The Hows and Whys of MAC’D, Pt. 1

#0. Hi! We’re MAC’D!

Hello!

We opened MAC’D, San Francisco’s newest fast-casual, build-your-own mac & cheese shop, on July 4th and it’s been a nonstop whirlwind of activity since. Really, no one in the industry is lying to you when they state that owning a restaurant is a goddamn tough behemoth to tackle. With a combined big fat zero years of experience, our motley crew of twenty-something millenials set out to do something that we (and our parents) thought was kinda absurd. Along the way, I’ve learned some tough lessons about the industry and ourselves, and I thought it’d be productive and helpful to share my experiences candidly, as an exercise of self reflection and to give some insight into this whole process (and maybe for material for anyone else that’s looking to start something food related of their own!). Views are my own, pardon the occasional French, and please tolerate how much we’re winging this business.

#1. Inspiration, circa 2013

The most frequent reaction of new customers as they walk into MAC’D: “Woah! This is a cool concept!” (Minor humble brag, sorry). The most frequently asked question: “How did you guys come up with this?” I still don’t have a solid talk track, and usually verbally fumble my way through a 30 second shpeal about growing up with mac & cheese (mostly true), meeting my chef/business partner Jason Brown via management consulting networks (blatant lie), being inspired by the fast-casual industry (very true), and other blah blah buzzwords. See ABC7’s local news feature on us for an exhibit of an attempted talk track.

The real inspiration actually happened about 3 years ago at Cal. This radical new fast-casual restaurant, Pieology, had just opened up on Telegraph. Tried it, loved it. I was that guy that asked you to put every meat on my pizza…and then asked for more of every meat. The build-your-own, unlimited toppings concept was mind-boggling at the time, and it seemed most of campus loved it. Couple weeks later, I visited again with my good pal Jae Ryoo, and we got to talking about the sustainability of the concept and business model. Naturally, the conversation flowed to other cuisines that the build-your-own schtick would complement, and because Homeroom was one of my college favorites, I brought up build-your-own mac & cheese. What followed was our typical, “That’s a great idea! We should totally build it!” conversation that we never followed through on. I graduated and went into management consulting, and Jae went to be a badass product guy at Salesforce.

Two years, thousands of airline and hotel points, and mini post-grad identity crisis later, I’d left consulting and was exploring about things to work on. My old firm, Altman Vilandrie & Company, was an amazing workplace, housed the smartest people that I’ve ever met, and took the time, patience, and resources to nurture me, but frankly, I was never the best employee. I found out that TMT, undersea cables, and cell towers weren’t exactly my calling. Combined with going through a tumultuous breakup and not feeling invested in the work, I was underperforming and embarrassed with my work ethic. So, after a brief, awesome stint at our London office, I called it quits and went back to the drawing board.

Enter Jason Brown. I’ll spare the majority of details, but my aforementioned tumultuous breakup led to a Tinder spree which eventually led to Jason (so no, not mutual management consulting networks). After 3 days (he claims 3 weeks), we quickly, quickly realized that we were severely incompatible. But what impressed on me was his genuine passion for food and his desire to turn that passion into something consumable by the greater public. From some odd reason or another, we became super close friends. I still can’t pinpoint the exact moment when I pitched him the idea of MAC’D (Mix and Mac at the time), but I vaguely remember sending a drunken text from the back of an Uber. I’m pretty sure the content was something along the lines of, “HEY! FAST-CASUAL MAC & CHEESE. THOUGHTS?!” It took a bit of convincing, sweet-talking, and Yacht Week to really pull Jason onboard, but he eventually bit and we began to deconstruct this behemoth of a task of building a restaurant.

Jason frequently uses the phrase, “like oil and water” to describe our relationship. I like to trailblaze with little regard for consequences and rules, and Jason knows every consequence and rule in the book. In a way, I push us forward as fast and hard as possible, and Jason pulls us back enough to realistically make our goals happen. Disclaimer, we fight an unbelievable amount, but you heard it here first: I’m in love with this guy and we couldn’t be where we are at now without his insight, leadership, and ability to talk sense into me. We sat down late September and drew out some elaborate goals for ourselves. Jason had rightfully talked me into an extensive recipe test period followed by a pop-up period before going after a brick & mortar. I’d naturally wanted to sign a lease first and think food later, but Jason won.

#2. Humble Beginnings

We incorporated on October 24th, 2016. I had no idea what I was doing. I maybe spent an hour or two googling C Corp vs. S Corp vs. LLC late one night, and ultimately decided that incorporating as a C Corp would be the fastest and easiest at the time. We’re currently thinking about taking our S Corp designation, but more on that later. At the time, I just wanted to incorporate so we would be able to feel a little more legit. $100, paper application, and a couple weeks later, Jason and I were the proud officers of Mix & Mac Foods.

Mix & Mac, because you literally mix -in as many ingredients as you want into your mac. We thought it was genius, and apparently other folks did too, enough to stop us from using the name. But more on that later as well. At this point, we’d roped in my artistically talented friend, Lucy Liu (not the famous actress) into the project. Jason and Lucy spent hours talking about mood boards, colors, fonts, logos, themes, designs, etc. etc. etc. while I nodded and pretended to listen. In all seriousness, they did a stellar job, with a bit of help from Jason’s artistically talented brother, Aaron, in creating a v1 of Mix & Mac logo and logotype. At this point, I was ready to go guns blazing into the pop-up world, but was again, reined back.

Our first banner! May it rest in peace.

I’d begrudgingly accepted to partake in a recipe testing phase, which consisted of Jason teaching me how to properly hold a knife, running back and forth from Safeway multiple times in one evening, and subjecting our poor poor friends to multiple failed iterations of our mac & cheese. I think Jason nearly poisoned his then roommate at the time (hyperbolic, of course) by putting in 10 tablespoons of salt instead of 10 teaspoons in one of his first bechamel attempts.

Our test kitchens, ft. lots of wine, a lot of confusion, and burnt food

After multiple trials and errors we became better. We’d scrapped initial recipes and started adding cream to everything. I’d finally learned how to properly whisk a pot and could recite how to make a roux, and from a roux to bechamel, and from bechamel to cheese sauce, and from cheese sauce to mac & cheese. I’d also washed hundreds of utensils by then, I shit you not. By November, our friends had stopped gagging, and by December, we served macs at holiday parties with scattered success.

Naturally, I’d grown antsy in these two months, and was pushing almost daily for us to finally start selling our food. At the tail end of our recipe testing phase, I was emailing 25+ cafes, breweries, restaurants, and other venues a day for them to host us for a pop-up. We were mostly ignored. Some were intrigued, but very kindly said no. Others were more intrigued, but couldn’t bring themselves to trust two guys with no restaurant experience to serve food to their customers. We had no experience, no trade references, and were two nobodies with an unproven concept. It wasn’t until December when our awesome friends at Neighbor’s Corner even considered us for their weekday pop-up series.

— — —

The restaurant summons, so I’ll continue this in another iteration. This is my first time keeping a blog, let alone a public one, so all feedback is always welcome. My goal is to shed a light on our thought processes, deconstruct this journey of starting a restaurant and hopefully inspire other folks to do the same. Please let me know I’m succeeding in that regards!

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