Kai Campbell Of Burger Walla: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Restaurateur
Never give up equity when you can get debt. Don’t give up control. Bring on partners, but pay them from the business, not from yourself.
As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Kai Campbell.
Kai Campbell, born and raised in the city of Newark, Jersey, is what he self describes as an envisionary, working in distressed urban development, most interested in the “vertical” development and improvement of his hometown. Receiving his formal economic education at The University of Virginia, Kai first labored as a municipal economist and later running his own shop. Kai has worked in the arena of economic development his entire career, helping to change culture and skylines in urban markets, especially Newark.
Kai launched his first restaurant concept, Burger Walla, in 2014. The Walla, as it is known, was quickly heralded as one of the best restaurants in the state of New Jersey. He has since added to his portfolio, bringing Bragman’s Delicatessen, a traditional Jewish deli established in 1937, under the Walla Food & Beverage Group umbrella. His firm is also birthing The Yard, which will have a small but diverse menu, playing off the strengths of the other team members’ respective cuisines and specialties, while providing an experience currently not provided in the Newark, NJ market. Looking to fundamentally change the trajectory of Newark’s food and culture scene, Kai and the team are seeking to provide a standard of service that is typically not reserved for communities like Newark. He is also launching the new culture brand, Onomatopoeia, as a social commentary exercise and platform.
Kai, a father of 2 vibrant young ladies, has other plans and aspirations for Newark, centered in economic and social health and empowerment. Like his parents, Kai is an activist, whose mediums of choice are economics and planning. As a son and a parent, he hopes to continue the tradition of futurism that propels his community forward.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restaurateur?
My only job, other than running Walla Food & Beverage Group, was as an economist, most notably for the local government for Cory Booker. One part of the job was to encourage and influence investors/companies to bring their products and ideas to Newark, and how to make them better for them and our community. I routinely got strong “NOs” from every one in the burger restaurant category. So I decided to do it myself!
Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?
We don’t have a focus per se. We have a burger joint with an Indian twist. We have an 85-year old Jewish delicatessen. And we have a chill lil spot inside of a public park, that serves food and cultural influenced by the African-diaspora. It is a story that is unique to me in many ways, and my relationship to this city of Newark. I am a Black Brother from Newark, whose Grandfather came from the South to be a Kosher chef and restaurateur, whose Daughters are half Indian. And all of that food influences the world in unique ways, and throughout other aspects of culture.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a blogger/digital content creator? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
The funniest story can’t ever be repeated. But the FIRST week of business, I essentially lost ALL of my business partners. 3 years in, the business I tried to purchase and expand initially, came to me to acquire it. And 5 years in, my biggest competitor and copycat folded, and sold their business to me for about 10% of what they invested to start it.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?
I just mentioned losing all of my partners the FIRST week of actual business being open. Had I known I would be doing this solo dolo, I would have NEVER done it. I would have had a much more lucrative career as a foot model and handball player.
So I just put my head down, like the swimmer I am, the grinder I am, the hustler I am, and went to work. Within 2 years we were voted the 3rd best burger joint, as voted by the people of NJ, and the best bang for your buck in the state of NJ in NJ Monthly Magazine….2 years in a row before they retired the damn award!
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that followers are crazy about?
LOVE — Love — love — LOVE
We show love, give love, prepare with love, welcome with love, serve with love, finesse with love, and that shows respect for the product and the People that have worked hard in order to be our guests and pay us for it. In it, you see the fun.
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
A meal grown with love, prepared with love, served with love, and eaten with love. For the environment, the people, and each other. I have almost made people orgasm over peanut butter n jelly sandwiches almost at the same rate as shrimp and grits. Balance is key. It is the energy of the Universe.
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
Art and Black Joy. Art is the interpretation of the energy of God. And Black Joy is the realization of Black Freedom. They feed everything I do.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
We are very much pivoting to be able to bottle our sauces. That will hopefully become our primary focus and biggest anchor of company growth. If we can single handedly turn that in to a high earning and self sufficient business, we will be able to autopilot the shops. We want to be a paragon of artisanal condiments.
What advice would you give to other bloggers to thrive and avoid burnout?
Balance. Step back. Slow down. Peep the “snakes” in the grass. And then go about your hunt.
Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Blogger” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Read popular mechanics as much as you read cookbooks. In the restaurant industry, equipment is going to break. And you’re not always going to have a pro on hand to fix it. SOmetimes you have to apply a tourniquet and get back to the fight. I once had about 6 inches of water in our dining room and electrical closet at like midnight. I had to repel on to the roof, fix the drain on the roof, and then siphon all of the water out of the room. We opened on time the next morning.
- Social media is cool, but that doesn’t always translate in to sales. SOmeone from Cali can like you post but not be able to buy a burger. FOcus on the guests in front of you. Use their experience to tell your story.
- If you want to grow, you can’t do it without a team Respect the team. I once could service the entire store solo dolo, a like of 45 out of the door, within an hour. Those days are long gone. Train up your team, empower them, compensate them.
- Focus on your partners/suppliers. A rhythm and consistency are key, just as the quality. We have had the same butcher for 7 years. When we are in a jam, they have our back.
- Never give up equity when you can get debt. Don’t give up control. Bring on partners, but pay them from the business, not from yourself.
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your blog?
The Oxtail Burger, the Oui We, is the best burger in the world, pound for pound.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would give all of the power in the world to the most economically disadvantaged Women of Color in the world. I would let them run the world for a spell. I guarantee the world would become more loving within a few years.
Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!