Adam Sobel, founder of The Cinnamon Snail
Adam Sobel is as authentic and as transparent as one gets. Like the Manhattanite he is, he doesn't mince his words but stays true to his philosophy. He's hilarious as he's insightful, as sharp as he's mellow.
As a true artist, Adam's not a guy who thinks generally about what people will like but, true to his character, makes sure what he puts in front of his customers is ridiculously over the top as it is delicious. Bold flavors and bold style, Adam says, are what will change omnivores' perceptions on vegan food.
Adam's claim to fame is his award-winning and ever popular vegan food truck, The Cinnamon Snail, launched Valentine's Day of 2010. His key to success isn't from the pedigree of his restaurants (though well-known and well-respected) but from the mentors who took him under their wing since he was a teenager, like Tom Valenti. His passion for food stems from the love he has for his wife; he doesn't hesitate to boast that he began to work in restaurants "largely to get better at cooking for me wife." He's also a vegan by choice--a life decision the then-19 year old Adam made when his daughter was born.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Adam recently, just a few blocks from his new brick-and-mortar inside the midtown food court Pennsy. What follows is an excerpt of the conversation we had that night.
Brian Kil (BK): First off, why did you choose to open your first location in Pennsy versus your own establishment?
Adam Sobel (AS): It was just an attractive opportunity that came to us. I'm planning a new venture which will absolutely need to be its own establishment, but this works great, and keeps our customers able to access our food in midtown!
BK: What advice would you give to someone who wants to open up a restaurant?
AS: People should know the profit margins for food are so thin. If you're doing it for money, you will not last. I consult for a lot of restaurants and I really have to wonder why they are doing what they're doing if they aren't involved in the cooking part of their business. There are many other things that will make them a lot more money.
BK: But every successful person in the industry will claim that only the passionate can succeed but even the most passionate might fail...
AS: It's easier. I found the crappiest food truck possible on Craigslist. The exhaust actually fell off while the transaction was taking place. I was working 19-20 hours a day, sometimes sleeping on the side of the road because the drive home wasn't really worth it. I was doing everything myself for a very long time, built a small team to help out, and suddenly there's 60 people working full time on this venture. Now I'm learning how to make the food more scalable, how to run a business, how to trust others--it just doesn't end.
BK: It's obvious you care deeply about your family and you're proud of it. How do you balance work and family?
AS: I don't always succeed at finding a perfect work/parenting balance. I try. I really try. But sometimes my family missed me during heavy work weeks, or my business misses me during important family times. This is not an easy balance to be the master of in any profession.
BK: Food and tech is hot: Uber, Groupon, Seamless. What's your experience working with tech companies?
AS: I don't really think they understand what restaurants need, I think they have found a way to make money off of restaurants that many establishments are willing to go with. Some systems are great and very helpful, like the systems we use for scheduling, point of sales, and invoicing. A lot of the rest is just a silly extra expense without much apparent reward.
BK: Whether you are handing off responsibility to your cooks or opening a second location, what's the most reassuring aspect that you look for that will make you confident in quality assurance?
AS: For quality control you need three things: excellent food to begin with, a competent caring staff, and SYSTEMS. Quality isn't easily maintained by just trusting everyone's judgment. Sometimes you need to rely on very clear guidelines and protocols. Among other systems, we use portion control scoops for everything, carefully measured recipes, and time guidelines for how long something can be stored for before we toss it.
BK: Where do you draw your creativity and inspiration for your food from?
AS: Last weekend I shot a pilot episode of my new cooking show, where we break into abandoned historical building and cook meals that are abstractly based on the history of the buildings. I ended up cooking some fresh corn arepas, with willow marinated oyster mushrooms and seitan, and garlic cabbage slaw in the morgue of an abandoned insane asylum. They used to grow corn on the premises, as well as willow for making baskets which the hospital sold. So that was a weird and inspiring time to make a meal for me.
AS: Anyway, creative inspiration isn't always so easy to track and understand. I guess it's a little bit like trying to understand what influences your dreams.