, and so I just wanted to build a brand. I wanted to build something that was, to translates across all genres of people, all over the United States of America, and to build something that was going to be there forever. I think that’s really what Zoe’s kitchen is, it’s a brand that is it’s done extremely well everywhere it goes, people love it, it’s cravable food, people get addicted to the product.
It’s hard to believe that with the guys that are running it now, which I don’t have anything to do with the company anymore and just as an investor, they got 212 restaurants open, a lot of people don’t know that, over 4,500 employees, are headed to 5,000 probably by the end of the year, and one of the fastest growing food chains in America.
David Lamb: What is the secret to Zoe’s success you think?
John Cassimus: Well, it’s a, first and foremost, we’re kind of a first mover, if you look at the fast casual restaurant space, you’d think about the two leaders which are Chipotle and Paneer brand, that they both need. Paneer was basically the first person to ever do a bakery bread concept which is fresh sandwiches and salads and then fresh baked goods, and then Chipotle was really the first mover in the burrito space where they make things from scratch and they were doing it in a very quick way in aligned, not a lot of ingredients.
They were the first person to do that, and they had really good unit economics and then Zoe’s really is the only person especially with 200 units, that makes everything, they make basically all the food from scratch everyday.
David Lamb: Everyday.
John Cassimus: It’s a product that when you go out there, if you had to go taste test, I believe this 100% that if you went out there and you’ve got the top five brands over 200 units and you put all the food down and you taste test it, blind taste tested people, I think Zoe’s is by far the best product in America for fast casual with that size of a restaurant chain.
I think that’s what separates it. They had really good customers. They’re positioned really well in the markets that they’re located in from a real estate standpoint. They picked incredible locations. The clientele is extremely loyal. They have the resources, the money, they eat there all the time so they have a lot of frequency in their dining and the product is cravable and it becomes a part of people’s lifestyle just like a Starbucks or anybody else.
They keep it in the refrigerator at home, they bring it home for dinner for four. If they have some friend has a baby, they take it and drop it off at the house and it’s a lifestyle brand.
David Lamb: Yeah.
John Cassimus: And it’s healthy.
David Lamb: It is healthy, and it’s delicious. It’s fantastic. You talk about a cold call you made to someone. I was surprised when you told me who you pretty much just cold call and wanted some advice whenever you were getting Zoe’s going, so who did you make that call to?
John Cassimus: Yeah, so in 2001, I had a couple stores here in Birmingham and I felt like that I did have something that would work on a regional basis, and I felt like I knew what I was doing, but I knew that one thing about me I’m smart enough to know if I’m not really that smart at something, so I’m always going to reach out and try to do the research or talk to somebody, and to me the person that stood to in my mind the most, who knew the most about the food business, who done the best, was Truett Cathy the founder of Chik-fil-A.
I just picked the phone up one day and I called the corporate office and I asked who Truett Cathy’s secretary was, and they said it was Martha Lawrence and anyway I hung the phone up and called right back and I said may I speak to Martha Lawrence, and probably changed my voice a little. Anyway, I got on the phone and I just told her that I would like to have a meeting with Truett.
She goes well he’s really busy, and I said well could you please, is he in the office today. She said yes, he is, and if you know anything about Chik-fil-A with integrity that they have that she was not someone typical, company that size that would be the executive assistant of the CEO, and chairman of the board that would tell you, he’s not there when he’s there, and so I knew that.
I said “Well, please ask him if he’s got time to see a 35 year old guy who’s in the chicken business in Birmingham who aided his store in Brookwood village in night in the early ’70s and I’m just really need some advice and I’ve lot to talk to him and she came back on the phone and said I can’t believe it. He said he’d be glad to see you.
I went over and put a suit and tie on and took a couple coolers full of Zoe’s kitchen and we sat there and he sat in his office and he’s eating the food while we talk and he’s 80 years old at the time and it was just an incredible experience and he said this chicken salad is really good, I said yes, sir. He said it’s better than ours, and I said it’s a lot better than yours and make it everyday.
He laughed and so anyway, long story short, is he really ultimately assigned three of the most senior people at that company to mentor me and I got some really great advice, and he always told me one thing when I was in his office. We went to the back and sat down and had a little area where he had a couch and he had a painting on the back of the wall, behind the couch, and it had a little guy climbing the mountain.
It looked like it was in a Swiss Alps or something, and underneath it it said there’s no obstacle too high if you climb with care and confidence, and what was unique he looked at me, said son, don’t grow too fast. He said look at Boston market, what they did. They said they’re going to come on and build 300 stores in three to four years, and it took us 20 years to build 300 stores and look what happened to them and don’t let that happen to you.
I always took that. We would grow quickly and then we’d stop and we reflect and we’d look at what we did right and wrong, and we would slow down, and I think this is very important. When you get going as an entrepreneur in any kind of business, you got to throw it up there and do it and then you got to stop reflect and look and see if it’s working, and that’s been one of the keys to my success for sure.
David Lamb: What an incredible guy to meet.
John Cassimus: It was an incredible. Really was.
David Lamb: Is one of the things that you tried to take away from that conversation and the whole Chik-fil-A influence was their culture adapt that to your culture because I do see some similarities in terms of customer service and your place is always, they look great, they’re clean, they’re fresh. Was that attempt to adapt their culture or elements of it into your culture of your brand?
John Cassimus: Well I think so, I think ultimately with any great brand or any great culture, it starts from the leader. For me, I think a leader has a certain characteristics. One, you got to lead by example, that if you’re not leading by example and you’re not in the stores and showing your employees how to work and what to do, they’re certainly never going to know, and so what he did and what I did and we’re very similar and that we’d both started our concepts and we worked in the stores everyday.
As we were there, the first people that were at the stores that were my employees saw the way I work. My cook saw the way that I work and they were certainly never going to let me outwork. They didn’t want the boss to outwork them and say work really hard and you develop that culture of really caring. They saw me pick up food, picks the food off the floor and things like that.
Cultures like that start at the beginning. They’re really born. They’re really hard to change, and so as the culture is born and they’re born the correct way and people are following up with the expectations of, you got to set clear and define expectations and hold people accountable and that’s been something that we’ve done, we’ve tried to do really well, and we’re certainly not to the level.
Even Zoe’s not, I’m not the leader of their culture anymore, and their culture is different than it was back then, they’re a big company now, and a lot of people that run the company were not there at the beginning and so it’s just different. Doesn’t make it bad. Doesn’t make it wrong, but it’s just different.
When you look at Chik-fil-A. The same people had been involved the entire time, and when you walk into the corporate campus over there at their corporate officer, or you go into their stores, every day I go in there, when I’m there, I’m constantly amazed. The first I go into the office, I just certainly couldn’t, I thought I was in a dream. I was like these people are robots, they’re so nice. Their politeness, the way that they talk, the way they dress, and all that. Certainly culture is very important especially in this business. You have to have people who really really care about what they do.
David Lamb: Your success has taken you to incredible heights. You met some crazy successful individuals. Having met Truett Cathy though, sometimes people who are successful and or powerful, they are not … Some of them do not handle that well. There are jerks on this earth. He clearly was not. How important do you think it is and how much of a priority has it been to you not to forget where you started as you have risen to the heights you’ve gone.
John Cassimus: Well, it can go away in a heartbeat, I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve had life changing liquidity events in my life that allowed me that if I don’t want to work, I don’t have to work, but it can be gone really quick. It’s something that I don’t take for granted. I’m very thankful. I wake up everyday and really, and I thank God everyday that I’m just so blessed, that I’m just in a position that I’m in.
I really worked hard to get there, I certainly understand that you aren’t always very far from where you started. From the trip back down is a lot quicker than the trip up. I’ve always been very cognizant of that and that’s been very important to keep my grounded and then I’ve also tried to do things for other people. That’s something that really motivates me.
I’m very passionate about making a difference in lives of less fortunate, and I do it in a different way. I’m not somebody that’s a charity giver from these big big organizations. I help people individually. I find them. I educate them. Put them through college for nothing. I don’t ask for anything in return except just to make their grades and things like that.
That’s been very important to me to keep me grounded and then you look at people like that, but everybody’s different and people have different motivations and so I’ve chosen to. I spent a lot of time outside. I spent a lot of times in the woods. I’m a big hunter. I just find that I found myself way more grounded in the outdoors, things closer to God, and closer to the things that are natural and that are not things that would get me in trouble or get me out there doing things that really not conducive to really being somebody that gives back to the community.
David Lamb: What did you take away from working so closely for such a long time with your parents, because when this was just launching. I would guess you around them often.
John Cassimus: We’ve always been around each other because we’re extremely close and it was one of those things that when I started Zoe’s with my store and the company that I started is the company that operates today and still stay in the New York Stock Exchange. We battled a lot because the things that I wanted to do and that I did because it was my money, my risk, my reward, and my failures if it didn’t work.
That we did have some heated discussions. We’re Greeks. We’re very passionate. We could yell at each other then five minutes later, we’re fine or the next morning, and so it was one of those things that once I learned the model that my dad created in the back of the house and how we produced that food, and how we got it out of there, then I started doing things that like when I rebranded Zoe. Zoe’s is just white walls and it wasn’t very credible in the eye of the consumer.
We weren’t doing well in new markets because we felt like ultimately, the consumer didn’t get it, and so I rebranded and it was just world war three at home. They said you’re crazy. You don’t need to do this. You’re going to ruin everything and quite the contrary when I did that, that was the birth of what Zoe’s is today, and that’s what it looks like, and I came up with that design with the group out of Chicago, excuse me, out of Ohio.
We went out there and changed the entire brand, got rid of the chicken and the rest is history. I had decisions that I made, and always talk to people about it, and I got advice, but ultimately as an entrepreneur for me, the best decisions that I made were always the one that really came from the gut, because I always ended up knowing it was just a unique gift that I had, that I could feel it what was right, and 95% of the time I was always right.
David Lamb: Why did you get out of Zoe’s in 2008? For you how tough was that decision and what was the decision factor for you?
John Cassimus: It’s hard. When you’re used to being an entrepreneur and the decisions you make are done on a fly. They’re done really quickly and you have to be able to adjust quickly. You have to, things sometimes don’t work and we found that out not only Zoe’s kitchen but with the brands that we run now, with Maki Fresh. Our new concept, Miss Dots which is the fried chicken, baked chicken concept in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa and then certainly with Jinsei.
When you’re growing, you just don’t have a lot of opportunity to take a lot of time. There’s usually not a lot of resources, and so when things happen you have to adjust. However in Maki Fresh, we opened this restaurant, and five days after we opened it, we changed the entire menu just how we wanted to do it, and the services style just wasn’t going to work.
David Lamb: How did you know that?
John Cassimus: Well, we just [crosstalk 00:22:05]. What we wanted to do, we wanted to do it like you walk into a Chipotle or a Subway, we use want that, that, that, and that, and then they put it together, and they hand it to you and you’re done. Well, in order to make that really work we needed thousands and thousands of people within a very short diameter [crosstalk 00:22:22] just walking on the street coming in.
We’re a destination. People coming in their cars. They have 30 minutes to eat and they wanted to order, and so you have to adjust. Once I started working with Zoe’s kitchen and I had partners. I certainly understood where it needs to be some serving, when somebody has paid you a significant amount of money for your equity and you’re not the boss anymore.
I was the boss per se as the CEO but I ultimately had a lot of people that I work for and that process is just very different. It’s something that I had never done before. I was probably a little bit immature at the time even though I was probably 40 years old when it happened, it’s just very difficult to all of a sudden have conference call after conference call after conference call.
And then how you make decisions on real estate and it’s one of the things that we have paid a lot of money. We haven’t screwed this up. Why can’t we just keep doing it the same way, and they just didn’t work that way, and so it was just another situation that I wanted to continue to, how I wanted to grow these other brands that was going to take away from that, and ultimately, I felt like they were really smart people. I think I picked the right group obviously, look where we are today, and they were doing a great job, and felt like that they could take it to the next level and they had some knowledge that I didn’t have, and what was better for the brand.
David Lamb: How involved are you in your restaurants today? You have Miss Dots?
John Cassimus: Miss Dots, Maki Fresh, and Jinsei. I’m involved at a different level now. I’ve got a great partner, Tyre Stuckey, who Tyre was with Zoe’s with me, and he was a franchisee, a partner of mine in Jacksonville, Florida then I bought him out when we sold the company the first time and then I gave him a job and he came back and he actually was the head of operations for Zoe’s and opened a hundred restaurants and was there at the IPO.
He ultimately want to go back and be an entrepreneur and felt like he had done, the work he’d done at Zoe’s and that it was time to go do something else, and so he retired from there and did extremely well through offering and then came back and wanted to partner with me and had the operations and be his own boss.
He handles the day to day blocking and tackling and executions and how the stores, the bottle at the back of the house works with producing the food and getting it out. I always the one who does the vision. I’ve always from the strategy standpoint. The food most importantly and how that’s done and what the product is that we do, and creating that is where I am, and then the growth and the future of the brand and how we’re going to grow. We do that together and he’s on the ground, and it’s been great, because I’m not having to be at the stores everyday like I was.
David Lamb: Yeah. You’ve navigated quite a few different partnerships over your career. What’s the key? What’s the secret to making those work? Making partnership work.
John Cassimus: Well, I can tell you this much. If you’re going to go into business with somebody, and this is something I feel extremely passionate about as a owner and a business together we’re going to be partners. Most of them do not work, and a lot of people have a lot of problems with them and so I think it’s extremely important to self-reflect and then know first and foremost what you’re like before you know what your partner is like.
I have non-negotiables for myself, I know what I’m able to do, what I’m not able to do and I know what kind of work circumstances I can accept. I know what I could expect. What I’m able to expect having a partner.
David Lamb: The point you just made is incredible. You know what you’re good at, what you’re not. Those non-negotiables. When in your career, are they set in stone now or are you still learning about yourself and growing as an entrepreneur, a businessman, and person?
John Cassimus: Well, I think the older you get, I’m a lot more lenient and that I remember when I, another rule that I have that I think is really some great advice is that when I was early in my career, when something bad would happen, I get a bad call about customer service or something and somebody did something or something went wrong, I used to just immediately react, immediately respond and immediately deal with it.
The older I got, I realized that if I could sleep on it overnight, think about it the next morning when I woke up. I was able to look at the problem. Look at the issues in a much different light. I wasn’t just thinking about ready to explode at this point and so then I was able to go okay, well, I understand this side, I understand that side.
I was able to really look at it, and make a formulated opinion on how to discipline or how to make the changes at that point in time versus just that knee-jerk reaction right there on the spot and that was something that I’ve done. The point I’m trying to make is the older I’ve got. I’ve been a little bit more lenient on certain things, just that it takes a little time and to understand why something have happened instead of just correcting the problem right there on the spot.
David Lamb: How do you spent most of your time and energy these days?
John Cassimus: Well, I have a hunting plantation down in Southeast Alabama where I spend most of my time and we do some hunting during the winter. I spent a ton of time out hunting other places. That’s my passion. I’m a bow hunter so I travel all over the world doing that and tried to do. I’m on the board of the University of Mississippi’s business school.
I’m also been involved with the University of Alabama, my alma mater for over 10 years in developing their entrepreneurship program, and the curriculum there at the University, and I do a lot of public speaking so I do that a significant amount. I do have meetings with people that call me that want to get together and learn about things, and I’m certainly can’t take them all.
I do a lot of consulting which has been very, it’s been a lot of fun and it’s been something that I’ve enjoyed to helping people that want to figure out how to grow their business or to talk about other businesses and do that, and that’s been great, and have a little girl, and so I spend most time with her.
David Lamb: You’re a young guy. You got new restaurant ideas, new business ideas?
John Cassimus: Well, we’re right now focused on Miss Dots and Maki Fresh and we’ve got five Maki Freshes, two Miss Dots, we’re in the process of building a third, and the sixth location of those, and we’re really excited about that, and we’ve had a really warm reception. It’s like anything, just with Miss dots, we opened a brand new concept and we felt like we knew where the restaurants needed to be and what we’re going to be, and ultimately once you open, you realized you’re a different animal than you thought you were.
You go out there and you change on the fly, and you go, okay, we need a different type of real estate location and so we really felt like that this concept that’s fast casual fried chicken as well as this really healthy baked chickens and then dish and serve side items, we can do, our ticket times are three minutes or less, so it’s a really fast concept, so we felt like we can be now basically in between fast food and fast casual because typically a fast food, Burger King and McDonalds, things like that, you’re not really getting, compared to fast casual, the quality of the product.
We felt like we have the quality of really high end fast casual restaurant but yet we can serve it at fast food speeds, and so what that means for us is that we can do a location, stand alone location with a drive-through, and have a tremendous amount of success, so that’s our next move with that.
David Lamb: Does your success surprise you where you are today?
John Cassimus: No. I just felt like when I was here as a young child when I was eight years old, I went to football games, [inaudible 00:29:18] field, and watch Bear Bryant, Crimson Tide, and I just said I’m going to do that one day, and I’m just been always somebody that’s been extremely motivated. I felt like that I was here to do something great on this earth, whatever it is, and whatever I do, and I think the problem that I have, I don’t know if it’s a problem or if it’s a gift.
I think a lot of people that are really driven are never really satisfied, and I found myself as somebody that’s with everything in my life, I’m never really, I’m really never just happy with it, and I always want to push and push and push, and so Zoe’s kitchen and that story is such an amazing American dream, not only to sell it once, but then to go public and to be able to enjoy that, as far as a prosperity goes, and then look at what the brands on today.
A lot of people will hang their hat and that will be it, but I’m just trying to figure out what’s next. I feel like that that was, it was my football career for a long time, and then now it’s Zoe’s Kitchen and then now it’s got to be something else. I’m sure I’m here to do something bigger than all that, and I’m just in the process of working towards that and seeing what happens.
David Lamb: As you sit here looking back on your career, even though you’re a young fellow, and I believe you do have, you got a heck of a future.
John Cassimus: 50 young.
David Lamb: 50 young. You’re a young 50, John. As you sit here, what are you most proud of that you’ve accomplished?
John Cassimus: Well I think that I’m really proud of the fact that I played in almost 40 straight football games in Alabama, that was a huge undertaking and it was a life learning experience for me. It was being a superstar your whole life and then all of a sudden be an average, and learn how to deal with that and learn how to fight through that and when to quit and then learn what it meant not to quit, laying in bed at night crying and your teams and just trying to figure out how you got here, and then I did the same thing with Zoe’s kitchen.
I’ve laid in my bed as a mid-30 year old man, laid in bed at night and just internalizing all the things that I was doing, what was working, what wasn’t working that I was so close to being bankrupt so many different times and that people just don’t really understand. They have no clue. They looked at a guy like me, I was a pilot, and had a small little airplane and I’m flying around to these restaurants and they think that I’m just living the dream and everything is just perfect.
Yet I was at home every night knowing that it wasn’t going to work and that I’d lay in bed and go how did I screw this up? Why was I greedy? I could have been have build four stores and making plenty of money, but yet I wanted to grow this concept and what was I thinking and laying there just miserable and then fighting through it, and I think that the lessons that I learned about it from football in college, and just growing up being an athlete and pushing myself, and I just think it’s impossible for people to really grow as a person unless they push themselves at some point in their life beyond their limits both physically and mentally and only then can you grow I think as a person and sports did that for me. It’s a lot of different things for other people, but for me it was sports, and so that just put me in a position where I just would not quit.
David Lamb: You’re Alabama guy. Coach Nick Saban says this quite a bit, that he loves the wins and they’re fantastic but the sting of the loss is much harder for him to get over. Are there any do overs you wish you could do? Any things that if you, as now you’re a 50 year old fellow, you wish you could have another crack at them and you’d do them different?
John Cassimus: I have lots. For somebody like me, I’m just a perfectionist and so I have so many things in my life. Even when Zoe’s worked out or my career at Alabama worked out. I could look at details to actually running one route in the Penn State game in 1989. What I would have done different to get open and I internalize that and I think about that to this day which I just can’t stop and then I think about whether it was dropping a punt or doing something like that or making a wrong decision at Zoe’s or with Maki Fresh.
Miss Dots, what we’re doing now, and so I go through that every day. We make a lot of mistakes and I’m just committed to working through that and working hard through that and make it right.
David Lamb: Yeah, is that how you not let that tendency own you?
John Cassimus: Absolutely. Anybody that’s not making mistakes is not trying. Nobody is that smart. I’m not. I feel like I’m an expert in the food business and an expert in fast casual but yet we launched a new brand and picked two locations that were probably not the best locations for that actual food service style and what we were doing, and here I’ve been doing this for a long long time, and you go how did I miss that.
What it does is it says we learn from it, so it’s been kind of a blessing, but at the same time it’s painful because you’re working really hard to make something work, that probably the location is very difficult based on the customer profile, and so we’re dealing with that everyday, and which is a lot of people look at what we, they’re going to do perfect in everything they do. Nobody is like that.
David Lamb: It doesn’t happen.
John Cassimus: Yeah.
David Lamb: Last question. Your daughter, a niece, a nephew, a cousin. Someone really close to you comes to you and says they have a business. They have a restaurant they want to start. What’s your advice to them?
John Cassimus: Wow. If you want to be in a restaurant business and I get this a lot. First and foremost, if you’re going to be in the food business, you’ve got to understand something about food. If you’re going to do that, if you’re going to start a restaurant that’s not a franchise, you really got to know ultimately how to cook because if you can’t do every job inside of restaurant then you’re never going to be successful at it, and that’s the one thing.
Everyone of the stores that we have, I know how to cook every piece of product in the back of the house. I know exactly like at Zoe’s Kitchen. There’s not a human being on earth that knows how the back of the house or that concept works better than me because I did every job for years and years and years, and I know what the production can be, same thing with Maki Fresh, same thing with Miss Dots, and Jinsei, and so I think the first and foremost, you got to do that.
You got to be willing to work really hard, lead by example and have no pride. There’s no job that I wouldn’t do and still do. That means going in there and showing them how to clean the toilet or do whatever. We have to be able to do that. To be successful in the food business, we have to do that because we have to go build customers, you have to sell. We have to be a great salesperson.
When somebody walks in the door and they turn around and leave, I would go down there and chase them down the street and go hey, where are you going? Were you coming in? Were you looking for something to eat? Please come in. Let me let you try this, and hey if you’re not 100% satisfied, I’ll be happy to buy you a lunch.
I just do whatever it took to build those customers and I think that’s something that’s is tangible and people ask me, what is the single thing if you had to pin it on one thing, the leading success factor you’ve had, personality wise, and for me it’s very very simple because have an insane sense of urgency in everything that I do, and I think that if you have the sense of urgency in life then you can be a really good entrepreneur because everything has to happen immediately, and you need to get it done, and there’s no time to wait.
Because most people just don’t have the resources for time when it comes to starting a business, and I’d say especially in the food business, since urgency is critical, because it’s always about speed of service, quality of service, quality of the product and consistency.
David Lamb: John, appreciate the time.
John Cassimus: Man, my pleasure. Thanks.
David Lamb: Thank you.
John Cassimus: All right.
David Lamb: A real tree hanging out with John Cassimus and man do his restaurants get it right. A lot of fun and appreciate John giving us his time. As we wrap up, I want to thank you so much for giving us a shot. We are so grateful for this opportunity and want to let you know how honored we are to be with you. We believe we’re on a mission to help each other build on our dreams and business and life.