Chef, author, and television personality Leah Cohen shared how she found success in the restaurant world, learning from some of the world’s most renowned chefs. The owner of Pig & Khao and Piggyback Bar touched on her experience during the COVID-19 pandemic and how her family’s heritage helped develop her recipe for entrepreneurial success.
On the Yelp Blog: Read more about Leah Cohen’s biggest lessons learned as a business owner and working mom, including tips for delegating, hiring, and learning from failure.
Emily: I would love to welcome Leah Cohen and Kristen onto the virtual stage. Kristen, you are going to be our guide for this dialogue, so let me hand the mic over to you and take it away.
Kristen: Thank you so much, Emily. Hey Leah.
Kristen: Thank you to Yelp for having us. So, I’m Kristen Hawley. I am a freelance journalist and I’m the founder of Expedite, a newsletter about restaurant technology and the future of hospitality, which you can find at Expedite.news. I am so excited to kick off this year’s Yelp Women in Business Summit with celebrated chef, author, TV personality, woman, mother and entrepreneur, Leah Cohen, thank you so much for joining us.
Leah: Thank you.
Kristen: So, I want to set the stage a bit. What is keeping you busy right now?
Leah: I mean, I have a lot of stuff going on. As you mentioned, I own two restaurants. I am a mom. I have two kids. My youngest son just turned a year old two weeks ago. And my husband and I, we run the restaurants together and we are in the process of opening new restaurants. So, that’s exciting and keeping us really busy. And then I do a whole social component as well. So, I try to keep myself as busy as possible.
Kristen: Sounds like it. I want to start with the restaurant, because it has not been a great time to be a restaurant owner, an entrepreneur. The past three years have been really tough. You opened Piggyback, your second spot in New York in January 2020 in the middle of Midtown Manhattan near a bunch of office buildings. And I read that you told Grub Street in New York that it was crazy busy for two months and things were going great and then you had to close for a really long time.
Leah: Yeah. So, I would say the opening, it was kind of one of those openings that you always want. You never expect when you open the doors for tons of people to just be flooding into your restaurant because let’s be honest, that doesn’t happen most of the time. But it happened for us with Piggyback and it was really a great feeling to know that so many years later, after I opened Pig & Khao that my group and I created such a great following that people were excited to eat at our second restaurant.
And it was insane. I felt like I just couldn’t catch up because, you always open probably two weeks. You wish you had two extra weeks, but you have to open because basically that’s when you start paying rent. If not, or you had already started paying rent on the space and you’re like just want those extra two weeks. And I was like, “Oh, well, we’ll open up and it’ll be slow and we’ll kind of figure it out.”
I mean, we figured it out, but we didn’t have any time to, that we were just trying to catch our breath. And then from super crazy to just nothing. And that’s when the pandemic hit. It’s kind of crazy that we’re doing this now. It’s been literally three years later.
And I mean, it was intense. The reopening process, just trying to figure out what can we do. While we were very busy when we first opened, we still hadn’t created enough of a name because we were only open for two months in that area. And so, if people were going to go to their go-to spots to get takeout and delivery, they weren’t coming to Piggyback because we just didn’t build that brand awareness and that connection to our customers.
They came to Pig & Khao and people were super supportive for Pig & Khao. But like you mentioned, we opened in Midtown and no one was going into their offices. I mean, still people are only going two to four days a week.
And so, yeah, I mean, we reopened Piggyback about a year, about 15 months ago, and we were closed for so long. And it was really hard to rebuild just to find staff. We opened with a menu of six things because we just didn’t have the back of the house staff. And we were like, we need to get open, but we just don’t have the ability to open to a full menu. And it was one of the most challenging times, the reopening. Also, figuring out how to manage two restaurants during a pandemic, that’s also very challenging.
Kristen: I can imagine. I mean, there’s not much that any of us could have done, not anything that any of us could have done to prepare for what happened starting March 2020 and beyond. But when you reopened, you pivoted the concept a bit. Can you just talk through how you made that call and how much of it was just your gut instinct from your experience?
Leah: Sure. So, I think one of the great things that came out of the pandemic was people in, I think every industry kind of band together and shared as much information with each other as possible because we were all just trying to figure it out, and we all wanted everyone to succeed.
So, Piggyback actually just closed for probably 15 months. Pig & Khao since we had such a following, and we’re in the Lower East Side, it’s a very neighborhood location. We closed for about three months and then we reopened. And we kind of were like, “Okay, let’s do the takeout and delivery.” Because everyone was doing takeout and delivery.
And then someone approached me to do CookUnity, which was basically a meal subscription platform. So, we created, I think we made 1500 meals a week and packaged that and that got sent out and delivered to people. We didn’t do the delivery. We just cooked them the food in and packaged it.
And then we worked with Rethink, a charity that helped elderly people in Chinatown just get who were food insecure. So, we got $3 a meal, but every bit helped. So, we had those two things. Plus, we were doing one other thing, plus takeout and delivery. And we were really just trying to do anything and everything that we could. Oh, we did Goldbelly as well.
So, we had four little businesses under one roof. And then as things started to open up more and more and we could get indoor dining back, we figured, “Okay, well, what can we keep as a business, but maybe do it out of a commissary kitchen?” So, CookUnity is we still continue to do it. We do it at a commissary kitchen in Brooklyn. Goldbelly unfortunately, we saw that people weren’t ordering as many boxes and as many meal kits once the world kind of reopened and we couldn’t sustain that and do indoor dining. So, I had to make the difficult decision to switch.
But everything was really following my gut, trying to just see what everyone else was doing and then reaching out to people and just being like, “Hey, is this working for you? Can you connect me with this person at Goldbelly or at CookUnity or at Rethink or any of these things?” And everyone was so open and willing to help because I mean, it was scary times.
Kristen: Yeah. And Goldbelly for the non-indoctrinated, is it nationwide, right? Nationwide shipping service. What did you ship on Goldbelly?
Leah: So, we had four packages, and I love Goldbelly and I honestly wish that we could find a way to work with them again, because the ability to get your product nationwide is huge if you ever want to open in a different market. And so, that’s definitely something that we want to revisit.
But Goldbelly we pack it, we did the classics. I had my cookbook unfortunately came out during the pandemic. So, yeah, it was like, how do you do a cookbook tour? And back then, I didn’t have the social media following that I do now. So, it was a lot different. But we did a cookbook and some starter ingredients to get you started for cooking out of the cookbook, frozen curries and then a brunch kit.
So, just things that I thought people would want. And we got a really great response. And we still have people who DM us on Instagram and they’re like, “I live in California and I’m so bummed that you guys stopped doing Goldbelly. We’ll figure out a way to get back on the platform.”
Kristen: Well, I want to talk about that gut instinct. Because I think it’s something, especially as women, we all have it and sometimes it gets drowned out. We’re told to do what you love and that’s not the whole story. Building a business is really hard work. But your restaurants are a reflection of your heritage. And I’m curious if that’s something that you always aspire to do or if that’s something that’s sort of found later.
Leah: I mean, I think for me growing up, people weren’t really cooking … People were cooking Italian, American. They weren’t cooking from their heritage necessarily. Because even in culinary school, we had cuisines of Asia. I went to Culinary Institute of America. We had cuisines of Asia, which was a three-week course. So, how much can you really learn in three weeks on such a broad topic?
Kristen: Three weeks on an entire continent.
Leah: Exactly. Now, I mean, it’s a little difficult and it’s a little challenging. And I’m sure they updated their curriculum, but it wasn’t something that we knew that we could cook that people would want. And I think honestly, one of the biggest influential chefs was David Chang, and he was making Asian food, but not fine dining Asian food. And he was making it cool and sexy and people wanted to do it. And I think if it wasn’t for David Chang, none of the other restaurants like my restaurant and so many other restaurants that have since opened, we wouldn’t have the audience. So, thank you David Chang for that.
And for me, I think it’s really like you want to cook food that you feel connected to, or at least I did. And I loved cooking Italian food. I spent time and studied in Italy and I was passionate about it, but I didn’t feel that connection.
And I feel proud that I cook Filipino food and that other Filipinos look at me as someone who has helped spreading the culture and spreading the information about Filipino cuisine. And I think that it’s great that a lot of chefs now have the ability to do that. And I think, yes, you want to do what you love, but you also, if you don’t have that connection to it and you don’t have that love and passion, then when it gets tough, you’re like, why am I even doing this?
Kristen: Something to sort of fall back on internally. Was this vision challenged at all by anyone while you were building it?
Leah: Honestly, no. I think my mom was my biggest critic. Yeah. So, I think I was also one of the biggest challenges because I’m half Filipino. And sometimes I have an identity crisis because I’m like, am I Filipino enough for Filipinos to embrace me? And will they look at me as someone who’s educated on the food and can really be a presence and an authority because I didn’t grow up in the Philippines and I’m only half.
And I think that was something that I really struggled up until recently. And I think that’s one of the reasons why my social media grew, because I was like, all right, let me lean into what I really do well, which is cooking Southeast Asian food, not just Filipino food, but Southeast Asian food in general. And once I was like, I don’t care what anyone else says, this is what I love doing, this is what I want to do, and I want to teach people how to make adobo or sinigang or all these different dishes. My audience grew because I felt secure in what I was doing and passionate about what I was doing.
Do I get haters out there? Sure. I have older Filipino women, “That’s not traditional. That’s not how do it,” which is fine. I mean, maybe it’s not the most traditional, but this is my interpretation of it. But until I had that confidence of not caring what other people had to say about how my approach towards Filipino cuisine or if they were going to judge me and say like, “Well, if you look at me, I don’t look that Filipino.”
But I have been embraced by the Filipino community and it’s great. And I think it gives me a lot more confidence. And I think confidence is huge, and believing in yourself is really huge when you are trying to grow your business, whether it’s a restaurant, social media, whatever.
Kristen: Yeah. How did you get there to, I don’t care, I’m confident, I got this?
Leah: Many, many years of beating myself up. My husband says he thinks I’m the hardest on myself, and that I’m the meanest person to myself, because you put yourself out there, you have to have a thick skin, but you also just have to be prepared what people are going to say and come at you with. So, I’m my own worst critic, for better or for worse.
Kristen: Speaking of critics, when we spoke a couple weeks ago, you said that you read every review of your restaurant. I mean, I’m sure that you have a tough skin being your own biggest critic, but that must take … How do you handle that? It must take a real thick skin to deal with it.
Leah: I mean, I think it’s really important for people to read the reviews. I think anyone, as a business owner who doesn’t read them and take them seriously, yes, take it with a grain of salt because it’s great that people have a platform to voice their concerns or their critiques, but also someone might be having a bad day and they ate at your restaurant and nothing you could do would make them happy.
But I think it’s really important to read the reviews and know, okay, this person is just being an a-hole, or this person is really has something worth fixing, or it’s a great review and it makes you feel good. And I think I do have a love-hate relationship with it because sometimes it can be, people are very honest because it’s anonymous or they feel like they can say whatever they want because they’re not saying it to your face.
But I take it as, okay, since I’m not at my restaurant every day because I have a million things going on and I’m trying to expand. If I can’t be at the restaurant every day, what tool can I use to still know what’s going on and make sure that my customers are happy. Because at the end of the day, you want to make sure that your customers are happy.
And so, having Yelp and being able to read the reviews and seeing, okay, well, someone said that the service wasn’t good, who was the server on this night? It was Valentine’s Day, we were slammed, all these things. And then I’ll go and I’ll say to my friend of the house, back of the house, manager, and I’ll be like, “Listen, here’s a screenshot of this review.” I was like, “If it’s too salty, let’s go and check. If the service wasn’t good that day, who are the servers? Do they tend to have an attitude with customers?” You know what I mean? These are the things because I think it’s really important.
And then the great reviews are great knowing that your food is consistent. They’ve been loyal customers who’ve been coming back year after year, and they know that they’re out of town, and if they come back to your restaurant a year later, they’re going to get the same food every time. That makes me feel great. That lets me know that my staff is doing their job, that people are still enjoying the product that I’m putting out.
And so, I think it’s really important for you to constantly be looking. I don’t think that you should obsess over it. I don’t think that you should beat yourself up about it, but I think it’s definitely a tool that you can use, especially if you can’t be there every single day at your restaurants. It’s really important to just to read them as hard as it may be.
Kristen: Do you ever respond?
Leah: I don’t respond, but I have someone on the staff respond. If it’s something that is worthy of a response, for sure.
Kristen: And what would that be?
Leah: I mean, if someone had a really terrible experience.
Kristen: Yeah. That’s fair. Have you ever made any big changes based on online feedback, anonymous online feedback?
Leah: So, there was a dish at Piggyback, it was called the fried pho, and I knew they were making it great when I was there, but it was, the pickup for the dish was kind of just a pain. And I was like, I don’t care. I love this dish. And we got a lot of negative comments because they just weren’t cooking it the right way. They weren’t cooking it the way that I showed them.
And I took it off the menu because I was like, if it’s constant and it’s like everything was great except this, or skip the fried pho dish, I’m like, okay, no, just because I like the dish and the way I make it. If I were to make it, they would love it. But like I said, I can’t be there every day and I can’t micromanage. So, I took it off the menu.
Kristen: Was that hard?
Leah: No. It’s fine. I mean, Pig & Khao has been open for 10 years. In the first five years, I had my hands in everything and I micromanage everything. And then when we opened Piggyback in Jersey City, which has closed, which I will say failure is the best way to not repeat your mistakes, I would say it taught me about stepping back and not having my hand in everything and kind of delegating and making sure that people can do their job. Because you have to have people in place in order to grow. But you have to give them the freedom to do that and have them make those mistakes and also be able to 11 montrelinquish some responsibility.
Kristen: That is probably a big challenge for a lot of business owners who are growing to step back and seed some of the control to other people. I’d love to go deeper there. Do you have advice, tips? Is there one thing that happened that made you, I guess you said you closed a restaurant, is there something that happened that made you realize, “I can’t do all of these things at the same time and I need to trust my staff”?
Leah: I think that having one business or one restaurant and having it be your only business is it makes you have tunnel vision. So, when I opened up Piggyback in Jersey City, I realized, okay, well, I can’t be there all the time at Pig & Khao, so how can I split my time in the best way possible?
And then having children, having to be like, okay, well, I have two restaurants because Piggyback Jersey City closed but then we opened Piggyback in New York. And I was like, I have two restaurants and I have a kid, and then I had a second kid. And then all those things that kind of take you away from the one original baby to start it all kind of makes it realize, oh, I didn’t need to be there all that time. You know what I mean? I could have focused my energy on doing something else.
But I think until you have that opportunity or until you take that leap of faith to do something else, because I always think that you need nine side hustles. I think you’re not going to step out of the situation that you’re in, and you’re always going to have that tunnel vision.
Kristen: I think, yeah, you’re a working mother. I’m a working mother. I have two children. I’m sure plenty of people who are listening to this right now are working mothers. How does that fit in to, I think you said it actually helped you as a business owner learn a lot of hard lessons, how else has that changed the way that you are approaching your work?
Leah: I think I’m a lot more chill, I think, which is kind of weird because kids are stressful, but I think that I’ve learned how to let a lot of things go.
Kristen: Let it go.
Leah: Because with a child, you cannot pick every fight with them because it’s not worth it. So, I think you have to just let go and only focus on the really important things. And one of the most important things in my life, or if not the most, is my family.
And so, I want to make sure that I can provide for them, but I also want to make sure that I have time for them. Because I have a three-and-a-half-year-old, and I can’t believe he’s already that big. And then I have a baby who literally just turned a year old and I was like, oh my god, I can’t believe it’s already been a year.
So, the time goes fast as cliché, I mean, it does, and I don’t want to miss it. And I want to have the ability to spend time with them and take them on trips and just do as much as I possibly can with them, because I only have a small window for them to think that I’m cool and want to be around me until they don’t anymore. And then I’m not the center of their world.
And so, I want to hang on to that as long as possible. And then when they get older, they can do their own thing and I’ll be sad. But for right now, it’s really important for me to just be there as much as I can.
Kristen: I mean, I think it’s pretty cool when they’re older, they’ll be like, “My mom has cool restaurants, let’s go hang out.” So, I want to talk through some challenges, and I’m curious what the biggest challenge you’re facing right now overall as an entrepreneur?
Leah: I mean, I think everything is constantly changing, constantly evolving. I think there’s so many different challenges. One thing that I will say is that you have to be able to adapt. And if now, okay, so let’s say social media, for example, it used to be Facebook and it used to be Twitter, and then it became Instagram, and now it’s TikTok. And you’re like, oh my god, there’s all these platforms, which is amazing because it is really a great marketing tool, but you’re like, do I have a bandwidth to actually do all of those things? And the answer’s probably not.
So, you have to figure out what works best for you, for your industry. And for me, I think it’s Instagram. Well, it’s Instagram. You want to be able to figure out how to take one topic and spread it out. So, for me, just for my own personal social media, I use the same videos that I make on Instagram. I put it on TikTok, and you can put it on Facebook. And so, it’s one thing that I can put on three different platforms, which is great, and that will help. But getting in the influencers, knowing who the TikTok influencers are, and knowing who the Instagram influencers are, all that is crazy and overwhelming, but also very important.
And so, I think that’s one of the biggest challenges right now is just trying to stay up to date with who’s influential in each different social media platform and how can I use each platform differently, but also kind of use the same content so I don’t have to drive myself crazy.
Leah: That makes sense.
Kristen: It does make sense. I’m glad you brought up influencers, because I want to go a little deeper there. That’s something that has spun up that that’s something that has spun up in the last 10 years. It didn’t exist. And now social media, it really exists. And I’m curious, how are you working with influencers and social media influencers? When we talk through it, you have a very set strategy in how you’re engaging with these people.
Leah: Yeah. So, before, well, I would say probably a year ago it was kind of like whatever. We didn’t have a real plan. So now, we have just a paragraph of what we sent to influencers to be like, “Hey, we’d love for you …” Sometimes they’ll reach out to us or we’ll reach out to them. We don’t pay the influencers. We pay them in food.
I think that’s really important because the influencers, they need you for content and we need them to get people to come into the restaurants. There are some people who obviously pay influencers to come into the restaurants, but personally, I don’t want to do that because I just don’t think A, it’s necessary at this point where we’re at, where my restaurants are at. And I don’t think that, I don’t want to work with influencers who want to come to my restaurant only because I’m paying them.
I want them to come because they found the restaurant, they think it’s cool, and that will translate into the video that they create and the following that they have. Because the people, if they’re like, oh, well, that person only came to the restaurant because they got paid to do it, I don’t know that I would trust that as much.
But we do have a one sheeter basically saying, “This is what you get when, so it’s X amount of dollars in food and beverage, and we would like you to tip your servers because you have to tip your servers.” We encourage it. We would never make it mandatory, but we encourage you to tip your servers. And then also if you could give us the deliverables by X date.
Because you don’t want to have to be following up. It’s awkward to be like, “Hey, when are you posting? What’s going on? What are you posting? Are you just posting a story or are you making a reels?” Everything should be kind of laid out. So, no questionables. There’s just nothing up in the air, because then it eliminates any awkwardness. And it’s a contract. When I partner with brands, I have deliverables, set time that, all that stuff, and it should be the same business. It’s business.
So, I think it’s important for the influencers to know what they’re getting and for the business to know what they’re giving and vice versa. And it’s a very small one paragraph sign contract, and then just eliminates any awkwardness or weirdness. And it’s been really good. I think people we just had a TikToker come in and post, and it’s been great for the restaurant.
I think TikTok is kind of the route that we’re going to. I mean, he posts on Instagram and TikTok, but because of Pig & Khao and Piggyback being an older restaurant, we want younger comers because a vibe is still young and hip. So, that’s the TikTok generation. Because we have the older clientele already because those are people who’ve been following me. I’m getting older and-
Leah: … and we’re not reaching the younger crowd as much as we were five, 10 years ago. So, I think for us, TikTok has really been helpful. Not that Instagram is not.
Kristen: Do you get a lot of inbound requests, or are you see your team actively going after influencers to reach out to?
Leah: I think it’s both. We definitely, we have a list of influencers and we like to use more micro influencers who have around 30,000 followers as opposed to someone who has 150, because I feel like the 30,000 followers, their audience is really focused on what on their content. And so, they’re a little bit, just more engaged, I would say, because a lot of people follow, they’re like, “Oh, wow, that person has 200,000 followers. I’m going to follow them because there must be a reason why.” But I don’t know. I feel like they’re not always as engaged.
So, we go after the more of the micro influencers, but it’s very much reciprocal. We have a list of people that we think are cool and that we like their content and we reach out to. And then if people come to us, we’ll evaluate.
I always like to make sure that the content fits our vibe, the person fits our vibe. Even when I partner with brands, I don’t partner with brands just because they’re going to pay me money because I want to partner with brands because they work with the food that I create, or I’ve been like, I partnered with Weber Grills. I always had Weber Grills growing up. So, stuff like that, I think, again, it should mean something to you. It’s not always just about a dollar side.
Kristen: Yeah. Have you ever been tempted to try to make a viral dish, like a TikTok viral dish?
Leah: No. I hate that. Yeah. It’s not my thing. It’s really not my thing. And I see a lot of it, and I’m like, I just think it’s so stupid. I get why people are engaged by it. I understand it looks cool, it’s like whatever. But for me, I cook food because this is what I want to eat. And I feel like a lot of the viral stuff is not necessarily stuff that I want to eat.
And maybe that’s just because I’m a chef, a trained chef, and I’m know that I’m different than other people. But home cooks, they might find it really fun and cool and interesting, and I think it’s great. Anything to get people talking about food and more into food and aware about ingredients, I think that’s great. But for me, it’s just not something that I’m into or that I would do. If it was a viral trend that made sense for me, maybe, but in general, no. I like watching it.
Kristen: Yeah. Great.
Leah: And I would never put stuff on my menu because I wanted it to be something that could go viral on TikTok. And it’s funny because a lot of publicists in the past have been like when your restaurant or your business hits a certain age, you’re not new and you’re not hot, you’re not fresh anymore. And so, it’s really hard just to still get pressed.
And so, because you can get a huge following or bump in business from social media, a lot of publicists in the past have been like, “Well, why don’t you make a dish that go viral?” And it’s like, I’m going to make food put on my menu because it’s a flash in the pan. You know what I mean? Just like all those restaurants that open and everyone is obsessed with them in TikTok, and then it’s two years later, it’s not sustainable. It’s like your 15 minutes of fame and then that’s it.
I want to build something that will withstand time. And 10 years later, people are going to come back and want to get my khao soy because it’s delicious. Not because it was trending on TikTok for a hot second.
Kristen: Right. That makes a lot of sense. And it sort of follows with your honing in on authenticity and the importance of being true. We talked a lot about the restaurants and you have so much other stuff going on. You mentioned brand partnerships and outside opportunities. And I’m curious, do those come to you? When did you realize that it was possible to step out of the kitchen and start to take on more related things that will help you as an entrepreneur continue to build your brand and build your business?
Leah: I mean, actually during the pandemic, I started making cooking videos because that’s kind of what a lot of people did. And I taught myself how to do all the editing and how to just film. I mean, I basically taught myself all from YouTube and whatever. And once a week, I film videos. And I think those videos if brands see them, and that’s a way for a brand to want to work with me and to get to know me. But it’s also a way for my fans to learn how to cook food.
And then I also use social media for letting people know about a show that I’m going to be on. And so, I really try to embrace social media as it’s very much a business tool. I don’t use it because I want to show my personal life. Because to me, I think my personal life is boring, and I’m like, why would anyone want to know about my personal life. But I do use it as a tool just to let people know what’s going on in my professional life. And I think it’s really important.
And I think once you start using social media as a tool to help promote your businesses, that’s when you can really see all your businesses grow. But I think I never thought of using social media as a way to get brands to know about me. And now I do. And I think that it’s extremely important, for better or for worse, whether you doing it or not if you own a business and you want to branch out into other businesses, it’s kind of the easiest way to get people that information.
Kristen: Yeah. I mean, it’s a direct connection. So, that makes a lot of sense.
Leah: And we’re all scrolling all the time.
Kristen: I know, right. So, looking forward, in the beginning, you mentioned you have some new restaurants coming, is that what you mean?
Leah: So, we are very, very close to signing lease on a new space for another restaurant. And then we have a lot of other things that are very much up in the air, but could be nailed down any day. So, the goal is to expand. During COVID, I partnered with a group called Apres Cru, and they partnered with a few different hospitality groups and they found restaurants and brands that they believed in and that they wanted to make sure could make it through the pandemic financially.
So, we were lucky enough to be one of those groups, and it is a great partnership. They give us infrastructure that we need to grow and expand, but they also allow us to be who we are and we still run the day-to-day operations of each business. And so, it’s great. And because we have that access to funding, we can now look at deals and restaurants in different cities and in New York as well. And we have a lot more opportunity. So, yes. There will be a lot more Pig & Khaos hopefully in the next 24 months.
Kristen: In the same area, or are you branching out geographically?
Leah: We’re looking not just in New York. Outside of New York.
Kristen: Cool. Yeah. So, otherwise, big goals, what’s still left on your list? What has not yet been achieved that you are working toward?
Leah: If I could ever just get myself in front of the computer and finish my mini proposal for book number two, there is definitely interest from the publishers of my first cookbook. So, I really just, that’s about me, just procrastinating. And so, I would love to do a second book and it would be all Filipino food. I want my own TV show. I am on TV, but I would love to have my own show. So, just kind of expand more on what I’m currently doing. But instead of just being a judge, having my own show, stuff like that.
Kristen: What would you do on your own show?
Leah: I mean, I love traveling and I know everyone wants, maybe not everyone, but obviously Bourdain was like the god of travel shows. So, something in that realm would be pretty cool.
Kristen: Yeah. I mean, that’s the dream for sure.
Kristen: I have just a couple minutes left and there’s a couple audience questions. But this one’s important and it’s about hiring. And I did recently read from the National Restaurant Association that over 50% of operators, this is new data, say they just don’t have enough people working for them. So, I’m curious if you have advice or tips or just thoughts on how you find and hire and keep the right people working for you that you’re able to trust with your brands?
Leah: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s the hardest piece. Having staff in general and then having staff that you trust and then retaining that staff and making them want to stay. And I think that’s really important. We have at Pig & Khao, we’ve had people who’ve been with us for six or seven years.
And I think it’s really important to treat your staff well and to let them know that you’re the boss, but also let them know that they have a voice. I think that’s really important because people want to be heard. And I think paying people wages that are fair. I know that with the restaurant industry, it’s really hard. Margins are very, very slim. But you have to figure out a way to be able to pay the staff a living wage because otherwise, someone else will. And they’re not going to stay. And then it becomes just a paycheck. So, you want it to be more than a paycheck.
And you want people to have, especially after the pandemic work-life balance has always been a topic of conversation, especially amongst managers. When we’re hiring new managers, people, they don’t want their job to be their whole life. They want to be able to have the freedom to take some time off. They just want to know that they can just like I want to spend time with my family, I want people to be able to have that time too.
So, I think that’s all really important and you just have to hear what people are saying. And I think as far as finding staff, at one point we just kept posting ads on Craigslist and we weren’t getting any responses. And I was like, “We can’t just keep doing the same thing. We can’t do the same thing and expect a different response.” So, you have to branch out and see different avenues of where you can get, sorry, my doggy, hear her barking. So, you just want to make sure that you try different avenues on where you can get resumes. And I always think word of mouth is the best way.
Anytime someone comes in, give them a few weeks, and if they prove that they’re a good employee, be like, “You have any friends? Is anyone looking?” Because I think really word of mouth is the best because you can get someone to come in. If someone enjoys working there, they’re going to tell their friend like, oh yeah, you should come. It’s fun, place to work. They’re really cool, they’re chill, whatever. You know what I mean? And make it fun, but also let them know that it’s professional and it’s a business.
Kristen: Yeah. Cool, fun, serious boss.
Leah: Yes. That is my goal. Sometimes I’m not, but for the most part, that’s what I try. In life in general, just cool, calm and chill, sometimes freak out.
Kristen: Okay. I mean, that’s good balance. Talk about work-life balance. I appreciate it. Just closing thoughts, you’ve mentioned work-life balance, and that’s one thing that we didn’t necessarily go into, but I’m curious where are your boundaries are? I know for a lot of entrepreneurs, your work becomes your life because it’s an extension of yourself. Do you have any very quick tips on how to protect your personal life and your personal self from this whole other brand that you’ve created externally?
Leah: I mean, it’s hard. It really is hard because I’m obsessed with checking my emails and I constantly, if there’s anything unread in my inbox, I get anxiety about it because I just want to be on top of things. And it’s also hard because my husband and I, we run the restaurants together. And so, we don’t want to bring home work into the house, any arguments like that. Because my parents actually, they had a dental practice together and for 30 something years and they would constantly be fighting at home about work stuff. So, I actually learned not to do that or tried not to as much as possible.
But I think it’s all about letting go. It’s like, “Okay, you’re done with work for the day. Let me just be present in the moment with my kids.” Sometimes, obviously because the restaurant hours are different than a 9:00 to 5:00, I’m having dinner with my children and someone from the restaurant calls me because a fire alarm is going off and they can’t figure out how it turned off. That’s annoying and frustrating, but that’s just the reality of it.
But really trying to just when you’re home, stay in the moment and be present with whatever you’re doing, I guess is what I try to do. Not that I do it well all the time by any means.
Kristen: Great. I mean, that’s important and it’s important advice. We are right at time. So, Leah, thank you again for all of this great and actionable advice. It was so good to talk to you. Good luck on your achieving all those goals. I’m sure we’ll get there.
Leah: Thank you.
Kristen: And thanks again to Yelp for having us.
Leah: Yes. Thank you so much.