Our 19(ish) Takeaways from 2019

Back to all posts

Our 19(ish) Takeaways from 2019

One of my more unique responsibilities here at Kitchen United is keeping the company informed of industry and economic goings-on, which means that I read and then regurgitate a lot of news. Certainly enough to know that we’re not alone in being challenged by forces macro and micro, and that solutions are neither apparent nor simple. Restaurants are already hard, and that’s with everything going right. What restaurants are now — with labor, economic models, real estate, and commodity prices (to start) going distinctly not-right — is unknown.

But once you’re off the edge of the map, what’s left is to continue forward and adjust course by what you’ve learned along the way. Being a startup, we have failed (and therefore learned) a lot, and we have also made impactful discoveries. Both point the compass.

The following are a snapshot of the lessons that will influence our course in 2020. We’re sharing them because, as it turns out, our Kitchen United problems are also restaurants’ problems, and hopefully either our members or the greater industry will find some kernel of inspiration here that they too find influential.

Also, I’ve been told that we need more content.

I’ll start us off: I learned that it would be fantastically difficult for just one company to change an industry; but one company with the collaboration of partners and members — in other words, the industry itself — can at least change a few minds, for a start. In 2020 we’ll broaden and better our collaboration, internally and externally.

Mitch Collins, Director, Corporate Marketing


We learned that marketing to a digital and off-premise forward audience is a challenging new frontier, for both us and the wider industry.


Craig Cochrane, EVP, Marketing: “Building consumer awareness for restaurants that have no traditional location requires a different set of tactics and strategies. Many restaurant operators are not used to deploying these, and helping our members shift and adjust is key to their success.”

Anthony Green, VP, Sales: “I learned that most restaurant brands are still learning how to market themselves in an off-premise world.”

Courtney Cook, Director, Community Marketing: “I learned that it’s hard to plan events for multiple restaurants, and coordinate efficiently between various owners and managers, when they’re all independently operated and have their own way of doing things.”


We learned to stay on our toes and keep moving. Business agility and determination are crucial to thriving in a volatile market.


Zach Adams, Head of Operations, KU Austin: “I’ve learned how a business’s agility is not just valuable but essential to success in our industry.”

Michael Montagano, CFO: “I learned that finding the right process to select sites and the right way to build kitchen centers requires innovation, agility and thinking outside the box. New problems often require new innovative solutions. This is critical to our success in 2020.”

Jimmy Yang, Director, Infrastructure & Service Desk: “I learned that trying to roll out a perfect project is not always necessary, but to strive for in post. In 2020, don’t be perfect; just be great.”

Jen Henriksen, VP, Business Development: “This is complicated. From putting signs on a building and getting designs approved by a city or landlord, to ramping food order volume and forecasting anything… there are a million moving parts in every department and market nuances in every DMA. I love that it’s complicated but am reminded daily that not only do we not always get the right information to make the right decision, when you’re building something new there are no other test cases to look to for guidance. We have to just keep moving, with the knowledge and instincts we have, and pivot or do over when we know more. I am a constant work in humility and patience with this process.”

Elizabeth Villa, Director, Digital Strategy & Partnerships: “I learned that we’re all learning. There’s no secret sauce to find or hack to hack. The best part about where this industry is today is that there’s no one obvious path to success, there are a lot of little, unique paths to finding incremental success. And just like Facebook of yesteryear, there’s a fairly even playing field and an opportunity to collaborate to learn and succeed faster. Looking at 2020, I’m excited to continue working closely with restaurants eager to learn and to collaborate. I’m equally motivated to get better at the ways we work with them to make our partnerships exponentially more valuable in the new year. That’s what this is all about anyway :).”


We learned that our people and culture matter; both individually, and to what success we’ve had as a company. We hope to keep this trend going strong in 2020.


Larrah Pawlak, Director, Opening & Training: “Throughout the short time I’ve been blessed to be part of this amazing organization, I’ve found that this team is agile, thrives in ambiguity, and truly listens to what our restaurant members, team members, and guests need to be successful. We remain open, willing, and nimble to ensure our focus is on the right things to create success around us. This is a highly accountable, functional, and dynamic team – that acknowledges its shortcomings as opportunities for growth.”

Dan Santos, Head of Operations, KU Scottsdale: “I learned that it is important to know one’s limits. This is especially important when you work in interdisciplinary teams. I personally define limits as “What am I willing to do and when do I need help?”. Over the past year I found that these 2 issues were coming up for me often and I was not raising my hand to say “I’m not willing to do that” or, “Can I get some help?”. After 30+ years in this industry I found that it was smart to take the advice that I was dolling out to my team. Now that I am heading into 2020 with an appreciation for my own advice and working with a great bunch of people I know that the lessons I will learn in 2020 will mean that much more.”

Marlene Zapata, Site Adaptation Assistant: “I learned that KU did an amazing job at hiring some of the most hard working, humble and smart people I have ever worked with. This is the first time I have worked in an office environment where everyone is a pleasure to be around. I am so happy to be part of such a fun group of people. I also learned that when you enjoy the people you work with, even the hardest tasks are easier to tackle.”

Ben Norkin, Operations Training Manager: “I learned that it truly takes a village. Albeit our mission statement and purpose is extremely simple at a high level, yet the complexity of what it takes to get all that done is like the spiciest and largest onion one could imagine. There are so many layers to what we do, and can assume for the unprepared that the daunting nature of some tasks could reduce less extra-ordinary individuals to tears as they peel through those layers. Big surprise that there’s a lot of minutiae in what we do…I know… but the fact that there is so much to do in concert of one another to provide the experience and environment we offer to our members is astonishing. I know our continued efforts and nimbleness in how we operate and work with one another will continue us down the path to be a true leader in the space.”

Massimo Noja de Marco, CDO & Founder: My “learning” if I can call it that, is more of a validation of my beliefs, is that teams need to be engaged and motivated, supported, encouraged, and given deadlines. We have not yet been great at it. It’s a new day and with the new year things will be radically different in that area. We have a group of tremendously talented individuals that are eager to help and make sh** happen, and feel like they are contributing in a very active way to our success.


We learned that consumers want great food…and convenience, and a digital presence, and an experience, and (etc, etc). In other words, we learned that restaurants have to be well-rounded in 2020 and beyond.


Fia Findley, Director, Customer Success: “I have learned that the best concepts and best food need more than just a famous name and great food. Having the right people, the right resources, and the right strategy to get people to not only try the food, but to get them to know your food exists in a variety of economies of scale is key. Figuring out the secret sauce and communicating the results to our Members will be integral as more consumers adopt delivery and more virtual-only brands develop.”

Landon Silvas, Sales Development Representative: “It takes a lot, LOT, more than good food to be successful in the restaurant industry today (and is seemingly growing less important relative to other factors).”


We learned that we have to be “in the sh**” with our restaurant members; they’re not just clients.


Matt Maroni, Head of Operations, KU Chicago (River North): “I learned that fostering relationships with our members should be our number one goal. Relationships will build sales, not sales driving relationships, because we are new to the block. To better do that, we need to under-promise and over-deliver for the groups that are joining us. We need to kill the brands and their staff with kindness, empathy, and humility, and celebrate their breakthroughs and highlights. The knowledge that we are there for them will build the right kitchen center and set the tone.”


We learned that off-premise-only concepts have been around for a long time.


Mark Zalewski, Field Sales Representative: “Being new to the company, I’ve learned a ton in a short time, but something I see as relevant to it all and puts it in perspective is this: 30+ years ago I started a Pizza Hut Express. Pick-up and delivery only. 2 people working phones taking orders, 3-4 in the kitchen and a slew of delivery drivers. I was at the original ghost kitchen.”


We learned that families deeply appreciate the convenience of ordering-in, and the better delivery becomes as a product and service, the more families will appreciate it.


Eric Oyama, Senior Construction Manager: “With being a Father to Makayla, I have learned and come to understand that Off-Premise Dining is a MUST for parents. Once becoming a parent, a lot of freedoms disappear. The luxury of enjoying a dinner out is no longer an option with an infant/toddler. Evie and I have found it much more relaxing to have food delivered, allowing Makayla to enjoy her meal in the comfort of her world…HOME..”


We learned that hiring is a whole new ballgame in 2020.


Janey Chu, VP, HR: “I learned that hiring is tricky with non-exempts in various markets. No shows, lack of candidates, no fool proof tool to hire right team off the bat. We will need to partner with more diverse services (unemployment, rehabilitation/workforce entry programs) to help supplement the candidate pool due to the known labor shortage.”


We learned that sometimes, ‘you don’t know what you got til it’s gone.’


Samer Abusaleh, Data Science Analyst: “I learned that I will never miss anything as much as I miss a Fresgo Pesto Pasta with chicken and no tomatoes.”


We learned that, despite all of the above challenges and all those oncoming, we do love this.


Denise Goldberg, Head of Operations, KU Pasadena: “I have learned that overseeing multiple kitchens is challenging, exciting, and rewarding all at the same time!”

Jim Collins, CEO: “I learned that I love this. It started out as a company, but it’s turning into more of a mission. Being part of our clients’ overall success matrix has always been part of my career, but at KU there is a purity about that that’s really compelling.”


On that note, thanks to the industry for an enlightening 2019, and here’s to 202-


I tried to leave these out, I really did. But, I told everyone in the company that I’d put up their quotes so…here you go:

“I learned that the area of a square whose side is the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the areas of the squares on the other two sides.”
“I learned that name ‘Salamander’ comes from the Greek word for Fire Lizard, which came about when salamanders came running out of the logs they had been hiding in when those logs where thrown on a fire.”
“I learned that Alaska’s population density has 1 persons per square mile. Looks like we will not be opening a kitchen center there anytime soon.”
“I’ve learned that the tongue of a Blue Whale is 33 meters in length (108 feet) and weighs around 2.7 tons (5,400 pounds). A target consumer.”

Anonymous, KU’s Data & Growth team.


Thanks to the restaurant industry for the excitement, and to KU for all of the above.

Back to all posts