For Fast Casual 2.0 Marination, the long-term vision has less to do with number of locations opened and more to do with community connection and education. It makes sense given that founders Roz Edison and Kamala Saxton were schoolteachers before starting their Korean-Hawaiian fusion concept in a food truck in 2009.
Now the Marination family encompasses the truck, three brick-and-mortar fast casuals (each with its own unique offerings beyond the core menu), and a full-service restaurant called Super Six.
QSR’s associate editor Nicole Duncan spoke with Edison about the brand’s early days, its plans for the future, and advice she would give other women who are considering the restaurant space.
How is Marination different from the limited-service scene and other fast casuals?
I think we caught the tip of the wave of a couple of flavors that Americans were opening up their palates to. We were on the forefront of the Korean wave that came around. We opened six and a half years ago, so it was right around then when everyone was talking about kimchi as the next thing and Korean flavors and so forth. Right now, there seems to be a huge push for Hawaiian flavors. Here in Seattle and in the Pacific Northwest, Hawaiian seems to be very popular. Everyone really appreciates and loves that aloha vibe. That is the core of our menu. When we opened, we were ahead of the curve on the flavor stuff. I don’t think what we do is necessarily all that different; it’s just that we have a very eclectic family of restaurants, which gives a lot of different people access to our flavors in the city of Seattle.
What about fast casual excites you, especially since you’ve done other formats?
I think one of the things that we love about fast casual is that as an owner or as a leader, when you’re in the restaurant, fast casual is a connection between the typical front of house and back of house; it’s much more seamless, because everyone’s right there. They’re cooking typically on a hot line that’s right in the view of the customers. I can check in on the food quality, but I can also talk to my customers as I’m handing them their food. The same people who are making your food are serving it to you and also asking you how it was, which I really like about fast casual. It’s the way we’ve designed them; they’re pretty open kitchens, and they’re all pretty small. It’s much more accessible for customers.
This latest place we opened is on the ground level at Amazon. It’s open to the public, but above us is one of the two Amazon headquarters, with 4,000 Amazon employees. It’s not a bunch of people who are looking to sit at a community table with each other, but they do have a community of people who go down and get lunch. There are lines but they move quickly, so you see the locals and you kind of know what they want. Our spots are always so small that they’re talking to each other about what they’re getting, and they’re looking at someone else’s food and asking, “What’s that?” I like that.
How did you get your start? And what tips would you give aspiring owners?
Both Kamala and I have backgrounds in public education, and so many of the skills that we learned in public education have translated over to being in a restaurant. You work with a young, ambitious team. You’re constantly teaching people; you’re constantly training them; you’re constantly mentoring them as young adults. We talk to people who want to start their own businesses all the time. I think one piece of advice I always give people is to think: Is there really a market for what you want to do? We turn down offers to expand Marination once a week, probably. Just because someone wants to have a Hawaiian-Korean taco in a certain area of the city doesn’t mean that you should open up a restaurant there. It’s flattering and you get wooed by them for a while, but then you wonder if it's really where you want to be. I think knowing when to say no is as important as knowing when to say yes.
I also think outsourcing certain skill sets that you don’t have time to do or the expertise to do is incredibly important. You need to know when to spend that money and not do it yourself. It’s great to do your own books and your own payroll, but at a certain point, if you really do want to grow, you need to make sure it is done professionally and properly.
If you take this all on yourself, you’re going to get buried pretty quickly. I sit down with folks and their food concept is solid, but then I'll ask if they are willing to do this in terms of the number of hours that it takes to commit to these early restaurants. People want to have a life, and this becomes your life and your family for quite a while until it stabilizes and you have the luxury of bringing on a really strong staff to support you.
Would your advice be any different if you were giving it to a young woman versus a young man?
To be honest, I’ve given that advice to both women and men. There’s a Seattle angel investor named Jonathan Sposato who recently announced that he would only invest in companies that had a female founder. His theory is that if you make a place that’s good for guys, then guys will be there, but if you make a place that’s open and welcoming for women, then both men and women will show up. I thought that was striking, and it’s a good point. We have that kind of company because both of the founders are women. We have had female employees come to us, saying, “I’ve worked here because I love the company, but it’s such a bonus that the leadership has women in it.” And my right-hand operations person is a guy, and we have a brand new culinary chef [who is a man], but we’ve always had this sort of female energy. I think they will benefit from that.
Sometimes women start businesses and they become super masculine or they get really aggressive and feel like they need to play that game, but you don’t really have to. You can lead with grace and you can lead with all the qualities that make women awesome, and I think good people respect that and want to work for those kinds of companies.
Looking five years out, where do see yourself and Marination?
I'm sort of a data geek, so I would love to be one of those companies that can connect the dots of the data to be a better company.
We've also always been a very philanthropic company. We've given what we can and have been generous with the community that we're in, but I think there are some larger and more formal ways that we can make that happen. One of the companies here, a local burger chain called Dick’s Drive-in, has a great scholarship program for their employees to go to school, which is something that we aspire to. We’re not there yet financially, but you look out five years, and that is the kind of stuff that I would expect to have in place. I would expect us to be very well respected in the communities that we serve, and it's not only serving the food, but also serving them.
We named our first little brick-and-mortar [restaurant] Marination Station, and we've always dreamed of having “Marination Foundation” as a food incubator. We’d like to do something like that. Again, going back to our roots in education and my background in business, we’d like to be able to take someone who wants to start a business, but send them through all the [steps] of business.
If you were to stage [intern] with us, you would stage on a truck, in a commissary kitchen, in a small walkup, in a full-service restaurant, in a bar, and in a super-seasonal, large fast casual. You have a gamut of what you want to try, and then at the end of that, you would know: “When I start my business, I want it to be this,” or, “I love the counter, but I don’t like the teeny tiny counter. I need it to be big,” or “I just want a truck.”
We’ve had this [idea] that we could create this very special experience for someone who wants to start something, and I think that has always been a long-term goal. That’s probably 10 years out. You’ve got to have serious bucks to start things like that; you have to sell a lot of tacos to make that happen.