Nick Kokonas on Resurrecting Restaurants, Skin in the Game, and Investing (#429)

“My dad used to run his own business. He was only high school educated. Every time I tried to complicate things when I was in college and I’d talk to him about his business, he would be like, ‘It’s three shoeboxes, Nick. It’s the money in, the money out, and then the third box is what paid for your college.’ That’s the money that’s left over.” — Nick Kokonas
 
Nick Kokonas (IG: @nkokonas, TW: @NickKokonas) is the co-owner and co-founder of The Alinea Group of restaurants, which includes Alinea, Next, The Aviary, Roister, St. Clair Supper Club, and The Aviary NYC.

Alinea has been named the Best Restaurant in America and Best Restaurant in The World by organizations and lists as diverse as the James Beard Foundation, World’s 50 Best, TripAdvisor, Yelp, Gourmet magazine, and Elite Traveler. His restaurants have won nearly every accolade afforded to them.

Nick has been a subversive entrepreneur and angel investor since 1996. He spent a decade as a derivatives trader, has co-written three books, and believes in radical transparency in markets and business. As an outsider to the restaurant industry, Nick’s approach to the business of restaurants is markedly innovative, and he has been featured in Businessweek, Fast Company, the New York Times, Forbes, and Crain’s Chicago Business, among other publications. He has given talks on innovation, entrepreneurship, and experience design across the country.

He is also the founder and CEO of Tock, Inc., a reservations and CRM system for restaurants, serving more than 10M diners and clients in more than 30 countries. Tock also recently launched a to-go platform, which has helped restaurants pivot to fulfill pickup and delivery orders.

You can find the transcript of this episode here. Transcripts of all episodes can be found here.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, or on your favorite podcast platform.

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#429: Nick Kokonas on Resurrecting Restaurants, Skin in the Game, and Investing
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What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.

SCROLL BELOW FOR LINKS AND SHOW NOTES…

Want to hear Nick’s first time on this podcast? Listen to our nearly three-hour conversation in which we discuss behavioral economics, talent-spotting, cocktails, misleading averages, resources for aspiring entrepreneurs, and much more.

#341: Nick Kokonas — How to Apply World-Class Creativity to Business, Art, and Life
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SELECTED LINKS FROM THE EPISODE

  • Connect with Nick Kokonas:

The Alinea Group | Tock | Twitter | Instagram | Facebook

SHOW NOTES

  • Nick expands on the idea of asymmetric risk-taking and its opportunities that he presented in his first appearance on this podcast. [08:12]
  • During the mandatory shutdowns required for containing COVID-19, no sector has been so swiftly decapitated as the arena of restaurants. But when did Nick start assessing the risk of this as a serious possibility, and how did he begin to piece together a plan for salvation? [14:24]
  • Who is Grant Achatz? [21:30]
  • How did Nick’s floor-trading experience inform his strategy for the potentially hard times ahead? [22:36]
  • After assessing the situation, how did Nick break the news to staff in advance of things going sideways, and what steps were immediately put in place for their safety and the safety of their customers? [28:15]
  • With the Tock startup and his restaurants in peril, what plans did he have in place if a shutdown became mandatory, and how did the unique way the restaurants were already running perhaps give them a better chance than most to get through the crisis? [33:40]
  • How does a company that specializes in fancy, fine-dining experiences with servers who can pull over $150,000 a year (without tips) pivot to an affordable carryout/delivery option for people under quarantine? [38:27]
  • How did the first round of the experiment go? [47:12]
  • How does a high-volume restaurant meet demand while ensuring its staff is maintaining social distance from one another (when it’s open to customers and when it’s not)? [49:16]
  • How does recapitalization work? [52:56]
  • How are the kitchens utilized, and do they involve use of induction stovetops? [55:59]
  • Is Nick running into supply chain disruptions? [57:59]
  • What types of restaurants does Nick see weathering this pandemic? Of the strategies he sees being used in the hospitality industry, which ones seem most effective — and which seem counterproductive? What opportunities might present themselves to aspiring restauranteers during this time and in the aftermath? [1:00:36]
  • How has Nick avoided the trap so many other restaurants have fallen into — of buying today’s food with tomorrow’s revenues? [1:16:20]
  • Nick’s dad’s three-shoebox business finance model. [1:19:24]
  • It’s not too late. But what comes next? [1:21:08]
  • Books and resources Nick suggests for people trying to improve themselves during this time, and thoughts on corporate responsibility and bailouts. [1:24:29]
  • What companies does Nick particularly admire right now? [1:30:24]
  • How did Nick and the Tock team create the Tock To Go platform in a matter of days instead of months? [1:35:07]
  • Parting thoughts. [1:42:18]

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7 Replies to “Nick Kokonas on Resurrecting Restaurants, Skin in the Game, and Investing (#429)”

  1. Congratulations to Tim for raising over $10,000 (including the Sotheby’s hammer fee) for the International Rescue Committee. It was fun to help drive the price up!

  2. Wow. What an interview. Utterly inspiring. Thank you Nick. A book that came to mind too, was Sebastian Junger’s Tribe. The purpose, the drive behind what you guys are doing…alongside the exhaustion, I hope that the mission is a beautiful pill too for any anxiety or depression. Keep charging!

  3. I am sooo thrilled about this interview. If there was someone I wanted to here on COVID-19 time, it was Nick Kokonas. His first episode back in 2018 had a huge impact on me. Thank you so much for giving us the opportunity to hear how is he and his team surfing the covid-19 crisis.

  4. Thank you so much Tim for sharing these great conversations and minds. You are making such a huge difference in this world:)

  5. Tim, this interview was perfectly timed and so inspiring. I found myself smiling through most of it. Working for an airline during this time is especially challenging, and Nick’s lessons and stories were just the kick in the pants I needed to help drive forward and find solutions.

  6. Tim, if Nick were to come on the show and spend 2 hrs explaining the difference between all the colors in the 64 count Crayola box, I would be glued to the podcast. He is without a doubt one of the most interesting and entertaining guests you have ever interviewed.
    Find ways to get him on more!!! 😁