In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Bettina Stern, co-founder of Chaia Tacos. Bettina shares her experience leading a business through crisis and her plans for growing Chaia Tacos nationally.
Also mentioned in this episode:
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of “Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder”
Brett Schulman, Co-Founder and Chief Executive of Cava Group
Connect with Bettina Stern
Connect with Mahan Tavakoli
More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website:
Welcome to partnering leadership. I'm really excited to go along this journey of learning and growth with you, and love the feedback that you're sending my way, firstname.lastname@example.org and there's a microphone icon on partnering leadership.com where you can leave me voice messages.
And that is exactly why we're doing some more series on antifragile leadership because you've been telling me you love those and want to hear even more examples of antifragility. Now, as you may recall, antifragility is a concept that was first defined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. He talks about fragile systems.
Think about, if you're wanting to ship some champagne flutes, you put them in a box, put lots of stickers on it because you're afraid with the smallest amount of pressure, those champagne flutes are going to break. Now, some of us as people can also be that way. Some organizations are that way, broken based on pressure.
There's also robust systems. A lot of times, we celebrate being robust. Not breaking, not letting anything happen to the person. Picture, you're sending a box of shoes. You don't put fragile on it, but you sure don't put on it: mess with this box, fill it up and down. It doesn't benefit from pressure. It doesn't benefit from being thrown around.
And then there are resilience systems. Everyone’s talking about resilience and yes, resilience is good, but resilience, by definition, in many instances, is going back to previous shape and form. The way your rubber band is resilient and when stretched, goes back to its previous shape. The best leaders, the best organizations are not looking to go back to the way things were.
They want to be truly antifragile. Antifragile systems, similar to the way human bones work, the way human muscles work, become better and stronger and benefit from breakage. So the leaders that are leading as antifragile leaders are looking at this moment saying, what can we do to become stronger and better than before?
None of us wanted the breakage. However, we got it. So at this point, rather than thinking about the good old days, rather than wanting to just be resilient and go back to the way things were, we need to create a better future. This is a moment for antifragility, which is why I'm so excited this week to be having a conversation with Bettina Stern. Bettina, along with her partner, Suzanne Simon founded Chaia Tacos.
And we talked about how they have tried to be antifragile at this time. Now, even before the pandemic, I love the quote that Bettina said “Don't see the future as a fixed destination, but rather a place you can create out of the choices that you make.” And we do have choices ahead of us. Do we want to become better and stronger as a result of this breakage or not?
Now, don't forget to subscribe and follow, depending on your platform of choice, so you are first notified of new episodes. If you choose to listen to these podcast episodes on Apple, rate and review. Apple cares about those. And help lift someone else up, help lift another leader up, by sharing the concept of antifragility with them.
Let's work together to build a better future. Now, here is my conversation with Bettina Stern.
Bettina Stern, welcome to Partnering leadership podcast.
Oh, Mahan, I’m so thrilled to be here.
I love your story and most especially, the antifragility that you are showing at this point, with your partner, leading Chaia Tacos. But first, I wanted to find out a little bit about the background. You had experience in editorial publishing. Suzanne, your partner, in environmental science and consulting. What made you think that you could start a food chain?
I think any born to be entrepreneur has a sense of taking risks, right? So this is something I had always wanted to do, was to create my own unique business. And when I say that, I didn't necessarily know where, what area that would be.
And Suzanne Simon, my business partner and I, met through a love of food. We were introduced through food. We were introduced by a friend who was moving away and said, you two should know each other because you like to cook. So I invited Suzanne into a cookbook club I had recently formed and she started cooking with me and with some other really bright women during the years when our kids were quite young.
So fast forward a number of years and Suzanne and I are ready to get back into the workforce full-time. We've decided that we want to work together and we begin concocting different business ideas for Washington DC. And the first couple of ideas were really sort of ahead of their time. And the first one was that we wanted to do a food truck. There were no food trucks anywhere beyond, really, Vancouver and Portland, Oregon and DC had pretty crappy food back in the day.
And we thought, you know, we love to cook. We're feeding our families healthy food. We're treating our friends to really good meals. How can we bring that to a mobile operation? But we each had three kids and the city had a moratorium on food vending licenses and we were like, well, we're not going to deal with this rigmarole.
So we started a food blog and we started teaching people how to have confidence in their own kitchens. And we started to grow a following. We started to meet folks around the city who could help us to do that. And fast forward again a few years, we've been teaching, we've been in the farmer's market, we've been meeting all different kinds of folks, we've been maturing, and we get asked, we get tapped to enter a startup food competition for a restaurant media.
So we based our mini business plan around a cooking class that we had taught, hand griddling corn tortillas and filling them with deliciously cooked, beautifully crafted and prepared, seasonal local vegetables tacos. All with handmade salsas, yummy tiny cheeses, the right garnish for the top, and it was a very big hit.
So we wrote up this business plan and we got into the competition as one of the finalists. And at the competition, there were eight different local entrepreneurs and they loved the idea. The women behind the FRESHFARM Market, which is the largest farm market consortium in the area, said, this is fantastic, you're sourcing from all of our producers. Please consider coming to one of our markets to test this crazy esoteric idea we had of filling these corn tortillas, that we'd learned how to make, with roasted butternut squash with caramelized onion and Chipotle yogurt sauce or creamy kale and potato tacos with salsa verde.
So we did. We became one of the first five handful of members, really, at the city's first incubator kitchen. We became a member, we got the pick of our table and where we wanted to be near those stoves and the ovens. We signed our lease there. We bought all the equipment we thought we'd need. We bought a 10 by 10 foot tent and a folding table and the pots and pans and everything that we would need to get this operation going.
And a month later we appeared, Suzanne and I, with our small tent and our food to make a Taco Trio and enough quantity to feed fifty people that very first day, May 3rd, 2015. We sold out in an hour and a half. So we came back the next week and we brought enough food to feed a hundred people and we brought a friend to handle the cashier. We sold out again in an hour and a half.
And before six weeks were up, The Washington Post had written about us. And by the end of that first farmer's market, which would be six months later when the season ended, it was October 31st, it was a Halloween, we were all dressed up, we had been named one of the city's top nine tastemakers.
So we absolutely realized we had an idea that people were interested in and that there was a desire for this crazy, boujee, yummy, delicious vegetable taco.
Even with that success, Bettina, which is magnificent to hear, you had an advisor, consultant look at two of you, you and Suzanne, say, two women, you're never going to make it in this business.
Yeah, he was somebody that we mistakenly partnered with at the beginning to act as our, you know, bookkeeper, finance guy, as a consultant. So not one of our strong team members, but still the fact that he said, you guys will have a bullseye on your back because you're two women. Just should have known that that was a red flag because it actually was the exact opposite.
This town, Washington DC, our community of restaurant owners and people are so generous of both their time and their energy. They want you to succeed. If you have a good idea and a good product, they're rooting for you. And the same for us with everybody else, you know, I think of our colleagues, who've gone much bigger than us, the boys from Sweetgreen or Brett Schulman, who's a terrific mentor to us, who's the CEO of Cava Grill. They've all grown huge with lots of backing and, you know, we're hoping that we can get there. That's the plan, is for us to take it to that level where we can take this plant forward concept and move it all the way across the country, all through the country. So the second tier markets, third tier markets, and then to my hometown of New York City eventually.
And as you were growing the concept, I love a quote. This is way before the pandemic hit. You said, “Don't see the future as a fixed destination, but rather a place you can create out of the choices that you make.” What a brilliant quote, because then in March of 2020, we were hit with a pandemic that obviously has impacted everyone, but impacted restaurants more so. What ended up first happening as the pandemic was hitting us with you and Chaia Tacos?
I'm a news junkie and I had been really paying attention to the fact that something was coming. And had begun to alert team members, the colleagues, my friends, to start preparing and that we needed to begin taking action.
So it wasn't a huge surprise that on March 12th, heading into that weekend, we started to prepare for what would be a virtual closing of our doors to the general public. We never shut down. I mean, we were an elevated fast casual, so we were already poised to have food delivered out the door. There were, we were already set up, we had all the right equipment to do that, but all of a sudden our staff of 30 disappeared because half of the people that worked for us were students, and that was a positive for Chaia because we didn't need to let anybody go.
Those wonderful workers went home to their moms and dads and somewhere safe. Of the remaining 15, half of them didn't want to work. They were scared, they might be pregnant, they might have a health issue, they might have a parent or a partner with a health issue. And so, half of them, we didn't have to worry about.
But then we still had about eight people who needed to work, wanted to work, were willing to work, were willing to dig in and put the grit in and we weren't able to bring all eight of them back initially. You know, it was probably six of them, there were a couple who were waiting in the wings. That took a few weeks to get there, but eventually we did. Suzanne and I decided, we have two stores, we have one in Georgetown, the original store, and we have the newer store downtown that we would divide and conquer. We would each take a shop and we would shepherd it through this crisis.
So I took our original shop down in Georgetown and she took the Chinatown shop and we have our bubbles, our partite little pods there, and our staff has been amazing. It really is more, more like family in many ways because actually a lot of our employees are interconnected. The two women who lead our kitchens, both the Chinatown and the Georgetown, happened to be sisters. And here in Georgetown, the elder sister works for me and her son works for us.
So it's pretty tight here, but those first couple of months, you know, really into the beginning of June and the protests were brutal. They were really tough physically and emotionally for me, particularly, I will say, I felt like I couldn't stop because it wasn't just keeping the store open and being here and actually, you know, getting back on the ground again, getting in the business, getting my hands dirty. But it was the constant pivoting and iterating and what's the next thing we're going to try to bring revenue coming in here.
Meanwhile, we're having to apply for grants, go for SBA loans and we're having to be on all the time because it was first come first serve with a lot of our stuff and we secured it all, but it meant we needed to be on all the time. So that was definitely exhausting.
We worked that out - by the summer time, things started to level out and I stopped being in here all the time. Basically, beginning of June, I said, I'm not working on weekends. You don't need me. Let's pay more money to have other people work here than me. But, you know, we didn't start the business to give it up.
So yes, we're in a really tough position. It's a very hard place to be, but anything worthwhile takes a long time, right? Maybe some article in The New York Times about this, I don’t know if you saw this little mochi, did you see the story about the mochi standup in the Japanese mountains? And literally this company has been going, this little operation has been going for over a thousand years.
So you need to invest your energies in ways that are sustainable and led by a long-term vision. So we've got knocked back a few steps in terms of like, we were on a trajectory that just stopped. But what that allowed us to do was to begin to think what was really working wrong, what wasn't working well, where can we fix things? So that we actually come out of this stronger than we went in, than at the beginning. And I think we're working on a number of things that hopefully have that goal in sight.
And that’s, you know, that's absolutely what I love about your story. Obviously, the exhaustion, the hard work, everything that you had to go through, it is not a crisis or something you had anticipated or wanted. But you have been focused on making Chaia Tacos even better and stronger as a result of the current crisis and are even looking at expanding from what I understand.
Well, we are, and actually looking at the operation sides of things and how do we simplify processes? You know, how do we go from doing something taking five steps to taking three steps?
How do we go from two shops to actually opening up a number of much smaller stores with different operations and efficiencies? Something we didn't even have time to think about before, we now have some luxury and time to do that because things are slower.
Listen, we went into this later in life career decision to become entrepreneurs and jump off the dock, really, with absolutely zero clue of how to do any of it. And it's just been an incredibly steep, steep learning curve. Not only it's a steep learning curve learning how to open up one store, then we went to go open up a second store and then we get thrown this pandemic.
So leadership, it’s like a practice of a multitude of professional skills, right? You've got to take time to develop. I think what I have to offer is that I have creativity, I'm passionate, I'm persuasive. Although, if you don't like my idea and you think it's a bad one, alright, forget it, we won't do it. And then I just move on to the next idea, right? So I'm super adaptable and can hone skills and dig in if I agree with the idea.
There's certain things I don't like to do and I'm not good at, and you do need to know what you're not good at and what other people are good at and let some of that go.
Yeah and I get a sense that you get motivated when like that initial advisor, consultant, the person tells you that you are not able to make it, get motivated by that.
And again, in this hurdle that has been thrown in front of the organization, you are looking at ways to become stronger and better as a result. A true example of what a great antifragile leader is and what antifragility is all about.
Right. Well, thank you. I mean, again, as I said earlier, I'm not ready to give up.
I'm going to remain vigilant and honed in on what I want to do and somewhat paranoid that this could keep going on, but optimistic that we will ride it out, right. So we're navigating a crisis globally and everybody's in it to different degrees.
I am glad that I'm busy. I'm glad that I - it's hard. I should have been here these whole nine months and not really spend much time away or get break, really. Although I did take some time off, so that's okay. But keeping balance, work-life balance. I have a wonderful husband and three amazing kids, older kids, and they are, the family's really strong.
So this Thanksgiving we played The Six Word Story. Have you heard of The Six Word Story? So I asked everybody on a, on a thread, right, my kids, my oldest son is married, the girlfriends, and the wife's parents, and we all played it. Mine just came right to me, it was Chaia main focus, family going strong. So the family didn't need me this year. The family was in good shape, the immediate family, but the business needed everything, thankfully.
Yeah, and you have given everything to it, Bettina. Thank you for the yummy food. More importantly, thank you for setting an example of what leadership in times of crisis is all about. Thank you so much for your leadership, Bettina Stern.
Co-Founder of Chaia Tacos
As a ‘second stage’ entrepreneur, Bettina Stern is addressing the challenges of growing a business. Although she works in the restaurant industry, she knows that there are fundamental principles that apply to any business. She believes that with creativity, the right staff, a unique company culture, proactive management practices, smart governance, strong leadership and capitalization—all these tools are imperative to steer businesses toward future growth and continued prosperity.