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    PODCAST: The Mini Chain Where Spam is King

  • A decade after it hit the streets of Seattle as a food truck, Marination is proving that Hawaiian flavors can rule in fast casual. Cofounder Roz Edison explains how it all came to be.

    Sam Oches
    Marination Ma Kai, one of the brand's three brick-and-mortar locations, is waterside and has a beautiful view of downtown Seattle.

    Marination, the popular food truck-turned-Seattle mini-chain, started at the dinner table—literally. In 2009, cofounders Roz Edison and Kamala Saxton drummed up Marination’s concept over wine at a dinner party.

    “The more we talked about it, the hungrier we got,” Edison says. “I am the operations person who left the dinner party and ran a ton of spreadsheets … and came back with a plan and proposed it.”

    Edison and Saxton both worked in education, and neither had any formal training in foodservice. But they were inspired to launch a food truck following the success of Kogi BBQ, chef Roy Choi’s massively successful truck in Los Angeles, and they wanted to start a business during the post-2008 financial downturn. They figured they would either succeed or they would go back to their day jobs.

    Any fears receded when Marination hit the streets.

    “It was exactly what you see and hear about in the lore of food-truck history, where people line up before you get there, where they stay in line, where there's just so much buzz,” Edison says.

    Marination
    Marination cofounder Roz Edison.

    The truck won Seattle over with its Hawaiian flavors, rooted in Saxton’s upbringing in Oahu. The menu—with options like Spam Sliders, a Kimchi Quesadilla, and a Pork Katsu Sandwich—suited every demographic because, as Edison puts it, people just love Hawaii.

    Marination didn’t need much to separate itself when it arrived on the food-truck scene 10 years ago. But Saxton and Edison knew that the mobile food category’s eventual explosion would require them to diversify their brand. Edison says there are around 180–200 trucks in the Seattle area today, more than a tenfold increase from the 10 trucks she recalls roaming the streets when Marination first appeared.

    “We saw that the number of customers per day just dwindled because, one, the buzz had died down, but also, they just had many more options,” Edison says of the booming truck competition of the early 2010s. “And, kind of keeping up with the Joneses, we expanded.”

    The business now includes a food truck, a catering service, three fast-casual brick-and-mortars, and a full-service restaurant called Super Six.

    There have been many challenges for the Marination team. Like most other restaurant operators, they struggle with labor. And Seattle is an especially tough environment for small businesses. But Edison says they overcome challenges by staying current with industry trends; for example, they’ve adopted third-party delivery and digital ordering.

    Edison says there’s still a balance they’re trying to hit. “There's a certain nostalgic feel of Marination, as well, a little of the beach vibe for one of our restaurants … but we do want to stay as current as we can,” Edison says, referencing Marination Ma Kai, a waterside location with beautiful views of downtown Seattle.

    The challenges and changes of the industry has taught Edison lessons she finds as valuable today as they were 10 years ago. As a self-described spreadsheets person, she suggests entrepreneurs stay close to their numbers and be conservative with them.

    Beyond this, she says, any foodservice entrepreneur who wants to be successful must be committed to a hands-on experience.

    “If you're not comfortable picking up and cleaning up the bathroom after an unfortunate customer experience, you need to probably not be in this industry,” she says. “As much as it is about the food and the operations and everything else, you’ve got to get your hands dirty.”

    Edison emphasizes the importance of consistency, from a restaurant’s menu offerings to its service. The key to making Marination successful, she says, is delivering the same “Everyday Aloha” experience for every customer.

    “Once you establish yourself and you have the great fortune of getting a reputation for something, you better deliver on that every single time with the same smile, the same aloha,” Edison says.