Salad Bar Lunch Czar

Updated Dec, 12th 2012

What's it mean to be a good learner? Forget the academic sense. On the other extreme, we've got the School of Hard Knocks. While this crowd exists, I've shockingly never encountered anyone from this school in all my time growing up in the suburbs of Western PA, attending a private college in Central PA, playing way too much golf as a kid, working in finance right out of school and, most recently, for a running-centric startup.

So, who lies dead smack in the middle, the everyday folks blowing our minds not with sheer genius, but subtle smarts? Learning their craft through sheer will, simplicity not complexity and all-out scrappiness. Street smarts in the broadest sense, but in Eddie Seo's world, we'll call it Salad Smarts.

Eddie Seo moved to Oklahoma City from Korea in 2007 for his son's education. America, he believed, was the best place to further his son's learning, who was then in elementary school. While his son was learning about fractions and question marks, Eddie was doing some rather elementary learning of his own - the English language. Difficult; yes, but nothing too uncommon for an ambitious immigrant, especially an American one.

Spending only one year in OKC, Deng-Woo (his formal Korean name,) moved with his son, and wife, to the Greater Boston area for you guessed it: greater opportunity. Feeling opportunistic after picking up English in only one year, Eddie got a job with a local dry cleaner.

A former sports bar owner in Korea, which he compared to Hurricane O'Reilly's - a rowdy, hockey-obsessed bar, known to attract the finest of hooligans - by simply pointing out the window to it from our Wednesday afternoon chat on Canal Street in the West End of Boston, Eddie felt the urge once again to get back in the "game." Not for the desire to deal with belligerent Bruins fans, but with the intentions of becoming a business owner; in any way, shape or form. He didn't really know what he wanted, other than to keep following that whole American Dream thing.

So, with the help of a realtor, Eddie found a prospective place at 77 Canal Street, a French cafe by the name of Bonne Chance. For those counting at home, lucky 7's and a Good Luck translation in French, Eddie was, at least, starting out on a good note. Even better, the cafe was no longer French, which it originally started out as in 1985, but was now under Korean ownership.

This was now the summer of 2010, and while the transfer of ownership process went smoothly, the attempt to change the name of the cafe was anything but.

"Too many papers. Documents. Headache. Major headache," was how Eddie described it, in dealing with the City on changing it from Bonne Chance to "something Korean." A different name would have been good for, I don't know, branding, but keeping the French name definitely adds to the intrigue and mystique of the Bonne.

With the red tape behind him, Eddie's biggest challenge was learning to make it in the hyper-competitive landscape of Downtown Boston lunch.

The sports bar and dry cleaning days didn't provide much help. Would he just serve clam Chowder all day, every day? Korean food was probably a good bet, although how would that be a big draw with the Boston crowd.

The solution? All-you-can-eat salad bar.

Knowing nothing about salad offerings, nor the business model of unlimited quantity, Eddie did what any great artist or learner has done.

Observe. Copy. Listen. Fail. Tinker. Research. Experiment.

Two years and 4 months into the Bonne Chance experience, Eddie went about it in, rather, unconventional, yet fascinating ways.

When asked what items to offer as part of the salad bar, Eddie simply stated, "the Internet." Totally confused, I asked whether there was a special website for salad bar owners to learn the ins and outs of this exquisitely colorful industry.

"No, I type in Google 'salad bar.' It gives me pictures of what salad bar looks like and I use that," Eddie says, making me feel stupid for questioning Google, and the Internet's, ability to train salad bar novices.

Another valuable lesson, picked up early on from the former owner, was "to avoid thigh chicken in this area." This area of Boston, being one of the healthier US cities, preferred its white meat chicken. Just as Dorthy learned she wasn't in Kansas anymore, Eddie realized he wasn't in Korea anymore, ditched the insanely popular thigh and went with the dry, bland white meat.

Bonne Chance started out with standard salad fare; romaine lettuce, spinach lettuce, cucumbers, broccoli, carrot sticks, beets, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, beets, hard boiled eggs, egg salad, tuna salad, cottage cheese, red peppers, green peppers, onions, olives, shredded cheese, bleu cheese, etc. Yet, just as the best companies and sports teams feverishly innovate with new tactics and methodologies, Eddie takes to the streets for even better salad strategies.

Twice a year, he makes it a point to travel to Manhattan, the Mecca for all things food, especially buffets. When asked if he buys certain items while there, he made the simple gesture of scooping up food from a plate and scarfing it down, like any fine eater would. In Manhattan, he's on the other side of the trays. He sees, feels, smells and tastes great salad offerings, in the largest of quantities.

This learning-from-the-best approach extends to his local streets, too. That is, right up the hill from 77 Canal Street, a place that independent restauranteurs must contend with everywhere: Whole Foods. Their salad bar is many things; impressive and extensive, and good for Eddie, also, expensive. In fact, his pricing structure is based off of Whole Foods' $7.99/pound price. Undercutting the market, like any good small business owner would, Bonne Chance's salad bar is $6.95/pound.

Equal pricing would be foolish, but it made me wonder: what if he charged $6.99/pound? Is the four cents the difference between keeping his current customers or them fleeing up the hill to WF? Consumer psychology tells us the first number is key in any buying decision. So, why not test out the $6.99/pound price?

Not only has Eddie taken a page from Whole Foods' business playbook, but their cookbook, too, when he observed quinoa being a popular item up there. The fact that he'd never made it, or really even tasted it, didn't phase him. In typical Eddie Seo fashion, it is now a staple in the Bonne Chance trays.

Learning from others, especially those most important to his business, is another reason for his success. His customers, the same ones that prefer white chicken over thigh chicken, kept asking about another healthy item; a hybrid fruit/vegetable, high in good fats and greener than green - in both color and price. Yes, the avocado, and while in high demand by customers, was not high value for his margins. 

Still, he decided to offer it, even though he explicitly said, "People that pick up avocado is not good for me." The avocado, no matter how delicious it is to customers, myself included, is a loss leader. However, if it gets people in the door, he can make money off of lower cost, heavier items, such as lettuce, mushrooms and tomatoes.

Just as avocado's better half is that of guacamole, Eddie's better half is his loving wife. Thinking I knew the weekly breakdown between an avocado and guacamole ball day (cute little scoops of huac goodness), he made it quite clear that, "SHE DECIDES." This whole time, I thought it was Monday-Wednesday-Friday for avocados and Tuesday-Thursday for guacamole, but I was surely wrong.

Mrs. Seo hates a bored customer, so, she'll switch it up whenever she sees fits, and that goes for the whole salad bar, not just avocados. Personally, there is nothing better than walking in on a portabello mushroom (monster sized) and avocado day, for the value you're getting might be considered criminal. A background in food engineering, she's always switching it up with new casseroles, noodles, dumplings and stir-fries. And, like any good husband or guy for that matter, Eddie knows the wife best, especially in the kitchen.

Eddie's Salad Smarts education employs the same lessons used by top schools and companies around the world.

1. Learn from those that came before you - previous Bonne Chance owner
2. Take lessons from the market leader - Whole Foods
3. Anything done in New York is usually a good thing - salad buffets in Manhattan
4. Some people have learned some things on the Internet - Not only did Eddie use Google, but Google Images, since his English wasn't that strong. Visual Learning 101.
5. Listen to current customers - When they kept asking for avocados, he met their need.
6. Follow your wife's advice - salad bars that offer serendipity, in the form of guac balls, can be a true delight.

I'm happy to be a regular customer (I'm actually mayor on Foursquare) of Eddie and Bonne Chance and shows the true spirit of immigrant entrepreneurship. There is no playbook in life, for the best way to learn is through full immersion in the metaphorical all you can eat salad bar!

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