I met Solomon Choi through Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) New York when he joined a forum in mid-2015 that I was moderating. We hit it off right away.
Sol’s parents, like Amit Verma’s, were first-generation immigrants who built a successful business here in the States. Whereas the Vermas built a high-end jewelry business on the East Coast, Mr. Choi found success as a multi-unit franchisee of a large Japanese seafood franchise, Todai Seafood Buffet, in Southern California. The family did well, and when Sol reached college age, his parents paid his way through four years of private school. This only increased their horror when they saw what happened next.
Sol majored in marketing and planned on being a branding specialist, and it was no surprise when he received a job offer from one of the top consumer marketing firms in the country. But he had planned on traveling a little before starting work and had already booked a two-month tour of five countries in Southeast Asia. Could the company wait two months?
It could not. “Training starts in two weeks,” Sol was told. “In Jacksonville, Florida.”
So he turned the job down. And a bunch of others. In fact, the only job he could find that was willing to wait two months for his start date was as a rental agent behind a desk at Enterprise Rent-a-Car.
His classmates thought it was hilarious. His parents thought it was a catastrophe.
Sol loved it.
“At Enterprise,” he says, “I learned the business practices and philosophy I still follow today: take care of the guests, take care of your people; growth and profits will follow.”
No, it wasn’t Avis or Hertz, but it was the company that kept winning J.D. Power and Associates awards for Best in Service, year after year. And at Enterprise he learned a pivotal principle about excellence.
“Renting cars is a commodity-based business,” he explained. “Our cars were no different from what you’d get at Hertz or Avis; a Ford Taurus is a Ford Taurus. So why would a customer choose us over the competition, or even pay different rates for the same car?”
The answer was excellent service.
Enterprise was a very service-oriented organization. Your promotability was measured not only by your sales numbers but also by your ESQI scores: Enterprise Service Quality Index, based on phone surveys from your customers. Sol excelled at both. He moved up in the company and was soon managing his own satellite branch and did so well that he moved into Enterprise’s sales department, which sold cars the company was taking out of service.
Imagine how his parents felt now: their college-educated son had graduated to the position of a used-car salesman.
Still, they couldn’t help being impressed at how well he did at it. Over the next six months, he won awards, trips to Hawaii and Catalina Island, and accolades from the company. At that point, his mother approached him and said the family needed his help. His father’s restaurant in San Diego was struggling. Competition had sprung up and taken away a significant amount of Mr. Choi’s business. He didn’t know what to do.
Sol was doing so well in business… could he help his parents?
If I say “Japanese restaurant,” you probably think of something quaint and homey, a place that seats maybe 50, 60, even a hundred people. Not quite. With 25 thousand square feet and seating for five hundred, Todai San Diego was then the largest Asian restaurant in the United States. When Sol showed up, his first thought was “this isn’t a restaurant — this is a food factory!”
Sol had worked on and off at one of his dad’s smaller Todai restaurants as a server and had some familiarity with the business but nothing from a management perspective. His father, who held a very traditional view about how the leadership track works, wanted Sol to spend two months as a dishwasher, then two months in line prep, then two months as a cook, and continue up the ladder until he eventually reached management. That’s just how things were done.
Sol wasn’t having any of that.
“Dad,” he said, “if you want me to come help, I need to start as vice president of operations and marketing.” His father laughed. Sol wasn’t kidding. “Not only that, but you’ve got to allow me to make all marketing decisions, independently and on my own. I’ll deal with corporate, and I’ll deal with the franchisor. You have to let me general manage all of it — the whole thing.”
His father didn’t think Sol was ready for that.
“You have to trust me,” said Sol. “If it doesn’t work, you can go back to the way you were doing it, and I’ll go back to Irvine and go on with my life.”
His father agreed.
Sol met with the staff and told them that from this point on they were going to operate very differently, that they were going to engage differently with their guests, and have a whole new level of attention to service.
He said, “I’m going to make you a promise. If you give me two months, I guarantee you will make more money, make better tips, and have more shifts. But you’re going to have to work harder.”
A third of the waitstaff quit. (Tells you something right there, doesn’t it?)
Sol coached those who were left on how to create the kind of guest experience you’d find in a full-service, white-linen-tablecloth restaurant. Table-side manners, how to serve, how to pour wine, how to treat the guests — he took everything up a major-notch. In two months, the average tip went from a dismal seven percent to 13 percent — almost double, and close to industry standard.
The waitstaff was thrilled. Solomon, of course, wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to keep raising the bar.
One day, poring over months and months of sales data, he realized there were three days in the year when they did significantly more business: Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Valentine’s Day. On those three days, instead of having a lunch menu, then breaking down, resetting, and opening again at 17:30 for dinner, they served one menu all day long. They not only stayed open all day; they essentially charged dinner prices all day. No wonder business surged on those days.
Sol started thinking: How could they make that even better? I mean, if you take your best day and make that better, what would that do to the other 364 days?
Mother’s Day was coming. He researched all the other Mother’s Day buffets in the area to see what he was competing against. The local Marriott was charging $49.99. Sol wanted to charge $39.99 — far more than the usual Todai price, but still well under the competition — but his father argued him down to $29.99. Given that budget, how could he improve the event? He ran the numbers and decided he could afford to include a bottle of inexpensive champagne (with plastic champagne flutes all around), a carnation for Mom, and king crab legs on the first display table (where guests would pass by while waiting in line on their way in) instead of the usual snow crab. He ran ads and put up posters announcing their “Super Seafood Menu.” He wanted to make sure there was a waiting line all day long.
There was. When Mother’s Day came, Sol worked the headset and hosted the whole day himself. He spoke with every single customer as they waited in line, in some cases up to 40 minutes, telling them about what the restaurant was providing that day. He also talked to every single customer as they left, asking them how they’d enjoyed their meal.
They broke the company-wide record for sales in a single day.
“That’s when I realized,” he says, “that you can always find ways to do a superior job without breaking the bank. It comes down to attention — to quality, to service, and to execution.”
A year later, his father sold the restaurant at a comfortable profit.
A few years later, Sol brought that same level of attention to excellence to the self-serve frozen yogurt business he created in New York, 16 Handles.
When he first arrived in the city, he spent two weeks walking around Manhattan to get a feel for all the neighborhoods. From Wall Street up past Times Square, everywhere. Finally, a real estate broker he was working with asked him what exactly he was looking for. Sol asked him where the NYU freshmen lived. The broker took him to the largest freshman dorm in the East Village, on the corner of Third Ave and Tenth Street.
They walked around the neighborhood, and in a four-block radius Sol counted nine frozen yogurt shops. There was no other location in Manhattan with such an intense concentration of frozen yogurt shops.
“Perfect,” said Sol. “I need a place right here.”
His broker panicked. “No, no, no! You don’t want to locate your shop here. That’s crazy! Let me find you a nice spot in the Upper East Side or Midtown.”
Sol insisted: he wanted to be right there. When the broker asked why, he said, “Because, if I can beat all nine of these shops, I’ll be the Number One frozen dessert shop in New York City. Right?”
The broker looked at Sol as if he were nuts. “What makes you think you can beat all nine shops?”
Sol smiled. “Trust me.”
He opened for business in his first location that summer, right there, on Second Avenue between Ninth and Tenth, on a Thursday. By that Saturday, he had a line out the door.
“The rest of that year was a blur,” he says. “I worked almost every single day for months on end. I was always in the store.” Obviously, it paid off. Of those nine competitors, eight have since shut down, and 16 Handles is the Number One frozen dessert shop in New York City.
So what did he do that the other nine shops — and all the other shops in New York City — didn’t do?
For one thing, his flavors are better. From his restaurant experience in California, Sol knew which were the best flavors in the yogurt business. He approached vendors who were the top sellers back in California and secured distribution for New York.
“Nobody’s been able to touch us on product,” he says.
Not that they didn’t try. Within a few years, copycat shops were starting to catch up. So Sol took another leap into excellence. In 2012, at the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago, he met with an artisan creamery, a chef-driven operation that made handcrafted products in the Midwest using only local, all-natural ingredients in small batches. It was not making frozen yogurt at the time, only gelato, but Sol started working with the creamery on developing flavors for his frozen yogurt. In 2013, 16 Handles came out with a new proprietary line of flavors it called its artisan line.
For example, its “So Fresh Mango Sorbetto” is made from pureed tree-ripened mangoes from India. Sol traveled to India himself to sample them. “I’ve never tasted anything that sweet before.” He has a team of chefs — not food chemists in lab coats trying to engineer flavors with chemicals, but actual chefs — creating the next new flavor sensation.
But it goes beyond the flavors. Sol did everything at a higher level of quality. “We wanted to be the Saks Fifth Avenue, the Whole Foods, the premier, luxury brand in our category,” he says. And that’s exactly what 16 Handles has done. Its store interiors are nicer than its competitors’. There’s more engagement and attention to service. It has won awards for its ad campaigns and digital marketing (and has been a featured location in the HBO series Girls). From the recyclable spoons and biodegradable cups to its comfortable, lounge-like ambiance to its community engagement and attention to social media, Sol’s enterprise (pun intended) is the embodiment of excellence and attention to quality.
Now he’s taking that concept around the world. When I last talked to him, he had a total of 40 16 Handles stores in six states in the Northeast — all opened by former customers — and had just opened his first three stores in the Middle East.
I’m looking forward to an organic mango sorbetto next time I’m in Qatar.
This is an excerpt from former Navy SEAL turned CEO and New York Times bestselling author Brandon’s book, “Total Focus.”
You can purchase the book by clicking click here.