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The Inventivity Pod
Experiencing Food
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Is food just food, or is there a power behind the experience of eating that can bring people together? Hirofumi Leung, the Founder of Dragonfly Restaurant Group, creates restaurants that push Japenese cuisine beyond sushi, creating authentic connections and shared moments. Hiro shares his secrets for how he created one of Florida’s best restaurants. 

 

TRANSCRIPT:

 

Intro:

Inventors and their inventions. Welcome to Radio Cade a podcast from the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention in Gainesville, Florida. The museum is named after James Robert Cade, who invented Gatorade in 1965. My name is Richard Miles. We’ll introduce you to inventors and the things that motivate them, we’ll learn about their personal stories, how their inventions work and how their ideas get from the laboratory to the marketplace

James Di Virgilio:

Food. Does it talk back to you? Is it an experience or is it just something that we eat? For Radio Cade I’m James Di Virgilio. My guest today is Hirofumi Leung. He is the founder of the Dragonfly Restaurant Group locations, Gainesville, Orlando, Miami. Hiro, welcome to the show.

Hirofumi Leung:

Hey, thank you, James. Uh , yeah, I actually love what you just said. Food talking back to you.

James Di Virgilio:

I stole it from you, which is a good opener because as we were discussing before the show, food, as you envision, it has a lot more to do with just something on your plate that you are eating. Some people view food as just performance material. It’s bland. I don’t need it. I just want it to fuel my body. You on the other hand, see it very differently.

Hirofumi Leung:

Absolutely. I’m growing up in Asia. My parents were always in my family were always about food. I come from a culture where family meal really meant putting food in the center of the table. And we deliberately, instead of eating individual meals in front of you, we would put food in the middle of the table. And in order for you to get your food, you had to reach over and ask people and create these interactions and meaningful conversations. And so from an early age on food really met a connection with people rather than the food that you’re eating, but it helped the food tastes good.

James Di Virgilio:

So you grew up in a culture around food, and then you’re in Gainesville, Florida. And now you started a restaurant that primarily focused on Asian cuisine, raw foods, raw materials at the time. Was there such an offering in Gainesville?

Hirofumi Leung:

No, not really. There was just the average restaurant. When I first started, I was going to school at University of Florida and , uh , like many people who didn’t have a lot of money to go to. You had to go work part time. So I was working at a part time restaurant and it was very transactional. You serve tables and you bring food out and you say goodbye. And that was it. I actually had a business plan exercise from my class and I put together a whole experiential component of that business presented to the business owner. And at the time she just ran her restaurant for 10 years as a mom and pop. She just told me, Hey, you’re I really appreciate you doing this, but I’m actually not trying to add on extra work. And so I put it back on the shelf and collected dust for a couple more years until I had the energy or a life changing moment when I was unemployed and said, Hey, look, I either go do something or continue on this path of just chilling out and just hanging out on my brother’s couch. So we actually that business plan and took it to where we’re at today.

James Di Virgilio:

And a large part of that plan of course, was experience. I remember going to Dragonfly very early on, and it was one of the first restaurants in Gainesville, which now has a very different restaurant scene, I think in large part, thanks to your efforts where it did feel like from start to finish this was a food experience and it also happened to be obviously incredibly delicious. Did a lot of that inspiration come from what you mentioned here at the top of the show came from your childhood experiences with food, how you saw it and viewed it? Was there something innate within you that gave you this desire? Where did this come from?

Hirofumi Leung:

For me to sit here and say that everything was designed and strategically planned out, I would probably be lying to you. I think a lot of the things I’ve done my past 21 years of running this business has been lots of trial and failures. And I believe a lot of innovators or people that are creative, come up with a billion, different ideas and experimentation before they land on one. For me, it was just a path of like taking on this journey of just going through many iterations and then seeing which one sticks as of today, I’ve had my failures, I’ve closed down restaurants, but truthfully, those are the ones who I actually sit down and learn the most from. But what it is, is like in the course of 20 plus years, I’ve come to understand because of the trends and the needs of the market is changing. That experiential component is so important. So I’m trying to embed that even more through what we’ve done in the past. And here’s a great way to look at it. At a restaurant I tell my servers and my staff, my chefs, and my managers, especially that good service is bad for business. And what I mean by that is if you provide just average service, you get greeted at the hostess station. Your menus are clean. You get greeted within a reasonable amount of time, like say 60 seconds for us as our minimum greet time standards, then they take the order. Then the food’s delivered and then the food tastes pretty good. Then your checks drop, then you say goodbye. All those just kind of get your foot in the door to play the game. But if you continually just do that, you’re not memorable. And in order to have somebody remember the experience, all those touch points, you have to figure out a way to go above and beyond just a transaction. And I coach my team all the time that, Hey , it’s not always possible, but whenever you have an opportunity to really connect with somebody on an emotional level, that’s how you create loyalty. That’s how you get people to come back. And the best way I’ve always mentioned this to get there is whenever somebody screws up, whenever we make a mistake, that’s actually the most opportune time to connect with somebody. It’s almost like an invitation for you to connect with somebody fairly easily, or if somebody has like a life changing moment, if you’re part of that, that’s an also another way to emotionally connect with them on an experiential basis. So at the end of the day, food, doesn’t talk to you as an opening, but food has the ability to talk to you. If you can figure out a way to make it come alive emotionally,

James Di Virgilio:

And you talk about the connection point of food, I’m thinking of a story as your telling me your story. I went to Japan, I was behind Shibboleth, which is the main area in Tokyo. And we’re walking down the street and our goal was to just walk into a restaurant and eat there, hopefully where there were no Americans and no English speaking and we found such a street, which was not hard to do. We walked in, no one spoke any English. And there was a lot of gesturing and pointing. And we sat down at the bar and it was an amazingly cool, like so many things are in Japan, little restaurant, I think it’s couture and handmade. And through a series of pointing and hand gesturing, they figured out that we were asking them to make us whatever they wanted and we would eat it. And what ensued was like a two hour, 10 course meal of some of the most insane foods I’ve ever seen and eaten. And there was this connection. We took a picture at the end . There was no words that were able to be spoken between anyone there. But there was this immense memory, from that from that meal. And that is like, you’re saying the food itself, wasn’t talking to me, but it’s such a poignant memory. And the food was delicious. That helped, but it was really a lot more of the cultural experience of both parties, having an exchange, understanding each other and using food as the medium to provide for that. And it’s an art obviously much like yours is. And I think anyone who’s traveled to Asia sees the art that is infused in so many things. So for you creating an experience, I often think of that experience in Shibboleth. And I think, man, that’s, that’s such a difficult thing to do from the look of the restaurant, to the feel of how everyone treated you to the way that napkins are folded, every little detail has to be right. How did you learn how to create these experiences? Where did that come from?

Hirofumi Leung:

That’s a tough question. You know, as I mentioned earlier, I wish it was just, you know , I had a strategic plan and saying, Hey, this is what you do, but I think experiences teaches you so much more. And as I learn and go back to school, I realized, okay, some of the things I have been doing is strategically accidentally plan . It was culturally growing up in Japan and Hong Kong, my father and my mother, Asian parents, typically, they’re not really into verbal affection or they’re not the ones say, I love you all the time. But they were like into actions and every single little details and everything that they would do for us just meant so much more. It’s like, for example, my dad would always take us shopping for dinner and he would let us pick our own ingredients. And then he would create something in the kitchen based off of what we created. So my brother and I would just go crazy and ham on like, all right , let’s give the weirdest things to see what dad would come up with, but those are his love language and just brings back memories. And I felt like if I connected that well with my dad, that way I can figure out a way to connect with my guests, if I can create that. But more importantly, it’s the culture of hospitality. And I’ve always told this to my staff in the U.S. that to serve somebody is an honor. And I think it’s very hard to grasp because in America, if you’re a server you’re kind of seen as a servant. And it’s almost like in order of royalty, you’re at the bottom of the totem pole. But in my country, if someone is given an opportunity to serve somebody, it’s really an honor and we take true joy and pride, and it’s the authenticity that was ingrained in me. And luckily I just fell into the hospitality industry and I just do what I do. And it’ll just work out

James Di Virgilio:

Such a different way to view it. As you mentioned, as an American, you are so right, serving someone feels like you failed in your path at life, which is certainly not true. I think we all serve somebody, especially if you view your purpose and job correctly. But that is interesting because there’s a purpose behind serving someone. If you view it as a dignified, honorable pursuit, and so many restaurants fail, and yet you have had this one that’s been here now for 21 years, right? And it’s a high end concept. It was something that didn’t really have a comparable restaurant here in town. So that’s even riskier. Why do so many restaurants fail in your opinion and what has allowed Dragonfly in Gainesville to succeed for so long?

Hirofumi Leung:

That’s a great question. Actually, if I tell it on the radio, I know then I might go out of business, right? Cause everybody will be doing it. But truth be told, I would actually like to see more of this in Gainesville, but as much as we’re talking about the interaction with our guests, truly it all starts with the interaction with the owners and the employees. I think we have to demonstrate as owners how that hospitality service or that serving is an honor mentality should be portrayed. For example, we have a pyramid at our restaurant where we always say, Hey, at the top of the totem pole is each other. We take great care of each other, no matter what, first and foremost, and number two is our guests. And then number three is our suppliers. And at the bottom of this pyramid are the owners. And we’ve lived by this mantra for over 20 years. We believe that if the owners show the employees, what service looks like and what taking care of each other looks like, then they’ll obviously take care of the guests. And if the guests are taken care of at that level on my suppliers, which are very important, the people that provide us with the food. Cause I mean, they’re incredibly important when I serve raw fish, you know, it better be the freshest and the best quality out there. So if I take really good care of my suppliers, by giving them Christmas cards or writing holiday cards about their kids or going out to golf with those guys, it just connects in a way where, when they’re selecting our food, we’re going to get the best too . So shareholders they’ll benefit after all this. At the end of the day, they shouldn’t be walking in there and acting like they own the place. Literally they do, but really you have to be at the bottom. You’re the last person. Cause you’re going to collect if all of the above succeeds. So,

James Di Virgilio:

Servant, servant based leadership, how do you create a menu? Dragonfly has such a diverse menu. You start off here 20 plus years ago and you haven’t started a restaurant yet you have a business plan and an idea. How do you go about starting a menu from scratch.

Hirofumi Leung:

One word feedback.

James Di Virgilio:

So you start making things and you get people to test them?

Hirofumi Leung:

Yeah twenty years ago, I think I had over 50 items on my menu. There was only one item that survived in Gainesville. It’s about feedback. I guess , feedback people. Tell me what they like, what they don’t like the employee feedback recently, we’ve instituted, what’s called seasonal omekase where all my employees, because we ran out of ideas and my chef and I are saying, Matt, Ray, you need to come up with better things. And he’s like, I’m trying, I’m trying. So what we decided to do is wait a minute, we’ve got over 200 plus employees. Why don’t we give them an opportunity to come up with their own interpretation of what our food could look like? And so every season we have an audition and my executive chef I and the general managers sit down and we actually critique and give them the feedback. And the best ones usually makes it on the menu seasonally. And those are usually like the best sold. And it’s amazing how, not only does it create more ideas, but our employees are so much more engaged. I mean, we continually push the envelope if we do this for the bar too. And our bartenders have won national bar competitions throughout this exercise. And so it’s really, really cool. And not only that, but back to the engagement component, just a real quick story. I have a server. This person was a busser. Four years ago, five years ago, he really wanted to work for us. So he started working hard. Then he became a server. Then he became a head server making pretty good money because as a server in this town, you make good tips, but he had a bigger agenda. So he took a huge pay cut to work at the bottom of the kitchen cause he really wanted to cook. So back to that creativity, he actually submitted a dish and it actually made it to our seasonal menu. And it’s actually one of our top sellers. And so it’s really this path of expanding the employees talent and culturally, just in growing our people and giving back the servant leadership type of thing. The culture that’s going on has really blossomed to where it’s at today. So there isn’t like one specific secret sauce.

James Di Virgilio:

There’s not, but you overcame I think a feedback and it’s easy if you’re designing a prototype for something and you can get tons of feedback in the market, it’s kind of impersonal. But when I think of food feedback, it almost feels like, Ooh , don’t tell the truth. When someone asks you how something is, they don’t really want to know.

Hirofumi Leung:

Oh you’re so right.

James Di Virgilio:

How do you overcome that? How do you teach your staff to overcome that? How did you yourself overcome that? When you’re making these meals, you’re putting your heart and soul into, and you’re really saying, I need you to give me legitimate feedback. How do you separate the gut shot of someone saying this isn’t that good Hiro. How are you able to get to that point where you can handle the feedback and then be able to take it and use it.

Hirofumi Leung:

James, when I first came to America, I thought people loved feedback. And so , okay. You know, why was I in for a huge shock. I’m like, man , I got to keep my mouth shut. People actually don’t take feedback too well in this country. So that’s all I got growing up. You need to work hard. You need to do this better. You need to do that. And I actually took that as a good side of that. And I think in this country, or even in this school, we tend to soften the blow too much. And we don’t hear that because here’s what it comes down to. And I’ve realized. And you know , throughout the years I’ve sharpened my tools on how to give feedback. And I realized that it’s actually an art in Asia I wish they can learn a little bit more about this because all my gosh, they’re too blunt. Here, I think we need to be a little less political. But once again, it’s a fine line. And I tell my employees and my team that does a difference feedback. You can take it personal or you can take your professional and they have to see it as a professional line. But in order for you to get there, the feedback giver has to build trust. And that trust is extremely hard to build and it takes time and it takes vulnerability. It takes closeness, it takes friendships. It takes being on the same page and aligned on your goals. So one of the busiest thing that I’m working on is trying to teach my team that feedback. Isn’t a bad thing. When people are doing amazing things, I actually try to give them just as much feedback as the bad things. So they can learn to take that. You know what, wait a minute feedback. Isn’t a bad thing. And imagine for your learning to play golf and you pay a lot of money for your coach and he’s giving you feedback and all you’re doing sitting there telling him why that’s not right. You’re not going to become a great player and that’s with all the athletes. So, number one, if you can start to see feedback as a good, important component, I think is extremely helpful. Number two, you have to learn to become a feedback addict. Don’t give me more feedback. Tell me what James, how was this podcast ended? I stutter too much. I think those are just extremely important to really becoming a part of who you become. And if you become a feedback addict, it’s extremely helpful. And thirdly, I tell my team and I tell myself this, that we’re terrible at taking feedback and someone’s giving you feedback. What’s the thing that we do most when we’re listening, we don’t listen. And we were just thinking in our head why it’s not true. Versus honestly, opening your hearts and listening and then saying, thank you for the feedback. That’s it. Thank you for the feedback. And so those are the three things that I try to teach my team when we talked about feedback and it’s a journey, but a thing that I’m working on the most and for the guests, for the customers, like you said 9 times out of 10 people, don’t like confrontation. You know, I’m not perfect. I serve over 6,000 to 8,000 guests a week. If I’m 99% perfect, which I’m not 1% failure. Let’s just say 10% failure out of 6,000 is 600 guests that are unhappy a week. So I can randomly go through any guests. I bet you, I can find something that they’re not happy about. And that’s once again, feedback. And what I do is when I go to the table, I don’t ask was everything good or was everything great. What I do is I stopped by and I do my best to ask. Is there anything I can do better today that usually opens the line.

James Di Virgilio:

You talk a lot about the servant model of leadership. To me, that’s actually a very biblical concept for those people that believe in that it’s upside down kingdom, this start by modeling servanthood. And you’ve described that flow very nicely. And then even asking for that kind of feedback, it’s disarming, you would expect, Oh look, there’s Hiro he owns the restaurant, he’s coming over here to say hello. And then to have you ask that question, I’m sure disarms a lot of people in they’re thinking, Oh , wait a minute. Well actually there was this thing. And then how you take that, of course is actually building a bond. If you receive the feedback, well, people will say, wow, this person really does care about getting something better. And that is an unusual trade because as you mentioned, it’s very hard to discipline ourselves to get to that point. And your upbringing coupled with your experiences coming here and being more blunt, I think has led you to navigate that very well. Now, when you start Dragonfly early on, were there any moments that were really difficult that you thought maybe this won’t work or times were tough or was it just start and smooth sailing to where you are today?

Hirofumi Leung:

You know what? Every moment for the past 20 years, it’s a constant increase of comfort and discomfort, comfort, and discomfort. And I’ve learned to realize that it’s part of the game. It’s part of what we do as entrepreneurs. And as a matter of fact, I’ve come to the point where if it’s too comfortable, I feel uncomfortable. And I actually go out and try to create chaos. My employees probably know that about me. And so I think I’d take this from my personal coach, workout coach, you always put me through it a little bit more of intensity and a little bit more of uncomfortness. And every week he did that, I start seeing results from when I started to like a year later. And I realized that there’s that perfect zone of uncomfort zone that you have to be in, so back to your question every day and every week, every month has been and is still a challenge. And if it’s not, I look for things to figure out what I can work on that’s uncomfortable.

James Di Virgilio:

Now you had mentioned you’ve had some failures and there have been some restaurants that didn’t make it. And you’ve learned from those mistakes when you were going through it in the middle of it, and you recognize that this is not going to work. How do you prevent that from really affecting your confidence level with the next venture that you take on?

Hirofumi Leung:

You’re absolutely right about the confidence level. I do my best when I’m going through a business failure or a business decision, I tell myself that it’s not personal and I do the best I can to elevate myself and try to zoom out and see the whole picture versus like being zoomed in and feeling the pain. And I think distancing yourself is probably an exercise that Google has taught me or Google map. You got to zoom out a little bit once in a while to figure out that you’re going in the right direction. But then you got to zoom in to make sure you’re not making the wrong turns, but truth be told it’s extremely hard. You know , I had a business for eight years and from year five to year eight, I was fighting it persistently trying to make it work. And I realized I got emotionally involved and I was too zoomed in and I started making one bad decision after another, after another lots of money, lots of time, lots of energy, lots of hair. So I’ll give this credit to my wife. She was seeing all this from the outside. She’s a very logical type A person. And she’s like, you snap out of this. She was my muse to get me out of the thinking and saying, I need to do something different. And so having a friend to help you distance yourself, looking from the outside, taking feedback, having enough humility to not be emotionally invested, those are some of the experiences that I’ve gained to really try to teach myself. I’m just constantly still making mistakes. And it’s not about making a mistake. A mentor of mine told me once Hiro, some people make mistakes, but some people learn. And so I like to be on that side of the coin.

James Di Virgilio:

And there’s so much process to your story, which makes sense. That’s a very artistic way to look at something as process improvement through process, the end result will take care itself, if I get the process, right? I’m hearing a lot of that in your story, a lot about people, you did something that we haven’t talked a lot about yet that I think we’ll kind of narrow out towards the end here on. You brought a raw fish concept to the center of the state of Florida. And we haven’t given that any real due praise and your restaurant has won many, many awards throughout time as being one of the best restaurants in the state of Florida, for what it does in the center of Florida. How in the world did you accomplish bringing something that is known with being so fresh and so immediate to the center of a state? How did you pull that off?

Hirofumi Leung:

Well, the credit really is to my employees. We think it’s about the fish, but as we can probably hear from this conversation today, it’s nothing about the fish. The fish is just a product and it’s just the inanimate product. And as we mentioned in the opening statement, how do you make fish talk to you? How do you make a raw fish that’s dead talk to you. I believe it’s through all the experiences that we’ve gained. And we’ve, you know, all the things that we just talked about today and for the entrepreneurs that just think that it’s about their product, that they’ve worked so hard on. They have a reality check coming to them because it’s absolutely not about that. Literally we made phone calls 20 years ago and no one wants to deliver any fresh fish to Gainesville and my partners and I said, let’s prove that Gainesville is worthy of being on the map. And so once we opened up here, we’re waiting these big towns deliberately to test out and see if we can survive in larger cities with our culture, our systems and our people.

James Di Virgilio:

And what’s neat about that is I’m pretty sure the plethora of fresh fish and sushi restaurants that exist in Gainesville is totally do in part of you being the first one to make that happen. There’s so many neat things about your story. Obviously the humility that comes through the people, the process, I think I know the answer to this question. I’m going to ask you anyway, when you’re advising young entrepreneurs, whether they’re restaurant entrepreneurs or others, it sounds like your message is pretty consistent. If I’m trying to develop a prototype or something for health, or I’m starting a sushi restaurant, people are at the core of this endeavor. And it sounds like that’s something that’s central to your story of entrepreneurship is you can get the products , right? You can have all these things, right. But if you’re not mastering the people side, both your customer and your employees and your co founders , it’s not going to work,

Hirofumi Leung:

James, thanks for circling it back to that. Absolutely. In my restaurant, I tell my team that my success hundred percent depends on your success. And when I talk to my employees, I truly mean that if they’re not successful, I can’t do what I’m doing. It’s basics. They’re the ones that drive our businesses, our employees and our team are the ones that dictate if we roll in the same direction or not. And so I get up every morning and that’s what I think of not raw fish.

James Di Virgilio:

Hiro, thank you so much for being on Radio Cade today. Your stories have been inspirational. They’ve been upside down in terms of thinking and like so many other very successful entrepreneurs and visionaries we’ve had on this program. Almost all of them have learned through feedback and yours, I think might be the most poignant because food is the most sensitive. And so to hear your story of feedback, that’s something I can echo as a fellow entrepreneur. That is something to pay good good attention to, thank you for the time. Thank you for the words of wisdom.

Hirofumi Leung:

Oh, absolutely. Thank you for inviting me.

James Di Virgilio:

And for Radio Cade I’m James Di Virgilio.

Outro:

Radio Cade is produced by the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention located in Gainesville, Florida. This podcast episodes host was James Di Virgilio and Ellie Thom coordinates, inventor interviews, podcasts are recorded at Heartwood Soundstage and edited and mixed by Bob McPeak. The Radio Cade theme song was produced and performed by Tracy Collins and features violinist, Jacob Lawson.

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