The life of a traveling salesman is not a glamorous one. Young Lee knows this all too well. During the years Lee spent roaming the country as a life insurance salesman, he lived on countless fast-food meals in an effort to save both time and money. The greasy grub took a toll, and Lee found himself longing for the tasty, nourishing Korean dishes he grew up eating. So he took matters into his own hands, and in 1995, he created Flame Broiler, a quick-service restaurant offering healthy rice bowls with lots of veggies. He expected the original location in Fullerton, Calif., to be his first and last, but fans wanted in on the action, and Lee decided to franchise the business. Today the chain has nearly 200 locations, and Lee’s 25-year-old son, Daniel, has stepped in as marketing manager. The pair now work side by side to make sure Flame Broiler’s mission and message are clear to both customers and franchisees.
Flame Broiler’s tagline is “Simply healthy,” a nod to keeping things streamlined for franchisees and nourishing for customers. How does that impact operations?
Young Lee: The menu is simple, so the cooking process and back end are simple. Marketing collateral is simple. We limit the amount of things franchisees need to keep track of. We’ve never sold multiple units at a time. Even if potential franchisees have money to do so, we reject it.
Daniel Lee: We make sure that the owners we accept are owner-operators, people who will be at the store a decent amount of the time. Depending on their performance, we’ll allow them to open additional units, but it’s usually a very slow, step-by-step process.
How does that idea of simplicity impact the menu and potential changes or additions?
Daniel: We only have a couple dozen total ingredients. The number one thing is: Is it healthy for the customer? That’s why we’re slowly phasing out ribs — they taste amazing, but they’re not very good for you. Last year, we added tofu to the menu, our first change since opening in 1995.
Young: Our franchisees agree to the concept, and that limits their ability to single-handedly introduce their own menu items. We want all our locations to be consistent in what they serve. We’re open to suggestions and recommendations — from both the public and our franchisees — but our goal has always been to simply serve healthy food. By having a streamlined menu, we have been able to achieve this. When you start adding new elements and components, it becomes problematic to stay true to brand values.
In what ways do you evolve to stay ahead of the market as it becomes more saturated with health-focused brands?
Young: We’d like to eventually become a gluten-free restaurant. We need to find a way to bring down the cost of gluten-free soy sauce. And we’re working very aggressively to see if we can serve antibiotic-free chicken before anyone else does — not to compete with others, just to serve the better product as soon as we can.
Since Daniel joined the company, how do you balance your relationship as both colleagues and family?
Young: Daniel understands the greater goal of Flame Broiler, and he’s taught not to take business criticisms personally. He’s instructed to call me Mr. Lee at work, not Dad, Father or Pop. And he has a fair amount of autonomy when it comes to day-to-day tasks. When bigger-picture issues come up, he makes sure to check in with and bounce ideas off not only me but others in the office. Working so closely with family can get tricky, so I like to leave work behind when we get home and focus on enjoying each other’s company. No work talk at dinner. Disagreements can happen in the workplace, and I don’t want any of that tension coming home.
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