More than a decade ago, chef John Besh set a date to open his first New Orleans restaurant: September 11th, 2001. That would be the first unimaginable American tragedy to leave its mark on the Louisiana-native. In 2005, just as his second restaurant began to take off, Hurricane Katrina decimated the Gulf Coast. But Besh says that these two tragedies molded him into the businessman (and man) he is today. The James Beard Foundation winner now operates the Besh Restaurant Group, a family of nine restaurants (his Nola flagship August is widely-considered to be one of the country's best places to eat), has written five cook books, hosts a cooking show on PBS, and runs the John Besh Foundation, which offers community outreach programs and scholarships to the New Orleans area.
How'd he do it? Here, he talks with Inc.com's Nicole Carter about why growing during hard times came down to one thing: Giving back.
How did 9/11 affect your first New Orleans restaurant August?
Before the attacks, I thought I had it all figured out: I had a great business partner who would handle the business side of things, and I was going to be the chef genius—the winner of awards, the culinary artist. But it all changed after that—everything came to a screeching halt. Tourism lessened. It was, in every respect, a different world after 9/11. In terms of business, I learned two things: We had to be lean and operate on a budget. And we had to be flexible because you never know what the future holds.
So you became more of a businessman?
Mostly, I just discovered there was as much creativity in figuring out how to be profitable as there was in creating food.
By 2005, you bought out your partner and were looking to expand. Then, Hurricane Katrina hit. What was your initial reaction?
At the start of 2005 I was very proud about where I was. I had the capital I needed to focus on making August an award-winning restaurant. I had ventured into my second restaurant, which was doing really well. Yes, and then, Hurricane Katrina hit. It was a life defining moment. I realized God put me on this earth for something more than just food. So a couple days after the storm, my team and I were in boats serving red beans and rice to whoever we could find that needed it. We happen to be some of the only people in town that had both the ability to cook food and the resources necessary to cater. So we started catering. We ended up getting a few local contracts with companies that came down to help rebuild the city.
Wasn't it risky to start a new venture at such a hard time?
It wasn't risky; it just made sense. One of my friends called it my "little experiment in communism."
So communism was your growth strategy?
Basically, I told people that if they came back to help me rebuild our restaurants and the city, then I would help them out in the future. The only way the business would prosper is if those around us felt like they had a stake in it too. And it worked. It wasn't long before these contracts led to us feeding a thousand people a day, and then we would also feed another hundred or so for free. One thing led to another, and we morphed our company from a fame-seeking enterprise to a company focused on the greater good. We had two restaurants before the storm, and we have nine now—and each of the restaurants is run by a chef who came back.
What changed for you personally after Katrina?
I used to look down on catering. I would have never done a dinner for more than 50 people. It was all ego. I changed.
And you have kept this social good aspect in your business since?
Yes. For example, to be a manager at one of my restaurants, you have to be on the board of a local charity or community group. We want to attract people that want to give back. Some years, we've given more than we've made.
Just for fun: If you could have a meal with any entrepreneur at any point in history, who would it be and why?
Steve Jobs. I really admire how he was able to balance design and business. He also just had a passion for his business that I identify with very strongly.
Want to learn more growth secrets from John Besh? Join him and other veteran entrepreneurs March 5th through March 7th in New Orleans for our Inc. GrowCo conference. Visit www.growco.inc.com for more details.