Ethan Huynh is the Founder and CEO of EAAT Restaurant Group. He’s currently based in Austin, Texas, where he operates several restaurants, including HappyRito Seafood, his newest venture. He has been a restaurateur for 14 years and previously worked as a sushi chef. Ethan has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and an associate’s degree in culinary arts and chef training from Nicholls State University.
Here’s a Glimpse of What You’ll Hear:
- How Ethan Huynh got started in the restaurant industry
- The biggest challenges Ethan faced as a restaurant owner
- What is the key to building a thriving restaurant?
- How the labor shortage is affecting new restaurants
- Ethan explains how he is innovating his restaurant systems
In this episode…
In this episode of the SpotOn Series, Chad Franzen talks with Ethan Huynh, the Founder and CEO of EAAT Restaurant Group, about his experience as a restaurant owner and operator. Ethan discusses the challenges of opening new restaurants just before and during the pandemic. He also explains how innovation, such as self-service ordering, can relieve many of the new pressures restaurants are feeling, and how fresh ideas can make your restaurant a success. To hear more, tune in to this episode.
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Chad Franzen 0:20
Chad Franzen here, co-host for this show where we feature top restauranteurs investors and business leaders. This is part of our SpotOn series. SpotOn has the best in class payment platform for retail and they have a flagship solution called spot on restaurant where they combine marketing software and payments all in one. They’ve served everyone from larger chains like Dairy Queen and subway to small mom and pop restaurants. To learn more go to SpotOn.com. This episode is brought to you by Rise25. We help b2b businesses to get ROI clients referrals and strategic partnerships through done for you podcast. If you have a b2b business and want to build great relationships with clients referral partners and thought leaders in your space there’s no better way to do it than through podcasts and content marketing. To learn more, go to Rise25media.com or email us at [email protected] Ethan Huynh has been a restaurant tour for 14 years. He’s the founder and operator of EAAT Restaurant Group that’s E Double A T Restaurant Group. He’s currently based in Austin, Texas, Ethan, thanks so much for joining me. How are you? Good. Thank you. Hey, yeah, so how did you get into the restaurant industry?
Ethan Huynh 1:27
How did I get I in college, I went to college at UL Lafayette, Louisiana. And while going to college, I was able to become a sushi chef. And that was once you have introduced to that we kind of I mean, community, I was able to learn the steps of running a I mean, doing sushi there. So I decided after graduate. After graduation, I wanted to open my own restaurant. So that’s what happened with my first restaurant.
Chad Franzen 1:54
Wow, did you had you been in the restaurant industry in high school or anything just in college?
Ethan Huynh 1:59
In high school, I worked at Burger King to understand corporate settings and things like that. I actually worked in my mama’s gas station and I have a galleon there. I did that when I was 12. So I’ve always within the food business. But yeah, after that it was just it kept calling me so I decided to pursue
Chad Franzen 2:21
So you were in college and you worked at a restaurant where you became a sushi chef. Were you studying like culinary arts? are we studying something else?
Ethan Huynh 2:29
Actually studying business management.
Chad Franzen 2:31
Okay, did you get that degree?
Ethan Huynh 2:33
I did get a bachelor’s in business management. And then you
Chad Franzen 2:37
How did you work your way into becoming a chef, as becoming a sushi chef, when you get started working in a restaurant.
Ethan Huynh 2:44
My passion is food. I get it from my mom. She’s a great cook. And we’ve never had a restaurant. But she’s always been one of those cooks where everybody praises her and things like that. And it just so happens to everything fall fell into place that I had an opportunity. And I learned the craft. As a businessman, a businessman, I realized, you know you you have to learn everything top to bottom, just just to be prepared. And that’s what I did, and eventually went to Navy, Navy had opportunity to open my own and it’s been a struggle. It’s not easy, but having some experience before that definitely helped.
Chad Franzen 3:24
What is unique about being a sushi chef, you know, because you know, it’s raw fish. What’s what’s unique about that compared to maybe being a chef or other types of foods,
Ethan Huynh 3:34
I don’t the artistry behind it. Just this is great plating involved, techniques. And the you never stop learning. You’re always getting ideas and things on Instagram or other chefs other restaurants. So it’s a constant learning experience that lasts forever. And that’s one of the things that I see it it’s interesting with with sushi,
Chad Franzen 4:04
you said it’s been you know, I think most restaurant tours but say there are often times where it’s a struggle. What about the industry is exciting for you?
Ethan Huynh 4:13
Right now, he tapped me on the street. I mean, it was talking about pre pandemic without the situation that everybody’s in now with the wave shortage and things like that. It’s it’s just a great environment where people, strangers coming together, and we’re building this this this thing where does it go? It really depends on us. It depends on the culture and how how it grows monthly yearly, until it becomes a successful business. But it’s the people that you know we worked with to to get this out.
Chad Franzen 4:52
Tell me about EAAT Restaurant Group and
Ethan Huynh 4:56
EAAT Restaurant Group. I my first restaurant was a sushi restaurant in 2008 in Houma, Louisiana, names, ZenSushi of Houma, that, that gave me all their experience as, as a chef as a restaurant tour as the marketing part, everything, wear all the hats basically. I did that. And maybe five years ago, I ended up going to culinary school to get further education on the restaurant industry in the hospitality industry. I was, you know, I was able to successful as a restaurant already first restaurant, but I just wanted to really learn about everything. So I did that. And I was able to start at a three Michelin restaurant as internship with the appropriate culinary program, Nicholls State University, John FOSS culinary school. And I was able to start at a three Michelin restaurant in San Francisco named Benu budget for the week. And that being out there, the chef side, entrepreneurial side, restaurant for side, I just got to see a level where I never knew existed. And that’s when I gathered everything up. And I decided, I would like to create my own restaurant. Because, you know, I’ve seen levels, I’ve seen all the details, and how to operate a successful restaurant. And that’s where the restaurant group comes up.
Chad Franzen 6:20
Give me the example of where kinda like, you know, a light bulb went off in your head like, well, I did. That was something I never would have thought of, if I
Ethan Huynh 6:28
In what aspect, the chef side? Oh,
Chad Franzen 6:31
yeah, like on the chef side.
Ethan Huynh 6:32
On the chef side, what blew my mind was one technique, it’s to be, but was able to get beef your flavor to being by using the the beef the steak, and serving it with beef broth. Just little, little small details like that, that raises as a chef is, it makes sense, you know, in developing flavor, you try to incorporate as much as possible. And that was one instance that raised my eyebrow.
Chad Franzen 7:04
What about from maybe a culture side or a business side
Ethan Huynh 7:08
Business side? ah, the details, the details of, for instance, we would have a deep cleaning day, on a Wednesday, every day, you know, every restaurant cleans, so this is the mission. So it everything counts, the food, the cleanest service, everything is the whole is the whole package. And seeing down being able to implement things that you can tell as a restaurant for as entrepreneur, that it keeps the system running is consistent. So you were clean every day, but on a Wednesday, everybody was going an extra hour to deep clean to really tighten up more detail. And that to me, the rotation of the cleaning, cleaning process of the restaurant, is how you’re able to sustain.
Chad Franzen 7:58
So what does our EAAT Restaurant Group consists of that.
Ethan Huynh 8:02
Right now I have the sushi restaurant I still have under my belt. I recently during COVID I open two locations in a franchise with zero degrees. I recently just closed it. So I can concentrate on opening my own independent concept which I’m focusing on right now. We’ll see.
Chad Franzen 8:22
Okay, can you tell me about so you have the the sushi restaurant? What’s that one called?
Ethan Huynh 8:27
Zen Japanese Grill and Sushi Bowl.
Chad Franzen 8:29
And where’s that one? That one’s in Houma, Louisiana. Okay, yeah, that’s been that’s been around for like, more than 10 years.
Ethan Huynh 8:36
14 years. I have my chef on my machine that started with me from a decade ago. He was able to get in as part. He runs that name. His name is Kenny Bergeron.
Chad Franzen 8:47
And that one has survived for quite a while and even while you were away in culinary school, what were some of the early days like as you open that place,
Ethan Huynh 8:58
in that location, that area was tough. You’re dealing with competition, you’re dealing with hurricanes, and you basically we actually just got hit with that hurricane Ida. And we will shut down for a month. Hi, yah, Houma. And in my 14 years of business, we would have a scare every single year we something would happen. But this was the big one that came through the one that I was always afraid of when I was operating out there.
Chad Franzen 9:25
And then you so but what was the key to you know, having it survive if not thrive for the past decade or more
Ethan Huynh 9:34
Grind, grinding it out, as operated grinding out as an entrepreneur, as a chef, just it’s tough. It was tough. We had the BP oil spill we had hurricanes, competition, all kinds of stuff. Pandemic now that can get to the pandemic was that kind of thing, everybody upside
Chad Franzen 9:57
down? How so well exposed Maybe for you like, Wow, that really affected me.
Ethan Huynh 10:02
You didn’t know what to expect. He was never in that position of shutting down. I, I was very fortunate. I was in Austin actually. So I was able to help from afar to fall. Right sit, knowing what we’re talking at what we do what you know, and things was just so fluid that I was stressful. I’m very grateful that I have a partner that you know, was able to execute it. But it was it was a definitely a learning experience. Something to tell people through the ages. Sure,
Chad Franzen 10:41
I’m sure. You talked about the labor shortage is that still something that you guys are dealing with?
Ethan Huynh 10:47
That is that’s actually the reason why I shut down the franchise was to friend I was I was a franchisee labor market it’s it’s it’s horrendous. I don’t know. I don’t know. Any remedy anytime soon. I’m searching I’m trying to figure out like what what they have they have to be solution for every problem is a solution. But it’s it’s tough. owning a restaurant right now. It’s probably the toughest it’s ever been in my arms.
Chad Franzen 11:19
Sure, sure. I don’t doubt it. Nevertheless, you’ve you’re working on or you’ve opened, I believe HappyRito Seafood. Is that right?
Ethan Huynh 11:27
I’m actually working on that right now. Hopefully open within two weeks. I’m trying gathering up the team. So basically, if you have consolidating, you know the talents in team because this is hard to get labor, you know, and you can’t just teach them even if you can, can get the staffing. It doesn’t take it takes a while to teach them your standards, culture, how things are random things like that. And it’s just constant. And that badly. That’s what I see. And other restaurants boards and operators see out there where it’s, it’s a never ending cycle.
Chad Franzen 12:03
So tell me a little bit about your vision for HappyRito Seafood.
Ethan Huynh 12:08
Happy Rito Seafood is a counter service model. Around 1800 square feet small footprint. So the rent won’t be too expensive. And I’m selling what I’m from Louisiana. So this is my first Cajun Louisiana Concept. I’m doing out in Austin, Texas. So we’re gonna have simple techniques, you know, fry party who boiled seafood and drinks, projects.
Chad Franzen 12:40
Is there going to be a Vietnamese elements?
Ethan Huynh 12:42
It’s okay, I have a sushi background. I’m nice. I am a Cajun. So it’s a blend. It’s a blend of you’ll have some some some some fun Japanese stuff in there. You have some venomous stuff in there. You’ll have some Cajun stuff. Definitely. It’s just my first Cajun concept. And this to me like to open a full service right now in these times. If it’s difficult, sure. So hopefully this this counts, and I believe chefs, were leaning towards this leaning towards a small footprint independent independent ships holding more of a smaller footprint. Something ways can be easily not easily managed with believe.
Chad Franzen 13:28
Yeah. Will you be the chef at the restaurant?
Ethan Huynh 13:31
I am Chef, operator. Yeah. I’m everything right now honestly, believe everybody’s in the same shoes. We have to do it all.
Chad Franzen 13:42
And then what does that mean for you? In terms of like time commitment.
Ethan Huynh 13:46
I’m hoping I can get this concept up and running smoothly to three months. But honestly, with the staffing situation, I’m doing the hiring. And I can tell I can see that. It’s I mean, I got 20 applicants, I was able to contact can only one showed up. And they can only work one day on a Saturday. So that kind of gives you an idea of the labor market out there. So like for restaurants, restaurants are the hardest hit. Everybody start but we the restaurant industry is the hardest hit.
Chad Franzen 14:25
What do you think that is?
Ethan Huynh 14:27
A combination of everything. Just people, restaurants is hard. He’s working 60-70 hours a week. You know, this this quality life is it needs to get better. But, you know, restaurants are where people meet. That’s where there’s a lot of magic that happens in restaurants, whether you’re a worker or whether you’re a customer, or you’re a family member coming in town. Restaurants are a place where people gather and magic happens.
Chad Franzen 14:56
And when you’re the chef you can feel that magic.
Ethan Huynh 14:59
I do That’s actually that actually makes it a little easier. So when you’re doing a special, you know, you’re doing a special and you can tell you can look at guests, and you can see you can see that person bite. And that reaction that that organic, there’s no hiding that act reaction. And that’s when I was when I was a chef at a sushi bar that those those those moments gave me confidence and just joy to see your creation. And the response they get. They don’t they don’t know you’re looking at them. But yeah, that’s one of the bright loans.
Chad Franzen 15:33
So when you’re when you’re kind of starting this new concept, Happy Rito, and you’re going to be the chef, what are some key positions that you need to fill?
Ethan Huynh 15:44
I have a sous chef, his name is Marlon wheeling he is is is coming from Louisiana to. So I have no but we definitely need line cooks, cooks, this concept I’m creating it’s easy. I’m trying to make it easier. Restaurants, Victoria is the main have good food, good food is major massive. And that’s where I see most restaurants and restaurants struggle the most with. So I’m trying to create it create still great food but much easier to meet easier concepts. So this is just fry more, and drinks.
Chad Franzen 16:22
And then you would need to hire like would you need to hire like a manager? Or could you be the manager when you’re the Well, you’re the chef,
Ethan Huynh 16:29
Oh, this this counter service model comes into play with this. And with the new technology of you’re able to order on the table because of the shortage. That’s the system I’m setting. So that if there isn’t anybody up front, going back and forth, that you can basically sell order self pay, you know, to make it efficient, make it what it is trying to come up with ideas to, you know, open up with at least that, that you’re ever going to get open.
Chad Franzen 17:02
Yeah, yeah, that sounds like a very innovative idea. Have you tried that before?
Ethan Huynh 17:06
I I’ve been having tried Is this the first concept that I’m going to release it and through through through what I’ve observed of what’s happened everything is happening fast through it changes every single month. But that’s that’s the concept that I can see or system that I can see that you can work, you know, six people all day and get it done.
Chad Franzen 17:30
So you you started as a chef at a sushi restaurant, and then you kind of evolved and you went to culinary school? What’s your favorite dish to prepare? Ever?
Ethan Huynh 17:41
Ah, it would have to be fun. I actually opened a Vietnamese concept in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 2016. named Eva Street Cafe, it’s still there on desolate. And I was cooking my mama spoke. She She taught me and I was able to open that Vietnamese concept. And that’s the it’s a communion type dish where you’re with your family or loved ones when you’re eating.
Chad Franzen 18:13
Okay. And you said the restaurant is still there, but it’s not no longer yours.
Ethan Huynh 18:17
I sold it. I actually sold it so I can move to Austin.
Chad Franzen 18:21
Okay, what was that like?
Ethan Huynh 18:24
The the move?
Chad Franzen 18:25
The, you know, deciding to sell a place that you kind of started and it was your kind of your thing.
Ethan Huynh 18:32
My family’s in Austin. So I was in Louisiana, 14 years ago when I opened that SAP Japanese restaurant. So it was time it was time to come back. You know, go to Austin and, and I have two kids. And I’ve always enjoyed Austin. I’ve always went to Austin over the summer. And it’s a good town. It’s a it’s growing and it has opportunities.
Chad Franzen 19:00
Yeah, I’ve been there. It seems like a good place for restaurants anyway. We are big fans of publicly acknowledging people who have been influential for you who are some people in the industry that you respect and look to for advice or who you’ve learned from
Ethan Huynh 19:15
my mom. It has to be my mom. She’s had she’s inspired me. She’s, she’s shown me work ethic. Kevork you know, it’s work ethic is very important. Now we’re just trying to find work ethic with balancing quality of life and it’s you know, China. So my mom, she’s she’s the most the biggest inspiration as far as a chef.
Chad Franzen 19:44
Let’s get this great. Where can people find out more about what you’re doing with EATT Restaurant Group?
Ethan Huynh 19:51
Right now is HappyRito Seafood. We’ll see how this one goes. But I have a counter service model sushi concept that I think I’m going to release snacks and you can come by HappyRito two weeks to a month hopefully at in cedar park, Texas on the fringe of Austin. Yeah.
Chad Franzen 20:12
Okay. Well that sounds great. Hey, Ethan. I really appreciate your time today. It was a it was enjoyable hearing your story and I thank you so much for joining me.
Ethan Huynh 20:22
Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Chad Franzen 20:24
Thank you so long, everybody.
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