By Anjali Fluker – Associate Managing Editor, Orlando Business Journal
In 2002, two young brothers decided to take on the task of bridging the gap between the traditional Asian dining experience and the first-generation Asian-American palate with the opening of Bento Asian Kitchen + Sushi near the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Fast forward to today, and Johnny and Jimmy Tung — along with partner David Yu — have expanded that concept throughout the Sunshine State, including three in Orlando. The chain earlier this month opened a 2,700-square-foot Bento Asian Kitchen + Sushi restaurant in downtown St. Petersburg, its 10th in Florida. The Tungs also operate Sticky Rice Lao Street Food, Chela Tequila & Tacos (formerly Kasa Restaurant & Bar), Avenue Gastrobar, Mochi Frozen Yogurt — a concept they recently sold off — and Sushi Chao. Their Orlando-based Bento Management Group boasts a team of about 600 workers and reported $25.67 million in 2017 revenue.
And the brothers aren’t done yet.
In fact, they’re looking to open about 10 new restaurants each year, all corporate owned, younger brother Johnny Tung said. “We thought franchising would be harder to execute.”
Locally, four more Bento cafes are in the works — in fast-growing areas like Lake Nona, Winter Park, Kissimmee and near downtown Orlando — as well as some other concepts.
“As of now, we are on track to double our locations by next year,” Johnny Tung said. “Also, a lot of our team members started as part-time employees when they were students in college. They stuck with the company and a lot of them are in their 30s now. They started as bussers, cooks and dishwashers — now they’re working for our corporate team.”
Meanwhile, here’s what the chain has planned for Central Florida:
- A 3,000-square-foot, 100-seat Bento restaurant in the planned Tyson’s Corner shopping center in southeast Orlando, across the street from Lake Nona High School. That likely will open sometime in 2019.
- A 2,400-square-foot, 60-seat Bento in the $750 million Margaritaville Resort Orlando on U.S. Highway 192 and State Road 429. The Sunset Walk at Margaritaville retail piece of the resort will feature 200,000 square feet of shops, restaurants and entertainment, including tenants such as Studio Movie Grill, GameTime, Rascal Flatts restaurant, Rock & Brews and more.
- A 3,000-square-foot, 100-seat Bento opening soon in the Center of Winter Park shopping center on the southwest corner of Lee Road and Orlando Avenue. The center, which for three years was anchored by a shuttered Kmart store, in 2017 began adding several new tenants, such as a Marshalls/HomeGoods combo store, Ross Dress for Less, DSW Designer Shoe Warehouse, Five Below, Blaze Pizza and Zoës Kitchen, among others.
- A 3,500-square-foot, 120- to 130-seat flagship Bento restaurant on Colonial Drive in downtown’s Mills 50 District. The restaurant company will open a 10,000-square-foot headquarters building that also will feature Bento Management Group’s corporate office, catering and test kitchen. “It used to be where all the stores did their own payroll, billing, marketing; now, we put it all under one roof,” Johnny Tung said. “We’ll have more of a dedicated, in-house marketing team and in-house HR. We’ll even have opening teams for new stores. We will be able to grow a lot easier.”
Additionally, the Tungs and Yu also are investors in Domu, a concept in Audubon Park’s East End Market and in Jacksonville in partnership with one of the former Bento chefs, Sean Nguyen. The plan is to create a new parent company, Domu Dynasty, and then expand that concept to Dr. Phillips Marketplace next summer.
Under that same parent, quick-casual ramen noodle concept Domu Chibi Ramen is scheduled to open later this year in the Waterford Lakes Town Center next to Fresh Kitchen — in the former Beef Jerky Outlet space — plus, a separate Japanese Izakaya pub/yakitori concept dubbed Tori Tori is being envisioned for Mills Avenue.
“This is the most growth we’ve had in the history of our company,” Johnny Tung said. “We’ll be doing restaurants in Florida for the next year or two. But after that, we want to target locations outside Florida; first Atlanta, and then further in the Southeast.”
Bento Management Group — an “Ultimate Newcomer” on Orlando Business Journal’s 2018 Golden 100 list of Central Florida’s top privately-held firms — came in at No. 66 as a first-timer on this list.
Here’s more from Tung on the firm:
What about your company makes you most proud? Our long-tenured managers — a core group of them have been with us for more than 10 years. Because they believed in our vision, they stayed with us and grew with the business. Now, with many of them in their 30s, they’ve moved up the ranks to manager roles, and I couldn’t be prouder.
Describe your typical workday: When it comes to restaurant ownership, the term “typical” goes out the window. However, most days, I spend my time meeting and corresponding with my top managers in various divisions, including culinary, operations and HR. I’m continuously working to refine the processes for every faction of the company. There isn’t a clear start or end of my work day. Rather, you have to be working on the business constantly in order to be successful in this industry. You have to live it.
What does success look like for you? Being able to take care of people, whether it’s family members or my employees — many of whom become like family. I’m also aware of the rare opportunity we have to be directly responsible for the growth and development of the business.
When did you consider yourself a success? When I was able to expand Bento outside of a college town. When we opened the first Bento in Gainesville near the University of Florida in 2002, it was an area we were very familiar with, since it was one we had grown up in. When we made the move to Orlando in 2008, it was out of our comfort zone. We were able not only to succeed here, but also to expand out to other areas, such as Jacksonville, South Florida, Tallahassee and Kissimmee. That showed us we can grow to new areas and remain successful.
How do you push through the worst times? Don’t dwell on the past; you have to keep moving forward. When my father passed away, it was a very difficult time for all of us because he was the true patriarch of our family. It felt like a huge loss of leadership, but we kept moving forward, especially since we knew that’s what he would want us to do.
What is your greatest leadership blindspot? Spreading myself too thin and wanting to be involved in everything
What is your greatest leadership skill? My ability to identify people’s strengths, and then determine what position they will enjoy and be most successful in. I’ve had situations where an employee isn’t performing as well as they could, and I have been able to move them to a role where they can succeed. Being able to develop people from entry level to management roles also is a skill — and something I truly enjoy.
What is your favorite stress reducer? Spending time with my fiancé. We are getting married this year, which also happened to be the busiest year for Bento to date. Luckily, she helps me find balance, and is incredibly supportive.
What song describes your work ethic? “Work” by Rihanna
The trouble with having it all is … You risk becoming complacent. The trick is to find a balance between being happy with what you are producing without losing your inner drive.
What key factors help your company attract and retain top talent? Our company culture plays a big role. Although we are not a small mom-and-pop shop, our company also hasn’t gotten so large that employees don’t feel recognized or heard. The speed with which we have grown also is very attractive, as people like to be a part of a growing company.
Biggest mistake you’ve seen a business leader recover from: When people start to move away from what is considered their bread and butter, and focus on something else. It has happened to us — sometimes when we start developing a new restaurant concept, we lose focus on Bento and certain aspects of that brand start to suffer. The good thing is, you always can recover. When that happens, and we make Bento our top priority again, everything rebounds rather quickly.
Market strategy: When choosing a new location, we look at three major components:
- High daytime population, so we can serve a professional crowd at lunch time
- Population density
- Proximity to a college or university, since all our best performing locations are near universities.
If we have all three, it’s the ultimate fit for Bento. Even when we have just two, we can make it work successfully.
Key accomplishments in the past 12 months: This has been our biggest year to date. We started with the celebration of our 15th anniversary. Then, we set out to open five new locations. In the past, we only opened as many as two new locations in a given year.
Biggest challenges in the past 12 months: Due to our rapid expansion, we’ve really started focusing on building a strong corporate team. It’s been a challenge training everyone not to think of just managing one location, but instead, to think of managing the brand and focusing on all locations. Additionally, we are planning to open six new locations all within the next six months.
Future plans: Our goal is to start opening 10 new restaurants each year. To accomplish that, we have started looking at new locations outside of Florida — including Atlanta and the rest of the Southeast.
Most impressive business statistic: Our original location (West Newberry Road in Gainesville) is still growing, even after 16 years. It’s the same space, the same size kitchen and even the same amount of seats in the dining room, but year after year, there is growth in the numbers.