Today’s guest on #MWL is Annie Choo. We discuss Annie's decision to leave corporate America for the restaurant business, as well as the need to pivot during COVID-19.

Annie's restaurant Avo (www.eatavo.com) is really a great place! I know Annie and her staff are going to do a fantastic job adapting to the new normal.

Where to watch live:
https://youtube.com/marcuswhitneysvideouniverse
https://facebook.com/marcuswhitney
https://linkedin.com/in/marcuswhitney
https://twitter.com/marcuswhitney

Guest Socials - Annie Choo
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MW

what's good

happy tuesday hope everybody is doing

well another episode of Marcus Wendy

live my guest today is a new friend

connected by our mutual friend Marshall

masuleh so peace Marcia appreciate that

introducing to you all this is our first

podcast I think and so we're gonna be

kind be ok she didn't actually know it

was a live stream she thought we were

recording so but she's ready to go we

practiced she's ready to go so is

everybody Annie - Annie how are you

today how's it going 

 

AC

pretty good pretty

good how about you Michael

 

MW

doing really well doing really well so

so we had a good good catch up before we

jumped in to record and let's just start

with your your your background a little

bit and and then we'll get into why this

is going to be a fun story to talk about

especially right now in this time of

covert 19 

 

AC

totally so I am the owner of

Abu which is a plant based restaurant

here in Nashville Tennessee

a little bit of all myself is that I

recently became a restaurateur in 2017

so it's been about three years it's been

a great journey ups and downs but my

background comes stems from my father

who was a he owns a restaurant in town -

we just have restaurants where a

restaurant family

he owns samurai sushi and I've kind of

grew up with that in mind he immigrated

from Korea in 2000 I mean in 1997 when

he was 35 years old just left everything

to pursue his American dream and yeah

the rest is history

because samurai sushi is still with us

today and my influence of how I run my

restaurant how I care for people

with in my stuff really comes from my

father other than that I left my

corporate job to pursue my life in the

restaurant world and I haven't had any

regrets ever since and this is my

passion I get excited about it and yeah

I

oh yeah I'm also from Atlanta I didn't

tell you that before I'm from Atlanta

and I moved to Nashville to pursue

although and I am here to stay for sure

 

MW

so that's that's that's amazing story

and I want to go back to the part about

your father immigrating so talk about

that because you know when you set that

date which is it was 97 when he came

over yeah so that meant that means like

you weren't born here so you were you

were born in Korea as well when he came

over here did you all come together or

did he come out in front of you like how

did that work 

 

AC

yeah so he came to America

a few months before we did he originally

went to New York and it worked in a few

different restaurants to figure out

where we were going to be and in the

summer of 97 is when we moved to Ohio

Columbus Ohio yeah actually it was it

was winter it was winter because I

remember it was really really cold and

then there was snow everywhere and we

just followed him a few months later and

after Ohio we moved to Tennessee and

that's just where he's been since then

 

MW

yeah I I always find you know immigrant

stories so fascinating in terms of where

people land like you know they arrive

New York makes complete sense that that

of course makes sense and you can even

see like in Atlanta or in LA or you know

some one of these like big seas but then

you know when you start in New York and

then you end up in Columbus and then you

end up in Nashville I mean it's just

really really interesting how how how

brave people are to come to this land

where they don't know anybody you know

don't necessarily speak the language and

then to have to try to navigate where

you're going to land

then plant roots and you know raise a

family and join a community it's just

sort of a fascinating fascinating

journey you know

 

AC

And it's very aspiring

like I don't know how he did it at the

age of 35 when he was you know I'm

almost 30 this year I'm turning 30 this

year and for me to even think about

leaving my life here to go to a

completely different country to start a

new life that's that is just so

admirable in a lot of ways I would have

to say 

 

AC

so

so did he raise you to be a restaurant

or like you know how did how did that

all happen well when I was trying to get

to college I both my parents at Hotel

Management and so I told them I was like

hey I'm actually interested in this and

then both of them said don't do it feel

like you don't get holidays you get

horrible hours like it's it's it's it's

not that good for you you know so

they're like trying to give me to a

different direction and I listen to them

but you know it just I grew up with it

I'd seen my parents do it all their life

 

MW

so I just I think in like into Italy

like it I just kind of yeah it was it

was kind of like India yeah yeah but but

you didn't go directly there you did

actually try to listen to them and and

take a different path for a while right

 

AC

right I went to Georgia Tech for college

I really didn't know what I wanted to do

with my life but once I got to college I

realized I wasn't an engineer I was in a

techie so I joined the business program

and did marketing so I went to the whole

corporate marketing side and just I have

you know friends from college there are

all consultants they're engineers and

I'm the only outlier group so yeah yeah

corporate marketing is what I did for a

few years one of the biggest the bigger

company that I worked for was integrated

marketing systems and we did like

promotional materials all the signage

that you saw at the Home Depot was

by our company so that was that was

interesting I mean 

 

That was a good

 corporate job to have, but the same time,

 I didn't feel the passion. I didn't feel

 excited to go into work. Every day

 was the same, and I really questioned for

 a few months, like why am I doing this?

 Like what... why, how does this benefit my

 future, and how does this benefit like other people. I was just

 benefiting the bigger, corporate world,

 and I didn't see the purpose in that.

 

MW

Right, yeah. I mean like

 marketing for big corporations -I spent a

 couple of years doing that- it's really

 hard. I mean you know, because you're

 excited about being able to work for a

 big corporation, and you get excited

 about the results. But then it's shallow.

 There's nothing… there's nothing

 beyond that that feels good. And even

 sometimes -depending on the corporation

 you're working for- it can feel bad. You

 know what I mean, depending on like what

 they're doing? So I can definitely relate

 to that. So so so you're you're not

 feeling super fulfilled, and you decide

 next you're going to just just leave ?

 

AC

So

 my -the company that I worked with- they

 were actually, they lost their contract

 with Home Depot. And another company was

 coming in, and the other company offered

 me a job to do the same thing for Home

 Depot.

 However, while everybody like you know

 jumped on board because you know it's a

 corporate job, it's a good job... I thought

 this was kind of like my time to say

 goodbye in a way and kind of pursue

 something else. So I decided to quit and

 did a little soul-searching.

 

MW

So and what

 what was what was that soul-searching

 like for you?

 

AC

Um it was it was hard

 because I went from corporate job to not

 working and having a lot of question

 marks. And the purpose that I wanted to

 fulfill was to help people in a way. And

 I leaned towards nursing, so I actually

 went back to Community College and I

 enrolled in you know pre-med classes.

 A few months into that, I just... and then

 during that time I also was a

 receptionist as a at a PT clinic because

 I was interested in physical therapy, too,

 and occupational therapy.

 I just wanted to immerse myself in a

 different world, but I realized after a

 few months, I was like, “maybe this isn't

 it.” And right around that time I was just

 thinking again is when the opportunity

 of Avo came up, and it was very... I was

 interested, but I wasn't sure if I was

 passionate about it. But as soon as I

 dove into it, it was like this is it.

 Like I feel happy. Even though there are

 tough days, like I I'm just very happy

 about like where I am right now.

 

MW

so so

with although a couple of things one I'm

not in the restaurant space so I had no

idea to ever changed ownership and you

you said you bought it in 2017 it's not

that old right 

AC

it was open in 2015 15

 

MW

yeah so I mean so it's been around two

years before you bought it and I'm sure

the opportunity like what was going on

that somebody got this thing off the

ground and Nashville was you know in a

boom period at that at that point like

you know the whole neighborhood of the

nations was being developed so I know

more people were moving in over there

like why what happened that this thing

was was up for sale that this

opportunity even came up and like how

did you hear about it did you hear about

it because your dad is in the restaurant

business and it's like the restaurant

tour's know when things are going for

sale and the general public has no idea

is how it works 

 

AC

yeah that's kind of how

it works we have our connections with

real estate commercial real estate

agents so whenever restaurants pop up we

we get an email ding or a message like

hey heads up this is happening but

regarding you know how we purchased

although in 2017 it was created by two

people in 2015 and the partnership fell

apart and the partner who owned all at

the time she was a yo

she owned yoga studios in town so this

was not her Forte she came in as an

investor and she was because she wanted

she believed and what all those stood

for right but as a restaurateur you kind

of have to have a different mindset of

how to run a restaurant yeah that's very

different yeah no it's very different so

she put up for sale and yeah we we we

struck a deal and we purchased it and

within a month I moved to Atlanta to

Nashville and then I started right away

 

MW

Wow so so okay what is what is that like

you're you're going to school for

nursing this thing pops up you buy it 30

days later you're in town you're running

it okay do you keep the same staff do

you keep the same menu all the same

vendors like is do you just like buy the

thing and operate it just as is 

 

AC

in the

beginning because you don't see you

didn't even know that 

 

MW

I didn't even know

so I had no idea I mean I like olive oil

a lot you know I but I had no idea that

the owners have changed 

 

AC

wine I wanted to

kind of keep it on the down low

because you know change in ownership I

feel like sometimes is the best right

yeah yeah and for me as a first-time

restaurant owner I didn't want any

publicity I just wanted to run it as is

and then if there were any changes that

need to be made I wanted to make it into

like a gradual change so I like I said I

I was a new pot like plant-based diets

but I wasn't like really comfortable

about the whole new you know plant-based

diets veganism yeah and so when I first

started I actually kind of took in the

role as a host of the restaurant okay

and then yeah and then I started talking

to people

tables bringing their food talk to them

and you know I was nervous at the time

 

MW

nobody

would have known like people would have

gone there to eat and they would have

thought oh hey you're the girl who's

gonna take me to my table and you own

the place I love that

that's so great 

 

AC

so I mean like and then

later on I would get close to certain

customers and then actually let them

know like actually I'm the owner so

there was some like awkward like

encounters like yeah I wouldn't change

it the other way you know 

 

MW

I think that's

brilliant I mean because I think that

that puts you on the front end of the

experience like you're right there when

people walk in the door you're setting

the tone for their experience and they

would never ever suspect that you are

the owner that's just not gonna pop in

somebody's head so you know they might

even say something to you that they

wouldn't have said to you had they

thought you were the owner you know what

I mean like there's all sorts of like

learnings that you probably got out of

that that are just brilliant I love it I

love it 

AC

yeah I mean and even to this day

I don't think people realize I'm the

owner but but I'm like in and out all

the time now - yeah and that's the

beauty of it that's the part about like

me getting to know people one-on-one and

then letting them connect with all going

away and then I want to connect with

them in a different way - yeah so yeah I

love it 

 

MW

so that's probably a great you

know segue into what it is like being a

restaurant owner in the era of kovat 19

you know and and it we talked about how

it's sort of like every 30 minutes the

world is changing right but I just got

done watching 20 minutes I couldn't

watch the whole thing because was too

depressing but I watched 20 minutes of

Mayor John Cooper's you know addressed

sort of talking about what's going on

right now obviously we're seeing Miami

sort of roll back significantly shutting

things down

it does feel like things are getting a

little bit more intense here and we have

enough things in the red 

 

When the first

 wave hit and everything just had to like

 shut down, we were being very very

 proactive to sort of shut things down.

 What what did you do? How did you, how did

 you sort of process that moment, and then

 what did you actually do?

 

AC

Right um it was

 really within a blink of an eye, you know.

 It started

 -the talk started coming early at the end

 of February- and then early March and

 then within the two-week period, we just

 shut down. So when the talks started

 happening, I had to have a management

 meeting about like, “we are expecting

 decrease sales. We need to staff lower. We

 need to cut our food cost, and this is

 our new goal for this month.” And then a

 week later, it was, “hey, we have to close

 our doors.” So everything that I planned for

 you know, not sleeping for 48 hours and

 trying to you know project our new sales

 and how we're gonna make this work...

 it just all disappeared. And it was -to be

 honest- it was like one of the hardest

 parts of owning this business because in

 the beginning, it was you know... we had 32

 people on my staff. And then within a

 blink of an eye, I had to let 32 people

  1. And but people... the thing is like

 although we're like a family

 -front of the house, back of the house- we

 try to have that kind of culture where

 we take care of one another. And I would

 say that all of us are pretty reasonable

 people,

 so when COVID hit, like it wasn't... it

 wasn't like, “oh Annie, like we blame you

 for this.” They're like they understood

 that this was just what reality was.

 

MW

Yeah, and it wasn't just happening to you. I

 mean this was happening to the entire

 hospitality industry.

 Big

 companies, small companies. Everybody was

 sort of facing this. Yeah, yeah.

 

AC

Yeah,

 and I talked to my parents about the

 situation, what they were gonna do, and I

 looked at how other businesses were

 going about it. And for me, the safety of

 my employees are first, you know. And

 the customers. So decided to close the

 restaurant, and we closed for about a

 month and a half now before coming back.

 

MW

Wow so what did you do during that

closing time 

 

AC

you know in the beginning I

would say I warned a little bit

you'd at that point we really didn't

know what COBIT was going to do for 2020

right um where are we gonna be closed

for the rest of the year

so I was just thinking about numbers

about like how much I need to have in

order to just keep the restaurant closed

and keep it alive until Kovan ends or

maybe up until next year thinking of my

employees unemployment when that starts

when that ends yeah I mean thinking

about it now I'm just getting a little

plate you know I'm Stan I'm Stan yeah

but we're it we're still in it which is

the crazy part and like you when I see

me or Cooper on TV i watch like 20

minutes of it and I have to stop yep 

 

MW

you

have to stop it's so it's so yeah

gosh I don't even know what the right

word is it's it's not discouraging it's

like it's like terrifying actually you

know what I mean like there's so much

uncertainty no one can speak from a

place of authority they don't have the

ability to really and I'm not trying to

be like Pollyanna or anything but they

don't have the ability to like wave a

wand and make this better for us and we

just can't like seem to get our footing

you know to where we can say okay this

is our baseline and we're gonna operate

from here and then this is this is

stability at least you know it may be

half of what we had before but it is

it's something we can sort of operate

and it's we just can't get there it's

AC

there's nothing concrete it's just like

you said like 30 every 30 minutes

there's something and we have to pivot

and move on from it and try to try to

get through it but yeah it's my dad's

restaurant actually he did take out all

throughout kovat and it's still take out

only he doesn't plan on you know got

opening in the dining room

yeah our dining room is actually not

open either we did take up for a while

then I realized it just wasn't ate like

it wasn't enough to keep the business

alive anyway so we have this beautiful

patio space with the volleyball court

and it is a beautiful area over there

and people you know I feel like we feel

safer when we're outside and open air 

 

MW

we

are safer like we're scientifically

safer when we're outside in open air

than when we're indoors 

 

AC

exactly so yeah

it combined in like the same air yeah

exactly

so we only do patio counter service now

where people order from a ordering

window and then pick up and I kind of

got this idea from mas tacos cause you

know mas tacos we have the ordering they

call your name like I think this is the

best way that we can have the least

amount of interaction with outside

customers and a way that I can keep my

employee safe within the Lava building

yeah so so little changes 

 

MW

Wow and and

like do you feel like do you feel like

you have something that you're sort of

anchored in that you can do for the rest

of the year or do you feel like this is

just what you're doing for today and as

you look a month out you're just not

really sure what's doing maybe let me

ask let me ask you this a little bit

differently actually because I think the

thing that I am most concerned about is

how can this 

 

How can this sort of half

 capacity or outside model work over the

 long-term economically for these these

 businesses, right? Like that's that's the

 that's the thing I'm I'm wondering. You

 know you've probably run the numbers so

 many times, your eyes are like rolling in

 the back your head with this. You know is

 is there a path... is there a path with

 this long slog that we're on for the

 restaurant industry to make it if they

 can sort of just keep the costs very

 manageable?

 

AC

I think so.

 I can't speak for restaurants who have

 done dining in already because I haven’t

 experience that firsthand myself. But I

 know that a lot of restaurants are

 performing at 30%, 40%, even 25% sometimes

 of what they usually did which is mindblowing.

 

MW

That's mind blowing.

 That's totally mind blowing cuz -just

 wondering- like where are the variable

 costs that allow you to like

 shrink your top-line revenue that much

 and still make it work?

 

AC

And the margins

 in the restaurant world... it's really

 really small.

 After a payroll, after food costs, after

 rent, fixed costs... like it's just, there's

 really no margin unless you're like a

 big shot restaurant that's just booming

 like every single day. And I believe

 there are still restaurants like that,

 and there's restaurants like that who

 were kind of meant for business during

 COVID and who have actually done a lot

 better through COVID. But if restaurants

 you know, we have to look at our sales. We

 have to just adjust our... I've been

 adjusting my fixed expenses, kind of

 talking to my landlord about you know

 rent even. All the vendors that we work

 with like everyday, like bringing in

 supplies. Like for instance we used to

 get, we used to spend like $800-$1000

 on just linens per

 month. And I've cut that significantly.

 Like I spend like maybe $150 a

 month. And those are the little changes

 that are gonna affect the bottom line.

 Even though it's so minimal, it's

 just...

 

MW

Yeah but it adds up. I mean, you

 multiply that by 12... that's a lot of

 money.

 

AC

Exactly. So payroll and food costs is

 just…  we have to adjust constantly.

 

MW

Man,

 this is this is just so intense to kind

 of to kind of think about like all the

 downstream ramifications of it. I love

 Avo. I'm I am I am plant-based, and you

 know, it is one of the few places in

 Nashville that really it does a

 fantastic job with a plant-based menu. So

 you know, I really love it and you know...

 I'm I'm behind you guys. You guys gotta make

  1. You know, you got it you got to make

 it through. I think that there's a whole

 community of people who are really

 supportive of it.

you know what what do

you want to

what do you want to say to maybe the

general public but maybe also you know

entrepreneurs you know first-time

entrepreneurs who are going through this

that you know that you've sort of

learned through the morning through the

pivoting through the you know recutting

deals you know what what do you want to

say that you think will will help people

to you know just be strong and and and

and approach this with the right mindset

I think it's always a better feeling

when you know that you're not alone in

this and then that there are people who

are willing to help if you just reach

out and that's the biggest thing for me

like I don't have that many restaurant

friends but during this kovat situation

I've reached out to several random

people because I don't know what I'm

doing a lot of times and it's sometimes

hard to admit that as a like business

owner you know when you're an

entrepreneur you're like a lot of people

think you have it figured out but in

reality it's it's about reaching out to

people and hearing their you know their

advice and kind of taking it into your

personal account and then making sure

that the business side of it works out

so yeah I would say that there you know

one thing my dad said to me when Kovac

kind of hit and I had to close my

restaurant was that you know my dad is a

man of very few words he he doesn't we

he doesn't really express his feelings

very well but he was like Annie like you

know you own a restaurant you're a

businesswoman and you're a businesswoman

for a reason they call you a business

woman because we go through so many ups

and downs within the restaurant world

but you always come you always find a

way and that's why your

this woman and that really like kind of

encouraged me in a way to kind of push

through and be like okay I can do this

so yeah like I would say just push on

because you're in this business for a

reason and you're you're if you're

passionate about it like there's so many

resources and people who would be

willing to help out so yeah stay strong

is what I would say that's awesome

that's awesome and and maybe just just

one final note I know that you know

finding a way to bring meaning to your

business through philanthropy has been

has been important to you how have you

done that generally speaking and maybe

also even during this this time of you

know 19 um

I mean so when I quit my corporate job I

was like I want to help people in a way

and I wanted to make sure that I kind of

stood by me even in the restaurant world

so last year we started a bow get back

Bay which we could we pick a non-profit

for a month for the month and we give

back a certain percentage of our sales

to that nonprofit and that that came to

me because after owning a bow I didn't

realize what a community felt like until

I moved to Nashville like I feel like

Nashville has such a strong sense of

community

like people are they show up therefore

they're there for one another and that

really influenced me to like do the

Ava's get back pay and so that has been

kind of carrying over until March when

Cove it hit you had to put that on hold

because at this point like I want to

give back and that's still on my mind

and but like at the same time like for

me to survive yes I'm glad you said that

that is such a huge important message

right it's like we all want to give so

much and some people as you said some

businesses are doing better than others

but

it is totally okay to take a break from

what normally would have been your

posture in terms of you know

philanthropy and and giving to make sure

you're okay

right now you know that's that's okay

like you're worthy of that we're all

worthy of making sure that we're okay

and we can sort of make it in this in

this window of time I think there's a

lot of pressure especially on business

people so like be everything do

everything show up for everybody and you

know we're still at the end of the day

only human and we have to try take care

of ourselves

yeah and that was really hard to like

you know stop because we started this

for a reason and I whoo right before

kovat hit you know the tornado hit

Nashville and I I we we said for one day

or the sales for one weekend and Nash

and Nash and AH though is going to go

towards the tornado relief because my

projected sales at the time was enough

like I knew that I wouldn't be able to

give back to the community but as soon

as kovat hit I had to scramble because

as like I needed to get the funds out so

that my people were taking care of like

my restaurant was gonna be okay if I

closed down so I had to write an email

to the Community Foundation of Middle

Tennessee saying that hey the money that

I said I would you know give back to you

guys like I have to just put it on hold

and they were super understanding about

it and I'm like forever thankful for

them and since business you know we

started picking up a little bit with

patio I'm giving back little by little

months a month right now to kind of

fulfill that I'm keeping my word and I

want to give back as much as I can it's

really hard to see your community that's

given so much to you like for me

struggle and I feel like although is

gonna be here for a while and I want to

invest in our community that's amazing

and yeah that's amazing inspiring and

definitely worth worth every one just

pondering and thinking about you know

how we are all existing in this moment

doing the best we can but trying to keep

our word for the commitments that we

made you're an inspiration and thank you

so much for doing the show yeah

absolutely and I'll be thinking about

you be thinking about your team your

family I hope that we get some clarity

and we get some stability so that you

are able to do what you have done so

well for years which is to continue to

provide nourishment and good vibes to

the people of Nashville oh thank you so

much for cos this was fun awesome good

I'm glad you had a good time

so y'all check out Annie this is the

first of many podcasts y'all I feel very

very blessed that I got to have her on

the show and she doesn't know it but

she's actually the 100th episode of

Marcus Whitney's audio universe yep

how about it how about it so thank you

yeah hundreds a big number so go follow

Annie eat a vote calm Annie chew on

LinkedIn hu on Instagram and yeah this

is uh this is the the one week

anniversary of create and orchestrate

it's been a fun week fun ride number one

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including entrepreneurship so go get it

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