QUESO: Non-Cheesy Values at Condado Tacos

QUESO: Non-Cheesy Values at Condado Tacos
D. J. Costantino

By D. J. Costantino

Joe Kahn opened the first Condado Tacos in 2014, a stone's throw from the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. And the driving principle behind it was to be the type of place he would work at forever given the opportunity. He joined us on The Pre-Shift Podcast, along with Chris Artinian, President and CEO of Condado Tacos.

Kahn: "It was kind of a no-brainer. Literally, I had been in the business for so many years, 25 plus years, and really I think the injustice of this industry is that we're kind of used and abused. We're just a number. And however it happened, it happened. That's how you were kind of treated in the industry as a server or bartender. You certainly didn't see a future working in the restaurant business per se, but I really wanted to change that. I wanted to have a voice when I was in the industry, whether it was a GM or a server.

And so listen, the culture is- I wanted to make a better place for people like me to feel good about work. We're not just a bunch of uneducated hooligans. We're guys that are ambitious and go-getters and have followed a different path. And those kinds of people, since it is the second leading industry in the world, should have a chance and should be respected enough to advance in a company. So the values really, and the culture really comes down to I see everybody as me and I want to make sure that everybody can find a place in this world and be able to move up and move forward. It's really ironic because it resonated so well."

And for many of the opening staff, Joe succeeded in his vision of creating a place they could work at for a long time, a whole career. Take Johnny Zela, who tended the bar with Joe at the very beginning of Condado. 10 years later, he's in the COO seat.

Kahn: "And we would bartend together. And one day I'm getting to know the guy and I learned that he was a regional for Red Robin and all these other companies, and he had his own restaurant and bar in Chicago and he learned how to ruin a restaurant and bar and failed. And I loved people like that because I'm internally flawed and I make so many mistakes, but I learned from my mistakes. So the testament of this culture is a guy like him who was a bartender, and then one day I said, you're better than me. Let's grow this thing, and it really has potential. My partners are behind me. We're just going to keep dumping money into this.

If we can get the culture right, blah, blah, blah, we can be everywhere. And he followed. And another, I think seven or eight of the original people just in that one first restaurant; one's a beverage director, another guy is our... Trey Keith is basically the chef of our business, corporate chef. All these guys were line cooks and busboys with me, and now they're what's potentially a billion-dollar company in the next year or two. They're heading it and they're changing the future of how the restaurant industry is. They believed in it. And a little bit about our culture and how great I think our culture is just from treating people how you want to be treated, I guess."


That culture of investing in people was something that resonated with Chris Artinian. Chris made his way up the ranks at Morton Steakhouse from Prep Cook all the way to CEO, where he led the brand for more than a decade after a few stops between then and now. Chris worked with Condado’s equity partner, the Beekman Group before moving in-house.

Artinian: "Not to be overly cliche, but I think aligned values has always been sort of a standard definition of culture. The tough part is living them and having all the right people that actually truly believe in that. And it's not about what you say, it's what you do. And I think that's what when you think about Joe Khan our founder, or Johnny Zela our COO, these are folks that walk into the restaurant and walk the talk. And I think that in short, that's just an example of what you see as what you get at Condado.

And what I've always appreciated in my days at Morton's was that if you do X, Y, and Z, we will show you how to be a better server, be a better manager, be a better whatever it is that you desire to be. And you could take a person like myself at $4.13 an hour and over years, through great mentorship and phenomenal people, show the way of success if you want it. And you know what, not everyone wants to be CEO and not everyone wants to be a vice president, and not everyone wants to be a general manager.

Our goal is to make sure that when people look back, everyone remembers a great experience. That I learned something and it made a difference for me. And I think Joe talks about this along with our COO Johnny at our openings, is that we want you to look back at Condado and then say that this is the best experience you've ever had. If you're with us a six month, a year, or six years or 60, it's the best experience you've had. We've helped you to change your life. And those are the types of things that were instilled in me in my formative years in the industry. And it's been exciting to see it formulating here at Condado."

Now, it's one thing to have aligned values. Knowing that you vibe with someone is something that you feel. But putting the 'why' to paper isn't an easy task. Condado's solution in more ways than one is QUESO.

Artinian: "The one thing about our mission, first of all, it's a little wordy, but at the end of the day, we really talk about a place to celebrate individuality. That's really sort of the crux of what we do. And then queso, one, ironically, we have the best queso in the business. So what better way to have an acronym to describe our people and our culture and what we want to accomplish? So I mean, talk about aligned good fortune. We have amazing queso and we really talk about queso so much in the spirit of not only food, but also our people.

And what QUESO stands for is, quality is one part and it's quality in everything that we do, whether it be our food or training our people. Unique: Condado is, again, a celebration of individuality and it's a place where you can be your best version of yourself. Empowered: take control of not only the guest experience, but also your career, your opportunities and the empowerment to take the opportunity and make a difference for your team members and your guests.

Being of service is the S and obviously we're in the hospitality business and we're of service to each other. We're of service to our folks that come into our restaurants. We're of service to our communities. We really look to give back in so many ways, whether it be smaller charities or the national. We're about to launch a partnership. Actually, you're going to hear it hot off the press with Feeding America here soon, which we're all excited about. And opportunity is the O. And we talk about these things, about growth, not only growth in new restaurants, growth in new jobs, but growth in furthering your career and furthering yourself not only professionally, but personally. And it's a big part of our culture.

Our team has really been focused on not only developing professional goals, but we have found a nice balance of seeking the balance of finding that opportunity to fulfill your personal goals, even if it's starting off with just one. So we can create opportunities for yourself that will also drive you professionally and personally. So QUESO: Quality, Unique, Empowered, Service and Opportunity is sort of the secret sauce, no pun intended, of what we do here at Condado."


QUESO: Quality, Unique, Empowered, Service and Opportunity is the way those values get codified and communicated. But I wondered what they looked like in practice.

Kahn: "I tell this story all the time. We're in our first restaurant, we're doing five and a half million dollars this year. Just phenomenal. I mean, huge, huge lines out the door. Waits for three hours and we were making everything in five, six gallon containers for the day, every sauce. And we would get there, 4 AM we'd start cooking and doing everything and we'd make them in these big batches. And then I'd go around and taste, and we knew it was a $25,000-$30,000 day, but if it wasn't right and somebody cut corners, we don't try to doctor it. I’d just throw it away.

Or if the cooler's out at two o'clock in the afternoon, we don't just say, ‘Oh, we hope everything turned out okay’. We're like, ‘Nope, everything's gone’. So all this trauma, but what I was really getting at was I wanted the quality each and every time for the buck. And I'm super obsessed with that quality of food, craveable, clean, all that stuff, and doing it consistently, correct each and every time safely. So I mean, that's just the Q [of QUESO]. I could go through each one, but it'd probably take all day. But we really truly, I mean we pick these words for a reason. They mean a lot to us and they permeate through each and every restaurant that we touch."

When it comes to decision making at Condado, QUESO is the lens.

Artinian: "When we communicate anything or roll out a recipe or plan anything, we really try to look through this lens of QUESO, like does it feel right to us? Is it the right thing to do? Is it on point with the brand? Does it fit within our DNA? One of the things that Joe says about being obsessive is, part of that is being disciplined and making sure that we're focused on the quality and that we'll never be everything to everyone. But are we true to ourselves and who we are and what we do really, really well? And we try to really marry innovation and change and quality and staying on trend with making sure that we know what we're really great at. And that's it. Selling a ton of margs, a bunch of queso, and the best tacos in the land for sure."

And those decisions aren't always easy ones to make. But the strong values provide a guide for when the going gets tough.

Kahn: "We should have been charging $12 for a chicken taco because chicken prices were a thousand times more than we've ever seen. But I think our values to our guests are, we're not going to skimp on chicken. We could have taken chicken off, we could have replaced chicken with a dark meat or whatever we wanted to do, but we made the choice not to. And that's one of our quality things that we're obsessed with. It's very similar to (which I'm very proud of), I always say the story of In-N-Out Burger, because I model us kind of out like In-N-Out. The story of, I mean, how much bigger are they than us? And the story, I think it was three or four years ago, their buns didn't turn out right in Texas, so they closed every restaurant in Texas. I mean, that's crazy for the day, and they redid it. So I'm very proud of that. We chose that. But that's one of the things I think we've done recently.


Once that culture and values are established, keeping it alive comes down to the team that you have and the people that you bring on board.

Artinian: "One of the things we get a lot of credit for is friendliness. So one, we're looking to attract someone that enjoys being around people, that enjoys being a team player, that has desire, that wants to grow or make a difference is really the most important thing. And Joe will tell you, the commitment of Condado is that we want to pay you better than average. If not, we try not to say we're going to pay best anywhere because what's that measure? But we want to make sure that we are on the higher end of competitiveness. So we're attracting the best talent from a compensation perspective, but also we want to make sure that we're offering the continued perks of whether it be health insurance and other related benefits.

We've created emergency funds to help our community. But really at the end of the day, we really look for folks that appreciate a high sense of transparency and integrity, that are looking for a great place to work, that are team players want to be friendly, care about each other, care about other people, care about their community, and in a small way want to give back to that.

I mean, it's a tall order, but you know what? To Joe's point, the restaurant industry is second to the government in terms of hiring, and we'd like to attract folks that one, want to make a difference with people too, but probably most importantly want to create a place for them to come and feel welcome and comfortable and a place where we can teach them something that they may not have known before, change their lives and hopefully keep them for a very long time, if not, create a lifelong memory of that was a great place that made a difference for me. And it starts with friendliness, integrity, and transparency, and then we build from there."

Kahn: "Yeah, no, Chris, you've said it perfectly, that's why you're our CEO now. It just permeates through the ranks everywhere."

It's enough of a challenge to hire the right people for one restaurant, but when you're growing as quickly as Condado is, it becomes that much more difficult and important.

Kahn: "Quickest answer, and Chris will give the explanation, is we don't grow just for growth’s sake. We want to make sure all the pieces are there, but I'll let Chris take it."

Artinian: "No, it's actually a great way to kick off. I mean, that's our toughest challenge. We're all company-owned and we're very thoughtfully plotting our growth plan and it's aggressive, I'll put that front. One is we're growing somewhere between 12 and 15 new restaurants a year. We're really out there looking to sign 12 to 15 new leases or more a year, which makes sure that we net 10 to 12 or more new openings, which we're on track for this year. How we do that? One is investment in people. Number one, we have a whole bunch of training teams by some of the most talented folks. And when I say talent, it's a mix of homegrown folks that have been wonderfully trained and believe in the culture, and also some folks that have brought some professionalism and experience from the outside. And with that combination, we're able to keep our culture together and teach our folks sort of what Condado's all about.

@condadotacos Tacos, Tequila, Zodiac Signs #fyp #foryou #astrology #zodiac #astrologytiktok #fypシ #tacos #condadotacos ♬ original sound - condadotacos

And that's our biggest challenge is that as we grow, how do we make sure the DNA of the brand stays alive and well within our people? And I think one, we have several forms of communication, whether it be through our weekly newsletter. We do a monthly, what we call ‘Breaking Shells’, taco shells, tortillas, however you want to put it, where we update the community in terms of where we are, where we're headed. Each department gets on either a Zoom call or in-person to share what's going on with the company and trying to keep us small. But the magic to all of it is hiring the right people. That is our number one challenge. While it sounds like we have solved that problem, I can tell you that I don't know if we'll ever declare victory. We are constantly trying to improve our process in hiring the best people and attracting the best folks.

It is still a challenge in our industry. We're very fortunate that we are in most cases, less challenged than others, very fortunately because of our concept and how we treat our people and our culture, et cetera. But we don't take that for granted, and it's our toughest piece. When you open up a new restaurant, you're roughly hiring 60 to 70 new people, with four or five new managers. So without any turnover, looking to hire 60 to 70 new managers a year, which is exciting for job growth and it's also challenging at the same time. And the key is just making sure that we are not cutting quarters in training, we onboard them properly with proper orientation and we give them the proper training, enough time in the system to get a sense of what Condado's about and the why behind what we do versus just hiring someone and then five minutes later they're running a Condado for the first time without any context.

And our team has done an excellent job of getting six months, sometimes a year ahead of what that pipeline of management looks like, which is no tall order in this environment. I mean, I'm sorry. It is a tall order in this environment and I really salute our operations team and every department in our company that employs the efforts to attract the right people, train them, get them into the system, make them feel part of Condado, and then be able to execute it at a high level. So that is definitely a big challenge of ours, but it's where we keep our focus."

One way they maintain while they grow is through internal promotions, providing opportunity and keeping the culture alive.

Artinian: "66% of our promotions last year were internal, which is really exciting and it's really important. I think when you're able to do that, it's the culture of what we do, the feel of Condado. And I don't want to overuse the word culture. I mean I’m soon to be 54 years old, been doing this over 30 years and learned culture before it became this sort of buzzword. It really is about what you live. And we live these sort of genuine values of how you stay focused on people. And what makes a difference and how they can keep learning and staying in tune with what the needs of the business are, what their needs are. So it's really one of those intangibles, but we really try to stay connected."

Kahn: "I mean, that's what we go for. We're very proud when we can get a homegrown person, where we can see a year one employee, now a regional. So yeah, very proud of that."


And that growth you mentioned before is no joke. I'll let Chris give you the rundown as for what Condado was up to behind the scenes.

Artinian: "By the end of this year, we will wrap up with 50 locations, which is really exciting. We will have entered, let's see, Alabama for the first time, and we entered South Carolina as a new market this year. St. Louis will be a new market this year, which is very exciting. And the other new market is a second one in Charlotte, North Carolina this year, and we just opened up in Knoxville, Tennessee this year as well. As we look towards next year, we will continue to infill in those areas. So today, our footprint, we were founded in Columbus, Ohio, so we have a very strong concentration in obviously Columbus, Cincinnati, Cleveland, etc, Indianapolis proper and Indiana, and then marching down to Pittsburgh. Then we have Michigan, not only Detroit DMA, but Grand Rapids and then Ann Arbor. And we will work our way down through Tennessee.

So we think the Mid-Atlantic and the East Coast for the foreseeable future, we have 12 to 15 new restaurants a year that'll keep us certainly busy and opening restaurants for the foreseeable future as we work our way across the country. But if you really look at the map, we start in Columbus and we're really thoughtfully working our way down through the Mid-Atlantic and the Midwest into the Southeast, and then we'll work our way over as we grow nationally. But the pace of 12 to 15 new leases a year will keep us on that 10 to 12 new restaurants, if not more, open a year."

I asked Chris and Joe if maintaining a culture as strong as the one at Condado gets easier with time as you have more time to establish it.

Kahn: "Oh, it's harder."

Artinian: "Without question, it's always harder."

As you establish yourself more, doesn't get easier?

Kahn: "You hope it does, but you know what? This is the good fight. This is why the next five years are critical. Keep fighting and fighting and fighting for this because eventually it has to stick. I mean, we're only eight years old, we're at super speed right now, so we're giving it to year 13 and beyond that we need to keep doing it if we want to keep this culture, which we feel is very special."

Artinian: "There's no doubt that the story gets easier to tell. But I don't know if people ever get easier. And I mean that in the most positive way possible is that our challenge is always finding folks that really enjoy this business, really have passion for it, and it's hard to find that talent. We're very fortunate to surround ourselves with great people, and I think for folks like Joe and I who have been around a bit, you just never take that for granted. So hard to say that it gets easier because it'll always be our number one challenge, finding the right person."

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D. J. Costantino
D. J. Costantino

Hi! I'm D.J., 7shifts' resident Content Writer. I come from a family of chefs and have a background in food journalism. I'm always looking for ways to help make the restaurant industry better!