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At Lunchbox, we are lucky to work with some of the most exciting restaurant brands out there. Island Fin Poke Company is one of the fastest growing chains, with 20+ locations currently and goal to double that number by the end of 2022, and was recently recognized as one of the Top New and Emerging Franchises in 2022 by Entrepreneur Magazine. We sat down with President & CEO Mark Setterington to learn about the Island Fin story and what’s next for the company.
What are you most passionate about in your current position?
Honestly, it's the people. That means our guests, our team members and our franchisees. The franchisees don't always see it that way. I take things personally. I'm not always as approachable as I should be, but if you come to me with an issue, I’m not mad at you for coming to me with an issue. I'm mad at myself for not seeing it ahead of time and letting you down. So it's definitely the people part of it.
And that's our secret ingredient. I mean, our food is incredible but the thing that makes us special is our people. It's our team members and it's the great group of franchisees that we have, and it's our regular guess. I mean, we have some rabid fans and that's awesome.
What are your restaurant goals for this year?
Open 15 to 20 restaurants to end the year at 75. We've doubled in size from 2018 to 2019, 2019 to 2021. Now, in order to double from 2021 to 2022, we have to open 20 restaurants. The unfortunate thing is construction, supply chain, et cetera. I have to wrap my head around the fact that if we open 10 to 12, it's a home run. 15 to 20 is that stretch goal.
How do you feel that implementing online ordering impacts the in-store experience?
I use Lake Nona as an example because it's the company store. And right now, at Lake Nona, only 12 percent of their sales is third-party delivery. We have a ton of people that order on the app and come in and pick it up because they want the experience. We're 60 percent to-go. But rather than people ordering on UberEats or even the white label delivery, they're choosing to come into the restaurant to see the team. We're a busy restaurant and we're not in a place where you have a lot of walk-in traffic so it's an effort for you to drive over, park your car, come into the restaurant, get an experience and leave. I think that gives a lot of credit to my manager and the team that she's assembled in Lake Nona, that the regulars want to come in and get a warm welcome and a fond farewell with their poke bowl.
What is your favorite thing about working with Lunchbox?
Not blowing smoke up your whatever - the people at Lunchbox are amazing. And I interviewed three white label app companies and I was this close to pulling the trigger on doing my own app. I had a company teed up, was getting ready to write the check and our Account Executive Julia has been amazing. And then when Julia introduced me to our Onboarding Manager, Taryn, to begin building out our app - I realized everyone is going to be just as good. And now that we’re live, I work with my Customer Success Manager, Angelica. Every time I get introduced to someone at Lunchbox, it’s great. It's like, where is Lunchbox finding this treasure trove of amazing people?
You know, my POS partner, when you do the chat with them, it's a chatbot. You have to ask the exact right question to steer the conversation. And when you do the chat with Lunchbox, it's a person. I had an issue with my app at eight o'clock on a Friday night. All my permissions were gone and I'm the super admin but all my permissions were gone and I couldn't see anything. So, I do the chat and it was like three minutes, everything was squared away. I was like “what the hell just happened?” Because that's just not the kind of service you get from anybody. That's the kind of service that Island Fin gives as a company so it’s really appreciated. I mean, every person is as good as the last person and it's incredible. Your company is incredible.
How did you first get involved in the restaurant industry?
It's the only job I've ever held, since the time I was 16. My first job was a busboy at an Elias Brothers Big Boy in Michigan. I worked my way through college. I came out of Michigan state debt-free. I'd work in the cafeteria in the dorms in the morning and then I’d work at a restaurant job at night, but my degree was in purchasing. When I got out of college, everybody that I interviewed with wanted experience, and I didn't know how you got experience if nobody would hire you without experience. So, there was a company called The Ground Round hiring in my hometown for an assistant manager. I applied for it and I got it. And no looking back! I've had a really great career and I really love what I do. I love restaurants and I wouldn’t do anything else.
What was your journey from there to your current position?
Oh man, a lot. I went from the Ground Round to Applebee’s and when I went to Applebee’s in Michigan, there were only three Applebee’s in the whole state. So I was at Applebee’s when Applebee’s was cool. Applebee’s was awesome when it came to systems, methods and procedures, following specs and recipes. It was great. And I just moved my way up to bigger and more difficult jobs. Bahama Breeze had a scratch kitchen, display kitchen, huge volume for casual dining. From there, I was the general manager of Margaritaville on the strip in Las Vegas. $40 million in revenue and 27,000 Square feet and more than 30 managers and 400 hourly team members. It was really a bigger company than Island Fin Poke right now. We're an emerging brand and a growing company, but that job at Margaritaville was a much larger scale than what we are here. But we'll get there.
How did you end up moving from Margaritaville to Island Fin Poke?
After Margaritaville, I was the vice president of operations for a company and I had restaurants in Las Vegas and Southern California. My old partner Paul called me out of the blue and was basically like, “Hey, I quit my job of 20 years”. He was my bar manager at Bahama Breeze, and we had always talked like people talk about that we're going to go do our own thing and stop working for the man and whatever. He quit his job and really kind of forced my hand. So we flew him to California and I took him to the poke places that I liked.
I knew it had to be restaurants and it had to be easy. It wasn't about me not wanting a hard job. It was about me wanting a job that was going to be easy to replicate. I didn't want a bunch of cooking equipment, hiring tons of skilled labor. It needed to be easy and this is what we came up with. It's been everything that we could have hoped it would be. We have 10 to 12 team members to a store, no cooking equipment, super simple, and really great food.
Now in July 2022 will be three years from when we opened our first franchise location. So we're really at the beginning stages of our journey. We’re only 22 open restaurants in and we're doing things with technology that companies our size usually don't do - like partner with Lunchbox and having an app. It's really kind of funny because some of the franchisees feel like the app roll out was a little bit of a nightmare. And I laugh because they haven't been through a technology roll out before with a restaurant company and all of the moving parts. Realistically, any hiccup that happened, my team handled within 3 to 5 minutes. Not a joke. Not an exaggeration. They emailed or texted and the issue is fixed that fast because Lunchbox makes it super simple to handle the stuff from your phone. And when there was an issue where we would have to get on the chat, you're talking to a real person. 99 times out of 100, this person has seen this issue before so it's fixed almost immediately. So they see one side of it where I'm looking at it from the whole. I'm looking at a guest facing, I'm looking at a franchise facing, I'm looking at it from a support standpoint. 90 percent of the issues we ran into were user error, which I'm sure you guys see all the time. So if you pay attention to the training materials that are sent out, read the training materials, ask the right questions, move on.
How did you pick poke?
I had a restaurant in El Segundo, California. When I would visit that restaurant, across the street was this little old Hawaiian guy with a poke spot. Every time I would go there, I would go and see him. It was delicious and it was simple and realistically, the category is wide open. And I think that being a very experiential brand, we can really make an impact in this category. You know, are we going to catch Poke Works? I don't know. But what I do know is that people that come into Island Fin Poke are going to get the best poke bowl there is. That's a fact. And they're going to get a full service experience in a fast food restaurant. And that's a fact. So it's going to be incredibly memorable and we're going to get you back.
What is your ultimate poke bowl?
I always do white rice. I do one scoop of spam and two scoops of spicy tuna. For mix-ins, I get edamame, corn and OG veg. I do either Wicked Wahine or OG Sauce. Then topping-wise cucumbers, always pineapple-mango salsa, spicy pickle veg. My premium topping is Surime. Then I do togarashi, our version of spicy mayo and then a little crispy garlic, a little crispy onions and I'm done. And then I'd chase it with one cup of the Stubborn Soda pineapple cream soda. That’s my perfect lunch.