As a part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tony Montero.
Tony Montero brings thirty years of industry experience to his role as CEO of the award-winning Hai Hospitality restaurant group. The Austin-based group includes concepts Uchi, Uchiko, Uchi Houston, Uchi Dallas, Uchiba, Uchi Denver, and Loro, with new locations on the horizon. Montero joined Hai in 2016 and leads the implementation of company-wide initiatives to continuously improve operations and drive financial results across the growing restaurants in the Hai family.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I started my first job as a dishwasher at a local restaurant in Florida when I was 12 years old; labor laws were much different in the ’70s. I was on a youthful quest to earn some extra spending money, and I saw a sign in the window that read “Help Wanted.” I remember asking the owner for the job. Before he would hire me, I had to give proof of permission from my father. My dad did not object, and the rest is history. Since that day, all of my jobs have been in some way connected to the restaurant industry. It was almost three years ago that I convinced my beautiful wife of 21 years, Chandra, to move to Austin to join Hai Hospitality as CEO. I’m blessed to have a supportive wife and four amazing kids.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I still remember my first day of work. I failed to ask any questions before work, and I showed up in shorts. It was the ’70s so probably dolphins shorts, tee-shirt, and sneakers for a dishwashing job. Everyone in the kitchen was in jeans and a chef jacket, and the owner very quickly gave me a jacket and told me to wear jeans for the next shift. The biggest lesson to this day is to ask a lot of questions and then ask more questions.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Early on, I read a lot of Tony Robbins and went to many of his seminars, and my biggest take away from Tony Robbins was to stay positive and that people are always watching to see your attitude. I’m currently reading a book from Jason Dorsey called Zconomy . It has been a fun book to read and learn about what this next generation, who grew up with technology, always at their fingertips, expect from companies and organizations. I also realized that my two youngest kids are definitely Gen Z, so maybe it will help me understand them a bit better, too.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
I believe that strong brands are built from the inside out. That was part of my attraction to Hai Hospitality. Even before I got here, Hai had a very strong sense of who they were and the culture they wanted to foster. Hai’s purpose is simple, to create the greatest impact for people through *Hai Hospitality. We take a lot of pride in the word hospitality. To us, Hai Hospitality is crafting amazing designs and spaces, creating extraordinary food, delivering memorable experiences, and building new opportunities for our employees, guests, and community. Hospitality drives every decision we make, from where and how we source our food, to the materials we choose for our interiors, to the extremes we go to service our guests and our communities in which we operate. This purpose drives our vision to eventually share the most memorable, distinct, and impactful hospitality experiences with people around the world.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Be honest and authentic with your teams, always.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I think like many; a challenge for our household has been how to come up with a schedule. In the first week or two, we did not have a set routine but found out fast that we need a plan to keep us all in check. My wife has been working hard to keep my two youngest boys- 18 and 14 on some sort of schedule. One of the biggest challenges is having my 18-year-old son that was going to UCCS in Colorado Springs back at the house and having to decide on going back to school in the fall. Like many kids, he has chosen to stay at home and spend the next year going to community college.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The biggest challenge for everyone is the unknown. It’s been said a million times, but we are in unprecedented times. You really can’t plan what is going to happen next. We have spent a lot of time working through every possible scenario we can think of and have a plan for anything that might come up with during these times. We have also modeled out all the financial scenarios for what we see as all the possible scenarios.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Listen to the fears and understand the concerns. It is ok to be anxious and nervous. We are in a very trying time, and we are all anxious and nervous at times about the outcome of this pandemic. But we are resilient, and there will be light at the end of the tunnel. Let’s keep talking about our concerns and remember we don’t know when this will end, but each day, we are closer to the end of the crisis.
Obviously, we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
There will be tough and trying times ahead, but there will be some great innovation that comes from this time and that we will carry forward into the Post-COVID economy. For one, I believe we will cherish time with family and friends more than ever and look for more opportunities to celebrate. Innovation in our industry we’ve already seen, like payment options, curbside delivery for restaurants and retail, and evolutions in service styles. I also believe there will be opportunities to work with landlords to be partners in the business more than ever.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
Tough question as permanently is a long time. I do believe this will be on our minds for a very long time, and we will always be thinking about what we are doing and, more importantly, what others are doing with health and safety. I also think it has and will continue to accelerate restaurant and retail delivery and curbside options.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
As you are aware, the restaurant business has been greatly impacted during this time. One of the biggest challenges is predicting what sales will look like for the next eighteen months. We have an outstanding team, and, as a group, we are working through what will be best for staff and guests post-COVID. We will focus on our current restaurants and build to get back to pre-COVID sales, and then we will start to look at growth opportunities in the future.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Stay positive and look at different sales innovations to get back to pre-COVID sales numbers. A few examples are that we have started a curbside business at our restaurants that weren’t offering curbside previously, we will likely continue this even as we re-open. We also converted our patio wait areas to actual seating areas and have also been working on offering virtual dinners.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Three decisions that we can control each moment of our lives; what we focus on, what things mean and what to do despite the challenges that may appear
I have always used this quote, and this means more today than in the past. I have chosen to focus on what we can do vs. what we can’t do as a company.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can follow us on any of our social channels or websites. Our groups Instagram is @HaiHospitality or any of our restaurant brand channels can be found online (Uchi, Uchiko, Uchiba, Loro). You can also see how we are supporting our staff and employees during this time by visiting hailifefoundation.org.