7 MBA Entrepreneurs Taking The Food Industry By Storm
Ever wanted to run your own restaurant or bar? To give you some inspiration, we went in search of the most successful ventures started by MBA grads
It’s notoriously difficult to start a business—research group Startup Genome report that more than 90% of startups fail.
Add to that the statistic that 60% of new restaurants will collapse in their first year, and it's clear that starting a restaurant is a risky business.
However, these MBAs took the plunge, and whether it's Vietnamese, American fine dining, or classic Italian food, they’ve all been successful after dreaming up their bar and restaurant ideas.
Here's seven MBAs who have achieved success in the food industry:
1. Noah Bleicher, Northwestern Kellogg School of Management
It was seeing a lack of “quick, affordable, tasty, and healthy” food in the restaurant scene in Chicago that led Kellogg MBA Noah to launch his fast-casual empire, Viet Nom Nom with partner Alan Moy.
Growing from ideas generated during his MBA, he spent his studies refining the idea through conversations with his colleagues and professors—and it’s this network of idea-testing at Kellogg that provided the biggest boost to his venture.
“I don’t think I ever would have been able to envision, let alone execute, Viet Nom Nom without the education, the classwork, and the ability to test it out before I went and launched it,” Noah says. “I feel like the MBA and the mindset I developed while I was at school has helped me to envision this to be much bigger than it currently is. The MBA helped me develop the plan to scale this company, and also helped me diversify what we do.”
Now, Viet Nom Nom has grown from one physical outlet to a catering company, grab-and-go service at the local university, and a presence as a pop-up at local food festivals. Noah’s advice for other willing restaurateurs is pretty simple:
“Test, test, test! The testing part was critical for us because then we really felt confident because we had actual data to support our project,” he says. “So test your business in the safe space that is business school, check out the marketplace, and make sure your idea is not being repeated in a nearby market.”
2. Aarti Shetty, Berkeley Haas School of Business
Aarti Shetty knows how to work successfully under pressure—during her part-time MBA at Berkeley Haas, she also interned in restaurants in San Francisco and Texas, as well as continuing her full-time job as an analyst in the medical device industry.
She graduated in 2015, and since then has been working as a director of operations for chef Corey Lee’s group of Michelin-star restaurants—but now she’s ready to start her own venture.
Her partner for Birdsong is husband Chris Bleidorn, a chef who’s already worked at some of the biggest names in the restaurant scene in San Francisco.
3. Daniel Ortiz, EMLYON Business School
Daniel currently studies on the International MBA at EMLYON, and his business venture is inspired by his home city.
“I come from LA, where craft beer is a really booming industry right now,” says Daniel. “I got into that scene, and then when I came to France to do an MBA I thought, where can I find really good craft beer?”
Finding a gap in the Lyon market, Daniel pursued the idea of opening a craft beer bar in the city with two of his classmates, Luis Díaz and Mehdi El Mo. They began by integrating their idea into a project for his New Ventures course at EMLYON.
“At the end, you had to pitch your project to real entrepreneurs and investors, and my idea ended up winning the best project,” Daniel explains. “It was after that experience of learning about the market that I developed the plan.”
What advice would he give to budding restaurateurs?
“I was getting excited like, ‘let’s go!’, but my partners were pushing back,” he explains. “What we learned in the MBA is you have to know what’s going to make you different, what value you’re going to add, and to be more strategically ready before just jumping the gun.
“As I’m learning in France, it’s an administrative process!”
4. Brandon Stephens, London Business School
Brandon started his business career in technology startups in Silicon Valley—but took the plunge to start his own restaurant business after doing an MBA at London Business School.
“I wouldn’t say I wasn’t in love with technology, but I was very keen on entrepreneurial activities, the idea of starting a business, that all seemed very exciting,” Brandon says.
After moving to London, Brandon started hunting down his favourite Californian food—the Mexican burrito.
“I tried 14 places, and none of these were that great—so I felt there was an opportunity for a burrito place like the burrito places I had grown up with in San Francisco, in London.”
This food craving transformed into Tortilla, which since its launch in 2007 has grown into a chain of 36 restaurants in the UK and a further seven in the Middle East, with seven more in the pipeline. So, what’s Brandon’s secret to restaurant success?
“The nice thing about restaurants is if you have a good idea and you’re committed to working really hard, I think it’s a great way for people to take the entrepreneurial path,” Brandon says. “It’s not a way to build the next Facebook, but how many Facebooks are there?”
5. Ian Calhoun, Harvard Business School
Ian certainly has a foodie background—before beginning his MBA at Harvard Business School, he worked as general manager of two restaurants.
He’s also a graduate of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Management and Le Cordon Bleu in Paris—so it’s no surprise that shortly after his MBA he founded his own restaurant, 80 Thoreau.
Ian’s vision for 80 Thoreau blends contemporary American cuisine—and fresh products from his childhood backyard of New England—with classical French techniques. And the restaurant has been a runaway success, consistently ranking in Boston Magazine’s list of the best restaurants in the area.
‘Restaurants are a mix of art and science,’ Ian told Harvard Business School in 2014. ‘If you go too far in one direction, you're not going to end up with great results.'
6. Kay Wang, HEC Paris
Kay Wang hails from Taiwan, but moved to France in 2014 to pursue an MBA at HEC Paris.
She started Chez Ajia last year, a cozy Taiwanese restaurant that showcases the cooking from her home country.
And her business knowledge and flair for cooking have led to success, with Time Out Paris awarding Chez Ajia four out of five stars, and also receiving a recommendation from Grazia magazine.
7. Enrico Einaudi, INSEAD
Enrico graduated from the MBA at INSEAD in 1992, and since then has launched not one, but five successful restaurants in France.
His first taste of the food business came after he graduated from his MBA and started a small pizza delivery company in Fontainebleau, where INSEAD is based. At the same time, Enrico was working for L'Oreal in Milan—but in 1999, he had to choose between his business career, and the fate of his pizza business.
He chose the restaurant—and eventually turned his pizza delivery business into two Italian restaurants in Fontainebleau and a further two in Paris. He also took over management of a famous local brewery in Fontainebleau, Le Grand Café.