Charles Lew is a restaurateur who owns and operates multiple hospitality concepts across the US. He is developing other concepts including Trejos Tacos with Danny Trejo and a bakery coffee concept with world champion Metta World Peace.
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Worst Entrepreneur Moment
- Charles opened up THE largest sports bar West of Las Vegas. They nailed their UVD (GOURMET), and battled for a YEAR to get profitable. Then, out of the blue, he found out that the sublease was never paid. The result? He paid the ultimate price: failure.
Entrepreneur AH-HA Moment
- The chicken before the egg? The cart before the horse? We chat about this conundrum in length!
Small Business Resource
- Yelp: User Reviews and Recommendations of Top Restaurants, Shopping, Nightlife, Entertainment, Services and More at Yelp.
Best Business Book
- The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson
- Charles’ email! Charles@charleslew.com
Charles Lew: JLD, I’m about to spontaneously combust over here.
John Lee Dumas: Yes! Charles is a restauranteur who owns and operates multiple hospitality concepts across the U.S. He’s developing other concepts including Trejo’s Tacos with Danny Trejo and a bakery/coffee concept with World Champion Metta World Peace. Charles, take a minute, fill in some gaps from that intro and give us a little glimpse at your personal life.
Charles Lew: Yeah, man, so I am in the restaurant business. I try to curate, come up with concepts, try to stay ahead of the curve, try to stay ahead of the trend, look for opportunities within this restaurant/hospitality market, and just go for it. Once we identify it, we just latch on to it and we run as fast as we can with it.
John Lee Dumas: I mean, Danny Trejo, Metta World Peace. How do you get hooked up with these massive celebrities?
Charles Lew: We have an incredible network. I’ve been an attorney in Los Angeles for just over a decade and now and we’ll discuss later on but going back to where I started in the nightclubs and the bars and you just meet people. These nightclubs and bars were really just the greatest resource you could ever imagine for meeting every single person you could ever imagine. Everybody you saw on TV. Everybody you heard on the radio. They all come through the doors of these bars. And when you’re the guy standing at the door, it provides a really easy introduction.
John Lee Dumas: So cool. You are right, we are gonna talk about that because, Charles, you have a fascinating journey. But first, let’s do this because, listen, the listeners of this show, Fire Nation, we’re all about building viable businesses. And to have a viable business, you need to be making the dollars, making the Benji’s. So how do you, Charles, today generate revenue?
Charles Lew: Right. So right now we have multiple revenue streams. We have our law firm which is quickly becoming one of the preeminent law firms in the whole city of Los Angeles, for everything from restaurant entitlements to ABC permitting to conditional use permitting. Really, we run the full gamut from A to Z, everything. Private placement memorandums, subscription agreements, operating agreements. Anything you need done with your restaurant, we do it. So that’s one of the ways.
Then I own and operate multiple concepts. I think I have nine right now up and running with three more scheduled for the next six months. A jewelry line that is completely not related to anything I’m doing here but it kind of goes back to one of your favorite sayings, weapons of mass distraction. And these things are extra shiny and extra sparkly and it’s beautiful jewelry so we launched that. So we’ve done a really good job of diversifying where we’re pulling our revenue sources from.
John Lee Dumas: Now, I do want to clarify because I think it is important, the point that you just made. There’s a big difference between weapons of mass distraction and the bright, shiny object syndrome. For entrepreneurs that are trying to get that initial momentum, you can’t get distracted. You have to find that one thing to get that initial momentum. But then once you, Charles, have gotten that one thing going and you’ve been doing it for a while, just like myself, we don’t stay put now. Now we diversify.
Now we go out and we have these ringers and what I like to call “the core and explore.” Both you and I have our core of what we know works but now let’s go out and explore a few things and have some fun. For me, that’s podcast websites. That’s thefreedomjournal.com. You mentioned very kindly that you enjoy my one-off podcast called The Ancient which is a book I wrote when I was deployed to Iraq. And now I’m just kind of reading chapters when I have spare time and doing some really cool sound effects. So you can have these one-off things. So, Charles, I love that you brought that up.
You do a lot of cool things and, Fire Nation, realize as you grow, that focus can shift in different directions and widen. But what I want to talk about, Charles, is your journey now because you’ve had some great moments and you have some awesome moments ahead but what was the worst? What was your worst entrepreneurial moment? Tell us that story.
Charles Lew: I’ve had a couple. I’ve had quite a few. If I had to identify – that can be a much longer conversation but I’m gonna key in on one. It was actually my first restaurant that I ever owned. It was an absolute monstrosity. It was this gigantic sports bar. It was state of the art in every single way. We had a wall of televisions. It was actually the biggest audiovisual system west of Las Vegas. Complete beast, totally ahead of its time. Gourmet food in a sports bar environment. We really thought we had everything figured out. I mean, we thought this was gonna be our kind of one-and-done and we were gonna string the world with this sports bar concept.
As quite often happens to restaurants, we opened it. It didn’t quite open with the bang that we had all assumed it would but we were all very – lot of perseverance and a lot of energy. So we just ground it out. We said we’re gonna make it work, we’re gonna make it work. We worked literally day in, day out. All of the partners in the place were managers, dishwashers, waiters. We did anything that it took to keep those doors open and keep the gas on.
It took us about a year. After about a year, I remember specifically sitting with the guys and we’re looking at our PNLs and I’m going, good lord, we actually made money this month. So we walked a year down the road and we look at it and it was a pretty meager net profit, maybe $6,000.00, something. But I remember sitting and looking at it and going guys, we did this. We turned this thing around. So, second month that net profit doubles. Next month it increases again. And now we’re back to that mindset that we’re taking over the world.
And then I remember walking up, taking my key out to open the door, looking up, and there being a three-day eviction notice to quit on my door. Now, one thing as a restauranteur you really want to always try to do, two things: a) pay your payroll because we need employees, and b) pay your rent. So I’m looking at and I’m saying to myself, how can I have a three-day notice? I’m the one that writes the checks every single month to the sub-landlord, to the guy who subleased the deal to us.
Well, long story short, and this is where the legal background and attorney helped to a certain degree, I called the lawyer. I started walking through it. We start doing discovery. We try to figure out what’s going on. Basically what we determine is that the sub-landlord, the gentleman who had leased to us, was actually taking our rent checks every month and just keeping it and never transferring it over to the landlord. The landlord was an absentee landlord; he was actually out of the country 11 months out of the year.
So when he came back into town, he saw that he had never got any rent paid and slapped us with an eviction notice. He really wasn’t very willing to listen to us. He took a lot of offense to it. It didn’t matter how much I explained to him that we had wrote checks, even to the point that I showed him the cancelled checks and the cashed checks, it turned into this massive legal battle that the real truth was that we were baby birds.
We had this little incubated business that really just wasn’t in the position at all to handle this. I mean, we were assailed literally on every side and we just were absolutely not in any position to handle it. So needless to say, about sixty days, I locked the doors of that, walked out, sat on the bus stop and just hung my head in my hands and just had no idea what I was gonna do.
John Lee Dumas: Let’s play the “what if” game for a second. So what if, Charles, those rent checks that you were sending were going to the right place and you hadn’t actually been evicted. What if? What do you think would have happened? Do you think you would have continued? Would you still potentially even be running that business today? I mean, was it looking like it was going on that kind of momentum?
Charles Lew: Yeah, absolutely, I do. I think it was, again, it was really ahead of its time and it really was a trend that as much as there were sports bars, there were no real gourmet sports bars. We introduced a $25.00 hamburger at the time that everybody thought was outrageous but it got us so much press because we said guys, we’re not a sports bar. Don’t come in expecting fried chicken wings and crappy French fries. Come in expecting the most gourmet meal that you could think that you could have while still in a casual environment.
So I think it was great. I think there’s been some other people since then have done similar concepts and they’ve done well with them. So, yeah, I think timing wise, we were really poised to be in a really good place at the right time.
John Lee Dumas: And again, Fire Nation, this is about positioning. They weren’t trying to compete with Buffalo Wild Wings. They were trying to be the gourmet sports bar that was just there. Like you went there because you could say honey, I’m gonna take you to this place tonight because you’re gonna love the food, it’s a great environment, and we’re gonna watch the game and we’re gonna have a blast doing it. And you could. So it was that unique space.
So, Fire Nation, think about that. What unique space are you gonna occupy in the market? What’s your UVD, that unique value distinguisher? Charles had it. He knew what it was. It didn’t happen overnight, the success, but he grew towards it. He kept with it. Perseverance, persistence, he made it happen. And then, of course, a bad turn of events and then he was at the bus stop, head in his hands.
Now, Charles, I kind of want to move forward and talk about another story in your journey. This one’s gonna be an epiphany, an “aha” moment that you’ve had. And you’ve had a ton of these, my friend, but you know Fire Nation. We’re entrepreneurs. What’s the “aha” moment story that we’re really gonna resonate with? Take us there.
Charles Lew: As a restauranteur and entrepreneur, especially in the beginning, and any of the restauranteurs – actually, anyone. Any of the entrepreneurs will know this. In the beginning, your whole job is really a perception is reality kind of thing. So I’m spending 80 percent of my time trying to get other people to believe in what I’m selling. Doesn’t really matter if its iPhone covers or hamburgers. It’s all irrelevant. They just need to believe that this concept, whatever it is I’m doing, is valuable.
So I’m running around like a lunatic. I’ve got one restaurant up. It’s doing extremely well but at the end of the day, it’s a 2,000 square foot burger restaurant. Any way I pitch it, no matter how excited I get about it, it’s a little burger restaurant that’s doing well. So I’m running around, trying to get people psyched about it. People are getting psyched about it but the one group, and the most important group, is commercial landlords. Commercial landlords are looking at me going, you know, your PNLs are okay, your cash flow is okay, you’ve got cool reviews, people like you, and you’ve got celebrity following but we need more.
Now you also have to remember back at this point in time, commercial real estate as a whole was in a very, very different place. Commercial real estate back then, five, six, seven years ago, the commercial realtors were all doing the same thing. They would go straight out, they’d find a big box anchor tenant, they’d throw their big box anchor tenant in their commercial spots and then they’d just plug in holes.
Well, now with Amazon and internet and everything else, what you’ve seen is you’ve seen a complete flip on its head of commercial real estate to the point now where hospitality is taking 60, 70, sometimes even more of available commercial retail space where that used to be purely retail. So back then none of these guys would return my calls. No one would get back to me. No one would pay me any attention.
I would drive up and down from San Diego to Newport Beach up to San Francisco. I would always get stuck with the most junior agent, the most junior guy at the entire commercial real estate department. They’d throw me some horrible deal and offer me $10.00 a square foot TIs. And they’d ask for 97 percent guarantees and cross-collateralizations and all this insanity. And it was crazy because I kept looking at it and for a good year I was going this is one of these real chicken before the eggs because I can’t get a spot without having more spots. And I can’t have more spots without getting the spot. So I had no idea really how to do it.
Well, basically through a lot of perseverance and a lot of just negotiation and meeting with people and shaking a lot of hands and sitting down face-to-face – there’s no substitute, I believe, for sitting down across the table from someone and looking into their eyes. You can pound the phones all day but you gotta get in front of someone and let them see your energy and let them hear your passion. So I finally got a second place up and running, signed a lease for a third place, got voted Best Hamburgers in Los Angeles, got a bunch of accolades.
And then, without mentioning the name, I got a really funny email one day from a massive, massive commercial real estate, one of the biggest in the world not even just the country, the Vice President for the Western Region said please give me a call whenever you get this, etc., etc. So I give him a call. Of course, he’s extremely excited, takes my call immediately, “you’re doing incredible things.” First thing he says after he tells me how great I’m doing and how much he loved the product because he had went to three of our locations was “How come we hadn’t spoken before.”
Which that was an “aha” moment for me because I was like, we haven’t spoken before because you won’t return any of my damn phone calls. But, of course, I’m not gonna say that. So that was the “aha” moment for me which, clearly, when this major, major guy, who I could have camped outside his door and he would have ignored me, found me, put the email into me, and when I talked to him literally said, “How come we haven’t talked before?” And that made me go, okay, we’re getting somewhere.
John Lee Dumas: Yeah. Charles, let’s talk about this for a second because I know Fire Nation is kind of shaking their heads because I’ve been there. For me, when I first started the podcast, my emails would go unanswered by people I’d love to have on my show for obvious reasons. My show was a nothing. It was a nobody. I had no audience.
And now I get 50 inbound requests and inquiries every single week from huge names, from big celebrities, from people that want to be on my show. And it’s just like, okay, where were you then? But, of course, it makes sense. Why would they have been there then? How can we reconcile this? What do you want Fire Nation to get from that story?
Charles Lew: There’s a bunch of different words for it but I think at the end of the day, John, it’s just tenacity. It’s that complete unwillingness to surrender, that complete unwillingness to give up. It doesn’t matter if it’s 10:00 p.m. I’m gonna stay up and send six more emails and if one of them gets responded to then that was well worth it. That two hours that I stayed up until midnight was well worth it.
And if I get up at 3:00 a.m. and I have some wacky idea, you know what? Someone’s getting an email. Someone actually got an email last night at about 4:00 a.m., sent me an email this morning and said, “Dude, you need to sleep.” That was actually the response.
John Lee Dumas: But you got a response.
Charles Lew: I got a response, yeah. So, yeah, I think it’s probably the same things you’re seeing. You’re a beast now. You’re sitting doing what you’re doing. You’ve by all accounts made it but I’m sure you look back and you see that tipping point and you realize that that tipping point was really brought on by tenacity and just a complete unwillingness to surrender.
John Lee Dumas: Yeah, I kind of remember my tipping point actually. It was one of these times I’m just going through my emails then all of a sudden I get this email from Gary Vaynerchuk’s handler. And the handler just said, “John, you’re on our top list of must be on podcasts for the release of Gary’s new book. Can we get Gary on the show?” And I was just like, oh my god, not even too long ago I was thrilled that I was able to get Gary on the show and now they’re coming to me and saying, John, you’re on our radar as a podcast to be on for the release of this book.
And I’m just like this is a tipping point. This is awesome. And, Fire Nation, it’s that tenacity, the perseverance, the persistence. That was like Episode 700. It didn’t happen the second week after my podcast. It happened after two years of daily, non-stop podcasting. So, Charles, what’s your biggest weakness as an entrepreneur?
Charles Lew: It’s actually my ability to multitask. And I know that sounds a little contradictory but I think my biggest weakness is if I have 17 minutes before a phone call, I’m trying to figure out how to squeeze every ounce of blood out of that 17 minutes.
So maybe I should be focused on one thing but my head is in 50 different places so I have to really buckle down and sit there and say certain things are bigger fish. Right? They are a bigger hunt that I really want to acquire and I think my biggest weakness is sometimes I get a little distracted by ancillary things that really aren’t deserving of my time or my energy.
John Lee Dumas: What’s your biggest strength?
Charles Lew: I think it’s the same thing. Multitasking and resilience. I mean, again, this ability to keep as many balls in the air as I can. Sometimes I think if I looked at myself from the outside that I would look like an insane court jester. Because I think it would like 100 yellow, green, blue, multicolored balls just all floating around.
And from anybody else’s perspective, they’d say I can’t believe none of those balls are hitting the ground. And maybe a couple of them do hit the ground once in a while but I’m distracting you with enough of the other colored balls in the air that you don’t really focus on the ones that are bouncing around on the ground.
John Lee Dumas: Danny Trejo, Metta World Peace. You have a lot of exciting balls in the air right now but what’s the one ball in the air, Charles, that you’re most excited about right now?
Charles Lew: Stout Burger is incredible. It’s growing. We’ve opened four of them. We’ve got two more opening within the next quarter. We’re really, really crushing it where, by all accounts, that’s a winner. And we’re super excited about it.
But I’m really, really excited about coffee right now. It’s the second biggest commodity in the world behind oil. It’s only getting bigger and bigger. There’s a huge regrowth and movement and energy in this third wave coffee movement. So you’ve got your first wave. That’s your Dunkin’ Donuts, your gas stations. Your second wave, your Peat’s, your Coffee Beans, your Starbucks.
Now you’ve got your third wave, so Ritual, your Four Barrel, your Handsome Coffee Guys. These single origin, Fair Trade, incredible artisan coffee. And I’m really, really excited about it. I love the coffee game not only because I think there’s really an unlimited amount of growth potential in it but all aspects of it. Literally from the growing of it to the harvesting of it to the exporting of it to the importing of it to the roasting of it to the retail of it to the wholesale of it.
You’re creating jobs every single step of the way. You’re creating money every single step of the way. You’re increasing economies for the countries that it’s being brought in from. You’re increasing the economy of the country that it’s being imported into. So I just think there’s something about coffee right now that I think is just extraordinarily interesting.
John Lee Dumas: A worldwide ripple effect, no doubt. And, Fire Nation, if you’re drinking coffee right now, take a sip, kick back because we’re about to enter the lightning round. But before we do, let’s take a minute to thank our sponsors. Charles, are you prepared for the lightning round?
Charles Lew: I’m ready. Let’s do this.
John Lee Dumas: Yes. What was holding you back from becoming an entrepreneur?
Charles Lew: Limitations and expectations imposed upon me by society as a whole. I think that’s a broad statement but I think really, as a lawyer and coming from a family of other lawyers and some doctors, there’s certain expectations that are placed on you. And I think those expectations can be applied by group or any person or any family to their family members.
So you hear about these stories where kids grow up and their family has a successful business whether it’s an insurance business or a car repair business or whatever it is. And they’re just expected to plug right in to that. I think just that. Limitations and expectations that everybody, from my law professors to my college professors to peers and everybody, puts on you and says this is the right road. And I think it just took a while for me to sit and look at it and say maybe it’s the right road for you, it just doesn’t happen to be the right road for me.
John Lee Dumas: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Charles Lew: Super easy. Rocky Balboa. Ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and just keep moving forward.
John Lee Dumas: What’s a personal habit that contributes to your success?
Charles Lew: Working out and fitness. A lot of times people will joke with me and they’ll say you don’t sleep much, you don’t do this. And it’s true, I really don’t sleep much but the one thing I do maintain always is a rigorous workout regimen and a really good diet. And I think that’s what enables me to do what other people consider would be unusual.
John Lee Dumas: Do you have an internet resource, like Evernote, that you can share with Fire Nation?
Charles Lew: I have an internet resource. It’s not like Evernote. I actually use, to a huge degree, Yelp. I find that it’s really the most incredible free information that I could ever get on all hospitality concepts. And it really gives me such an unbelievable insight into consumers and such a broad base of consumer, not only nationwide but worldwide.
John Lee Dumas: If you recommend just one book, Charles, what would it be and why?
Charles Lew: This is actually one that I actually heard on your show and it’s The Slight Edge. And I just absolutely love it. I heard it on your show. I bought it and I think since I bought it, I’ve bought seven or eight copies for friends and family.
John Lee Dumas: I’ll tell you, that is the book, Charles, that when I’m on other shows and people say, “John, what is a book you recommend?” I say The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson. And then you have to follow it up with The Compound Effect with Darren Hardy.
Charles Lew: Right. Absolutely.
John Lee Dumas: And I just actually had Darren Hardy on my show not too long ago. Great episode, Fire Nation, the founder of Success Magazine. And, Fire Nation, I know you love audio so I teamed up with Audible. If you haven’t already, you can get an amazing audiobook for free at eofirebook.com.
Charles, this is the last question of the lightning round but it’s also a doozy. Imagine you woke up tomorrow morning in a brand new world, identical to Earth but you knew no one. You still have all the experience and knowledge you currently have. Your food and shelter is taken care of but all you have is a laptop and $500.00. What would you do in the next seven days?
Charles Lew: Here’s what I would do. Again, coffee shops and these tea houses, they’ve always been the place for the generation of ideas and the dissemination of ideas. So I think what I would do is I would go to the first coffee shop I could find. I would get on their free Wi-Fi. I would jump on Trip Advisor and Yelp. I would find the highest rated restaurants and the highest rated coffee shops and concepts, hospitality concepts that I could find. I would then in turn take that $500.00 and I would go and visit every single one of them that I could over the next five days.
Once I visited them, what I think I would do is I would make a determination not necessarily of the best one but I would make a determination of the one that I believe had the most potential and also the most evident, not necessarily problems, but issues that were going on in that restaurant or hospitality concept that I thought that my skills could address. Since I don’t need to worry about my food and shelter, I would go up to them and I’d say, “Guys, I’m here. This is what I do. This is how I do it.”
And if need be, I’ll intern. I’d work as long as needed, as hard as needed, provide solutions and structure for them, entrench myself within every aspect of the company, make myself completely invaluable, then sit down across from them at the table and say, “Okay, guys, so how big of a piece of this company do I get?”
John Lee Dumas: Fire Nation, that is the ingredient to success brought to you by Charles Lew. And, Charles, let’s end on fire with you sharing a parting piece of guidance, the best way that we can connect with you, and then we’ll say goodbye.
Charles Lew: My parting piece of guidance for all of the entrepreneurs out there is just don’t surrender. Don’t give up. Don’t quit. Send out that last email. Send that last text. Torture people. Be tenacious. Be adventurous. Be experimental. Never take no for an answer and just make it happen because someone out there is going to make it happen if you don’t. Best way to reach me, firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Lee Dumas: Fire Nation, you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with and you’ve been hanging out with Charles Lew and John Lee today. So keep up the heat. And head over to eofire.com and just type “Charles” in the search bar. His show notes page will pop right up with everything we’ve been talking about today. Email Charles directly, Fire Nation. You throw it out there. Make it happen. This guy is going to keep the conversation going with you. Charles@charleslew.com. And, Charles, I want to thank you for sharing your journey with Fire Nation today. For that, brother, we salute you. And we’ll catch you on the flip side.
Charles Lew: Thank you so much, JLD.
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