Prakash Karamchandani and HoChan Jang are University of Toledo graduates who opened up Balance Pan-Asian Grille, located at 5860 W. Central Ave. in Sylvania. After having a quick bite between classes, I had a chance to sit down and talk with Prakash.
How would you describe Balance to someone who is not familiar with it?
Our goal is to serve fast fresh food that you know what you're eating. It should be something that is simple. We are not trying to create mystery food, or food that is some weird amalgamation that tastes really good. Some people have this concept of restaurants that they want go out to eat and be culinary surprised, and I think that that attitude towards food is kind of what needs to evolve. The standard American diet is just not good. What we have found is that there isn't a place where you can go to get regular food that you can cook for your-self. We want to give our customers some-thing fresh and simple that tastes good and is not expensive. It's kind of like lifestyle food.
When people ask me about Balance I never really know how to reply. The best I can come up with is that it sort of has a Chipotle or Panera vibe, but with an Asian twist. I realize that that description is so not what Balance is though.
Everyone is familiar with fast food, so in that industry, the classification for fast food is QSR, quick service restaurant, and we are in the fast casual segment, which is a new gateway. It was not pioneered by Panera or Chipotle, but is dominated by them. It's the fastest growing segment of the restaurant industry.
We are doing what we are doing because we were looking for something that would be a low cost to consumers, but still serve fast and fresh food. This is pretty much exactly what fast casual restaurants seek to do. We have just found a niche in specifically Asian cuisine. We've got the wok. It's a universal thing; there is so much you can do with it. It's so little explored, especially when you get outside of China, and I think that is why we decided to go Pan Asian instead of straight up just Asian. If you just say it's an Asian grill, people are immediately going to think Chinese, possibly Japanese. But if you say Pan-Asian they are likely to ask, and that means the entirety of Asia, and we use influences from all over the region.
Does Balance have a mission statement or general philosophy?
We have a lot of ideas that I would say added up to a philosophy. There are a lot of philosophical points that added up to us getting so worked up about it, in a way, that we decided we had to open up a restaurant. We just connected the dots.
One of these ideas was the idea of food service, and the fast casual segment is a perfect fit. You can be casual with the person you're getting food with. It's 2014; you don't need to be served hand and foot. I would rather save a few bucks and go grab my pop myself. We are not seeking to be or compete with restaurants that are for occasions. We are for the everyday. You're going to get great service, but no one is going to come to your table and be like, "Here's your food sir." It's just not going to happen, because it's just not worth it from a personal economical viewpoint to spend money on that everyday. That's why you don't see people going out to eat everyday. Because this middle segment hasn't fully developed, people sacrifice by going to fast food.
We want to fill the segment between fast food and occasion dining. You get the restaurant-quality food, with all the economies of scale that a fast food restaurant abides by, but also combined with good ethics that should come with serving quality food. We want to provide something good for the family, maybe a quick lunch if you're out by yourself, or to meet up with somebody.
We also want to provide an atmosphere that you can come to and enjoy for the thirty or so minutes you eat your food. It's definitely bold and clean, which is exactly what we try to shoot for with our food. We generally see chefs as artists and want to recreate that artist mentality in our atmosphere.
Having said that, Balance is not the typical Northwest Ohio dining experience. Where did you get the inspiration to sort of go against the grain?
I guess just getting frustrated. Economically as a customer, I do not see why you would go to an average restaurant, not a fine dining one, but just an average place. Why isn't the cost of people included in what I am purchasing? I know that it takes people to produce what just came out on my plate. Why is that not included? If a menu is a contract, then this is what I am paying for meal. Tips seem like an add-on to that contract, or a way to keep the restaurant cheap. We believe that if we treat our people right, it will show through in our food.
When you walk into Balance, you can see that there is technology everywhere. Starting off how were you able to use that to your advantage?
A lot. You won't see us paying for ads anywhere. It's just not what we do. We mainly spend our money making our store something that people will want to talk about. At the same time, we use social media channels to communicate with people to spread the word of what we are doing. I would call it poll social media strategy.
What words of caution or advice would you give to any future entrepreneurs out there?
A big part of being an entrepreneur is to understand that you will inevitably make mistakes. You can listen to a million people speak, but all they are really telling you about is their own experiences. A huge part of being an entrepreneur, or well two things, one wanting to fall down and get back up, and two, just in general being able to take risks and stand by your decisions, even if those decisions suck at the moment.
The people who fail are the ones who stop riding it out. We have made plenty of mistakes. I could bore you for hours, but the reality of it is, we continuously try to learn from them. Our number one tool throughout owning this business has been taking customer feedback and applying it immediately.
Our current edition is focusing on sustainability. How would you say this term applies to Balance?
Sustainability is a constant evolution for us the more that we learn. The more resources we gain the more opportunities are available to move towards an economically friendly business. We would like to go into LEED building, but that largely depends on your landlord, or property ownership. As far as the food, that has always been a huge thing for us. You know not using the industrialized food system. We do a lot of farm to table stuff.
Outside of that, we try and use compostable materials, but are limited to what is available in the market. We are very conscious of the chemicals used in the store, the lighting, the type of heating and cooling system we use. We use POS sales to cut down on paper, and compostable dining ware. You have got to be conscious of the offset that you produce. A business in this industry is a people aggregator and can have a negative impact on society, but you can choose to make it a positive one. We are continuously trying to move in that direction.
How do you sustain your hunger for continuous improvement in your business? Is the ball rolling and you just manage it?
No, you have to pull the ball. There is no such thing as having the ball rolling. You better be behind that thing pushing because if you think that the ball is rolling you have no idea where it is going. You have really no control. Business owners that start making enough money to pay a manager, and then just take money out, in my opinion, is not the right method to owning a business. If that is your goal in starting a business you are in the wrong industry.
You should really want to do every job possible. My goal when I wake up every day is to do something different. I've been the janitor, the cook, worked the prep line, been IT support, an electrician, a general contractor, you name it. I do stuff that I would have never guessed I was capable of, and it is really just because I'm challenged to do it and I don't have the money to hire someone else to do it. You have no idea what tomorrow is going to bring. All that you have in front of you is what is there today. People that are afraid of what may happen tomorrow never get ahead.