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  • Positive Polarity Podcast

A Business Perspective: Serving Inspiration and Joy to the Community Through Food

Chef Feker is an owner of Chef Feker restaurant group, and there's actually four restaurants in the Milwaukee area that you are involved with. So why don't you go ahead and fill us in on those four restaurants?

Absolutely. The first one that I started here in Milwaukee after I moved here from Los Angeles is IL MITO. And my second one is called Zesti, and that's in Heartland Lake country. The third one that I opened is called 2mesa, which is in Milwaukee and is my Mexican restaurant.

And the newest baby that was just born about four months ago is called Americas, and it's in Delafield. And the reason for every name is that there's got to be a story behind everything you do. Otherwise, life becomes boring. So, America's, the newborn, is based on all the continents and the hemisphere of the Americas all the way from Canada down. As a chef, creativity is the juice that drives us. And once that creative juice drives out, then the enjoyment goes away from cooking. So, I get to play, bring dishes from all these different parts of the world and work with them and make them the best way possible and bring something different to you as my patron that you can choose. All you need to do is just to bring your flavor passport.

So, do you have a favorite out of those?

That's like asking your mother, who's your favorite child. My wife being from Mexico, it took us a few years before we decided on opening our Mexican restaurant. But one of the things that are great to 2mesa is all of my wife's family recipes and the things that I have learned from her when it comes to the world of food, and I get to legally steal her recipes and be able to cook with them. And the beauty of it is she tastes them, and she says, this one needs a little bit more acidity. No, this is not as hard as it should be. This one is not seared enough. So, I love that. I love to have that in Milwaukee, my Mexican restaurant, and the new one Americas because those are the cuisines that I love. So, as you can see, I can't tell you which one is my favorite.

I know that you also do private events and that's where you and I met was at one of my client's private events. And Oh my gosh, you're so passionate about what you do. And that's why I wanted you on the show today to unpack that a little bit because you still have a business to run, and you still have to make money, and you still have certain things that you want to accomplish in life. So, where does your love for food and cooking come from?

That's the question that I ask myself frequently. And the reason I ask myself frequently is because I always need to refresh the source of what has fed me. I believe my upbringing and watching my mom and dad manifest the love for their friends for life, entertaining, and food. To me, food is a language that I speak with my accent and dialect. We all speak food; we just speak differently. And my first initial love for food that I truly looked at dining, not just filling the tank or feeding myself. And it was when I was 11 years old in London. And that's when suddenly certain things came together, and I went to this French restaurant. I'll never forget it was yesterday. We were sitting at the table, and they brought all these different, beautifully presented plates. It was all old classical French. Then take vegetables and reduce sauces that you could see that had flour as a thickening agent. The beauty was that I went back home that evening, and the next day I started making myself a plate, and I started trying to fan a pickle that was going to with the burger. So that's how it all started. I think when I was a child, the love that my mother and my father showed for food and through food is what stayed in my subconscious. And when I was really in need of doing something that was mine, and it was my foundation for life. That's how I went back to food.

And that's such a good point chef that you bring up because think of the entrepreneurs, the business owners that are listening to this right now, they have lost their way. What you said was awesome to go back to that source and go back to what got you started in that business. Whatever your business is, whoever's listening, go back to what that joy is and rediscover that. I've got to believe that your service would suffer if you didn't like what you were doing. The quality would suffer, the experience would suffer. I mean, everything suffers the day that you lose that passion. Right?

Absolutely. You're so correct, Dave. I look at my business as an octopus. We have the head, and then it has all these different legs, and it needs every leg to be able to swim and to stay afloat. One of the things that wasn't mentioned was the business itself because it is called restaurant business. It is not just called restauranting or chefing or cooking. I was lucky enough that my father trained me to a certain extent about the business aspects of what I do in life. To me, in a restaurant is a stage. And I manifest and show my art on that stage. If the lights are dark, I don't have any stage. So, whoever is listening will hopefully hear the point that our restaurant, any business, at least for me, has four wheels.

I have the service, I have the atmosphere, I have the food, and then I have the business. If any of these wheels are off, it doesn't matter how many horses are pulling the carriage. The carriage is always going to be wobbly, and the ride is going to be always uncomfortable. So, I've always got to refresh the fact that I love what I do and the day that I don't. And I cannot positively answer that question, that is the day I hang my hat. I've got to do something else then. So that's why I constantly try to repurpose myself. Even though I know the ultimate goal or the ultimate purpose, I constantly repurpose myself and face my presentation. Remember, out of sight, out of mind. So, I have to be able to do private events. I have to be able to be out there. I have to be able to do radio or podcasts. I have to do all of those things to feed and fuel the passion constantly. So many people these days, the word passion is used sometimes without walking the walk. And we just talk the talk. I have to know that I'm truly walking the walk, and my team is everything in being able to do this. I wouldn't be able as a restaurant or to be sitting here going through these podcasts and speaking to you here, if my team was not doing what they were doing, and that's what systemizing, and training is all about in at least in my business.

That rings such a bell for me because the how my business Positive Polarity back in 2012 was born, was actually on a Valentine's Day. My wife and I went out to dinner, and we went to one of these expensive, well-known restaurants. We went to this restaurant, and it's Valentine's day, so we're thinking that our emotions are high. We're thinking we're going to have a great time, great food, great experience all this. We had the worst experience because the person on that team, the last place she wanted to be was serving us. And we had such a bad experience. I said to my wife, "could you imagine if this particular restaurant would have invested 15 minutes of everybody's time, either brought somebody in as a coach or a trainer for 15 minutes and said, Hey, let's get up. Let's get excited."

You could tell that this person just got out of her car, didn't want to be there. And then she walked up to our table and said, "Hi, can I help you?" And it was no smile. There was no engagement. And it was such a letdown. We've never gone back to that restaurant again. When you say the team has everything, that's a hundred percent true because I don't even remember the food. I don't remember what I had. I don't remember anything other than I had a bad experience. So, I know when I go to your restaurant and the people there, the first time that I went, you know, to Zesti, and I just stopped in for lunch. They didn't know me from Adam. They didn't know. I just sat down. And I felt like I was the only one in the restaurant. So how do you train that into people to have that customer experience at such a high level?

First of all, about your Valentine's experience, it's so interesting that you mentioned that and the problem in that situation was that server saw it was possible. And she felt she was capable of acting the way she was acting and how she was bringing the negativity of life into her work. And who was allowing that to happen was the top. In my case, I have meetings with my staff, but I am a system created, I love creating system. And I love seeing my team follow through this system, but I also listen because if I don't listen and I think that I am the solution to everything I never grow. So, if one of my servers says something in the meeting, I say, "that's a great idea. Why don't we just implement that?". So, I do my training, according to what is in front of us. I think one of the big, big, big blessings that I am blessed with is I have worked in all aspects of the restaurant. I've done the front of the house. I do the back of the house. I know about POS. I do the day to day business, paying bills, all of those things I'm involved in. And I take all of those things that I experienced, and I make it a holistic point of conversation and meetings.

And I share those things with my staff. One of the things that I always tell everyone of my staff, "everybody, you are not in the business of carrying plates or feeding people. We are in the experience creation business." Somebody like Dave comes into the restaurant for one hour during his chaotic lunchtime. He wants for one hour to be pampered. Either pamper him or if you can't, then let me know. But I have to see the psychology of my team and understand that.

It is very easy to say, when you walk through those doors, leave your problems behind. It's not doable. It's not doable. I want you to look at this whole situation differently. I want you to know when you walk through those doors, you just walked into a sanctuary of peace for two hours, three hours, four hours. Doesn't matter how many hours you get away from the chaos of life. Right? Because if I try to tell them, don't think about real life. It's not real. It's not real, but all of us as humans, we want, we are searching for that sanctuary in life every day, every minute.

We are in the business of experience creation, not feeding.

I'm assuming that when you're looking to hire somebody or when you want to add to your team, you're more looking at their mold, the ability, and the potential that they have. They might know how to memorize a menu. They might know how to carry the plates as you said, but at the end of the day, if they are not good at that experience creation, they're going to have a hard time being successful. I would guess. Correct?

Not only on my team, I believe in life. And that's the way I approached every one of my team members yesterday. I had an interview for a new team member that decided immediately she was so happy about it. But she applied for a server. And my first question to her was, what experience do you have in fine dining? And she mentioned a few restaurants. And I said, you know, the funny thing is we put our experiences on a piece of paper, and we expect that when somebody is reading, it is going to be sufficient. To me, that's not sufficient because whatever experience you've had in another restaurant does not satisfy my system. So, to train you correctly, you need to start as a hostess because you remember servers make tips as a hostess. That's going to make this much an hour and get a percentage of the dining room staff tips. So, you will be making tips because I've got to think about those things. My whole issue is one of the biggest issues that I see in restaurants is somebody comes in and fills out an application for a restaurant server, and we think they're capable of serving. They are not.

You have service, and you have plate carriers. For me to create servers, I need to train them in every aspect. They don't need to know what is, for example, Gaya Barolo wine, but they need to know what a Barolo is. They need to know what the Cabernet Sauvignon is. So, when you, as a customer, come and give yourself to us for two hours, they can say, "by the way, how is your Cabernet? It is amazing the full-body, but it doesn't linger on your pallet too long. You know, it just cleanses it."

Things like that, I share with them. And I got to train them because if I don't, I'm the one at fault. I threw her under the bus, and I expect it to perform a way she doesn't. So how can I blame someone else when I made the original and the initial mistake? And that's what happens. So, she's fine with that. She's starting. And I said, by the way, you're going to school, what are you majoring in? She said, marketing. I said you have no idea what you just did because there is no other business, better than the restaurant business to master marketing. Imagine what other businesses you deal with 200 different people a day, different characters, different stress levels in life, and different habits, but you have to adapt. So, I tell them, you guys are psychiatrists. You are not just servers. You need to go into Dave's mind for an hour and figure out how can he be pampered in a way that he gets addicted to what we do, right?

In my opinion, especially in a one-on-one situation, such as the restaurant business, timing is everything. And it goes back to what you said, how can I pass that experience? That's why if you come to my house and go out to dinner together, I can stop feeding you. You know, it's just like constantly have a taste of this one. Can I get you more wine? You know, it's constant at the same time when I know you want to be left alone. That's why I tell my staff; you've got to be psychiatrists. You got to analyze your guests' character and know when to leave them alone and when to pampered.

And right now, customer experience is such a hot topic because people are paying more for good experiences. I mean, the statistics show that well, over 50% of people will pay more for a better experience. When a team member comes to my table, and they're very aware that they're the creator of that experience, that's got to be a lot of responsibility that I really like because they're taking that ownership on themselves. They think that it's up to me to create this great experience from any business perspective. People are looking at customer experience as such an important key element. And so I love the fact that we're calling them, you know, team members.

And I think that they should have a responsibility to do their absolute best for me as a, as a, as a client, as a guest. But they also do it for themselves so that that's got to be kind of hard to find the right fit for your team. How do you do that?

It is difficult to find good team members, but my approach to finding team members is I don't hire a technicality. I hire attitudes. You'll give me your attitude. I'll give you my heart. And I'll teach you through the entire property process. If you are teachable, you will succeed in life. If you're not, we're going to stay stagnant, and we're going to stay in place. And I talked to my team members as if they're my children, because if I don't show that love for each one of them and that respect for each one of them, and there is no connection. But I use that same analogy the other way around, like any relationship, all relationships may end one day.

So, this is a two-way relationship. You are my representative. I am your backbone. So, we've got to work together to make sure that the team succeeds. For example, in soccer, you have 11 players, right? They all know that they have something to do. And they have ownership of the success of that team. Whether we lose or we win, we are responsible. So, I look at our reviews, these days, the world of technology, and we have many, many, many reviews, and they are great. Some restaurants are fearful of reviews, and they pay someone, for example, to remove negative reviews. If that's the case, you're never going to learn there. I want to know what they experienced and why he didn't like what happened.

I want to grow and become better. If somebody says the risotto was what salty, I did not create a proper system to ensure that the salt level is correct. So, where do I input the salt and the seasoning? Not at the last minute during the rush of a Saturday night, because if the seasoning is not done correctly at the right time, the flavors are not going to be layered. So, the guys in the kitchen, my backbone and my team members in the kitchen, every time I have a chance, teach them the "whys," not the "how's." Cooks know the "how's." Chefs know the "why's." And when you put the "how's" and the "whys" together, then the team and the system that you are creating becomes magnificent.

One of the things that I do is consulting. I also write I have my article on the Milwaukee lifestyle every month. And I write, I consult, I do restaurants for people. I think, "Hey, you're a restauranteur, and you don't want anybody else to be successful except yourself?" Absolutely not totally wrong. Actually. I'm the other way around. And I'm a part of that world. So, I'm going to become powerful with that world. So, I love going into restaurants and just shadowing when I'm consulting for them, I shadow for a few days. And I'm not one of those things that you see on TV. That's horrendous. That's disgusting. This is terrible. What the hell are you doing? You know, nobody learns like that. Nobody learns like that. So, what I do, I go, I shadow, I watch. And then I take the guys in the kitchen. I sit with them and say, "Okay, let's correct what we can collect right now with the existing menu." And we go in there, and I create a system for them. I'll put them in place. I check on them constantly. I make sure they know that "oh my God, that's the most amazing egg I've ever tasted. That's the fluffiest omelet ever. Do you know why?" and they say, "No." Because you, when you make eggs, you have to make sure a certain amount of water content. So, the water creates bubbles and steam and fluffs your eggs.

So, when you're going to whisk that egg, I want you to put this much water in there and whisk it because the water will turn to steam, and it's going to create a fluffy egg for you. So, I got to think about, wait a minute, and he can't have a spoon on the water next to him on a Sunday morning brunch and do one egg at a time. That's not going to work. There's going to be behind on that. So, I create a squeeze bottle with water in it and everything else that I wanted to go into the egg sitting next to him on a Sunday, when he's whisking, just squeezing one squeeze. And that would be the quantity of the water has a system created. I've got to analyze all of these things. I cannot go and tell my team, or let's say now go back to the office and the business aspects of the restaurant.

I cannot tell my office manager or my bookkeeper to do a certain thing, unless I explained why, for example, make sure this bill is paid, like this, because we are all in the business of juggling money. We don't have an unlimited amount of money coming into the business. My dad taught me something beautiful. Son, you may not be able to control your income, but you can always control your expenses because you're in charge. So, I got to teach that to my staff as well, my team members.

So, you went to the California Culinary Academy. Do you learn that type of stuff there, or is that the trial and error over the years that that got you to that point? Or where did you get that sequence of events to happen?

That is the school of hard knocks. And that's the experience of life that you recall in the world of food. I call that layering flavors. I need to understand how an ingredient reacts. If I add the wine to your risotto, while there is liquid or water already, the alcohol content of the wine is not going to evaporate. We don't cook with wine because we want alcohol flavor or alcohol content. We cook with wine because it's grape juice. And we want to evaporate the water content of that grape and the alcohol content of that wine away, and it maximizes the flavor of the grapes. That's why they say don't cook with the wine that you're not willing to sip. You don't need to buy an expensive bottle of wine, but a good red wine should be dry. And we do not want the wine to overpower it.

I learned all of those things by watching chefs that I worked for and asking, "why are they doing those things?" But the problem with many chefs is they never tell you the "why's." And I found my mentor that's somebody that was a historian of food and flavor, and he would explain why, because he did not want to have to explain constantly. He wanted to create a system, teach me and say, okay, go with it now. And that's how I started. Dave, I teach this to my guys every day, or in any system I don't come in and consult for you and say, okay, let me hold onto this.

And success to me is looking at my ultimate goal, and with every day of work that I do, I'm getting closer to that work. That goal that's success. To me, success doesn't mean that, okay, I want to open a restaurant and make this much money and okay, then now I'm successful. No is not the destination that matters. It is the journey. Success for me is having your fun journey through everything that I do in no matter what I do in life.

So, and I love the fact that you know, you said you hire for attitude, so your attitude has to be, up there as well all the time. You're always up. You're always excited. Are you spending a lot of your day out on the floor, so to speak, interacting with your guests?

Now again, that's the blessing that I have. I have a great team that allows me to do that. I have people in the kitchen that have been with me no less than 11 years. My chef has been with me for 18 years. So, I go in there, and he's not my chef. He's my fingerprints. That's the beauty of it because I teach him every little thing. So I keep it like that. But again, in other things that I'm blessed with that I keep excitement around me constantly. And I feed off of it. And the way I do that, no matter what I'm doing, I've got to be excited about it. Otherwise, I cannot pass that on to anybody.

You know, there's excitement in that for me. To make it a system implemented, stay on top of it, make sure it goes on correctly. There's excitement in it for me. And I keep it exciting. And the same thing with everything else that I tried to do. You say exactly that when I first opened my first restaurant, I was so excited. But when I was working for others, I didn't have the responsibility of bills. I didn't have the responsibility of staff or training and so on. Suddenly you walk into this world at the beginning. He was so excited until the bills arrived, and you go, Holy God. Think about that.

Will you tell me at least or share with us your favorite meal?

Yeah. I love simple stuff. Well roasted chicken with lemon and rosemary in the cavity. A great bottle of wine, some crusty bread, and good Irish butter. That's it.

What's one thing that most people don't know about you?

I love to dance. I love dancing, and I love skiing so on and so forth. But I think one of the things that people don't know about me is how addicted I am to my wife and children. I am absolutely in love. And that's one of the reasons I think why every day I have even more of a drive to bring and provide fun and a good way for my children and to my wife. Also, some people may not know is that one day there was a time that I had a ponytail.

And you are starting your podcast?

I am, I am. You know this is another thing in life, my dad used to say, "son in life, we are best when we are teachers." So, I am at the point of my life that I can teach. I can systemize. I can create systems for others. A podcast is a wonderful way to not only discuss with someone else about things that interests me. I want to share what has touched my soul and has taught me to live life through my podcasts. I go through my article on the Milwaukee lifestyle. I never just write to write. I write for a cause and a purpose. Like, what do we do now? To me, that is the best time to make up for a lot of incidents created between families and friends. Especially with this blessed country, rarely are we forced to do something, but this virus forced us to gather around the table, break bread together, and force us to stay at home for two months. And that is the perfect time for us to make up for some lost time. For example, those are the things that I write about. Those are the things that I talked about and my podcast. I can't wait.

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