Ep # 7 | The Heard Culture and A Culinary Awakening


His story is that of his own culinary awakening and how it drove his mission to create a product that answers a consumer need. He didn’t know what it was going to be exactly, but he knew there was a different way to deliver flavors in a quick, healthy and innovative way. Five years ago Nate started collecting pieces to the puzzle that would lead him to create gusto!



Shantel: We’ve got Nate Hybl here with us, with gusto!, and I'm so excited to dive in. If you haven't had a chance, and you're living in Atlanta, to try the food. It is a fast casual concept, super delicious, and Nate we're so happy to have you.

Nate: Hey. Thanks for having me on. I'm pumped.

Shantel: Yeah, of course. Well tell everyone a little bit about your company and how you got started, to kick it off.


Nate: Yeah, so Gusto! We are a better for you, fast casual restaurant idea. The basis of who we are, is we're a salad, a rice bowl, a wrap kind of place. We grill chicken, and mushrooms, and shrimp, all day to order. And then the essence of who we are as an idea, is you choose what's your gusto as step number three. And these gustos are these unique flavor profiles. We say, "Once you try it, you get it. It only takes one time. For anybody listening who hasn't been, please come visit us. We have two locations right now. One's on Peachtree, across the street from Piedmont hospital. And one's on Ponce De Leon, across the street from the Claremont Hotel. And we're just excited to be in the Atlanta community, trying to offer something new. New to the restaurant scene here, and of course, we try to embrace local. And being an Atlanta young company every chance we get, and platforms like this help.

Shantel: Certainly. To give you guys a scope of some of the flavor profiles, and Nate we'd love for you to dive into those as well, but chipotle mango avocado, crowd favorite here in the office. There's sweet soy Sriracha. Ones a Tahiti. There's just different variations of different flavor profiles, which I think is amazing in the restaurant space. You're not pigeon holed into one particular food category.

Nate: What I set out to invent was honestly a place that as a customer I would frequent two or three times a week. In order to ensure the financial success of a fast casual, we have to have return guests a couple times a week, in order to hit the revenue numbers that we need. So I really set out to come up with something that I would want truly as a customer. And I just got tired of the same old Mexican thing, and burger joints, and wing places. I thought, "Why not have a spot where you can get delicious Mediterranean next to really fresh Tex-Mex, next to Japanese steak house type flavors, next to Korean barbecue?" It sounds fun, and now that I'm talking about it, it does sound like a good idea, but executing it is another beast. When you take the emphasis off of being something that people immediately know who you are. When you hear gusto! You don't know what it is. It takes some explaining, and that is really a big part of our learning process over the last three years. We've been in business for three years. We have two locations, and I'm hoping to open three more in the next year and a half.

Shantel: That's amazing. And I can't wait to dive into what you've learned over the past few years, and what's new on the horizon. If we could take a couple of steps, even further back, did you always have a passion for food and for these flavors? What was that pivot moment for you?

Nate: In trying to write my own story for our initial website actually, I had to answer some of these questions fundamentally to tell this story, at least online. We pinned the term 'culinary awakening' as that moment that I had. It was actually many series of moments, but no, is the answer to your question. I grew up in a very, kind of meat and potatoes household, small town in South Georgia. My mom and dad are from Iowa, so a little bit more Midwestern. It was just through years of sensory opening experience, where I was experiencing Mediterranean cuisine, and certain asian cuisines, and southwest flavors that really, I know this now I can kind of put a word to it, the word is impact. I'm somebody who's just really affected by flavor, by taste, by touch, by sound, by sight. And I was just taken in this whole new world of colors, and sights, and sounds, that I had never really considered or given much thought to, and this is in 2010, 11, 12, It's 2017 right now. I completely submersed myself in everything food related, from magazines to newspapers, to I hung out at Whole Foods, because I felt like it was a Garden of Eden. And the colors, and the names, I was just falling in love with food, but I knew that I wanted to, somewhere in there, squeeze that in to a business Idea, but it took me four or five years for that to materialize in the way of a brand presentation, and an actual product.  It was a process that took me, like I said, four or five years before I actually got the money raised to open the original gusto!.

Shantel: When you were younger, I know you're a very curious person, were you always like that when you were younger? And did you always have a gut feeling that you wanted to start something on your own?

Nate: No. I don't know. My path is, like all of ours, is unique. I'm a little ashamed to say that I didn't really open my eyes to this world until I was probably 30, because I had been chasing athletic dreams. I played college football at Oklahoma. I played pro ball for a handful of years in Cleveland and Jacksonville. So for whatever reason I wasn't dreaming about changing the world until I was about 30, and then I looked around going, "Oh my god. I'm way behind." My mind is blown when I see, 16, 17, 18 year olds out there changing the world. Every day I'm so inspired by those folks who, in my words, are alive, and awake, and focused on how big this world is. I guess, to answer your question, I've always known in my heart that I was meant to do something, or that I was supposed to do something that could have an impact in this world that was beyond and bigger than sports. And I'm just thankful that after many, many ups and downs, and many, many dark corners, and nights, and not knowing if this was ever going to come to fruition. That with the help of so many other folks and the encouragement along the way, I'm thankful that the thing got birthed, because I had to get this out of me. I didn't know if it was going to be architecture, or to be a doctor, or to be an archeologist, because I am curious, I love attacking things. But there's something about food, and just the vibrancy of colors, and the smells, and the taste. And frankly Shantel, the fact that I was just fascinated that everywhere in the world, folks were generally doing the same things. They just had their own names for them, and they had their own twist. I had a love affair with how food just really connected the planet. Everybody uses garlic. Everybody uses onions. Everybody uses chili peppers. Everybody uses vinegar. Everybody uses oil. And then they start throwing a dash here, and a dash here, and put their own name on it. So for thousands, and thousands of years, folks have been using the same stuff. So it's the uniqueness of cuisine along with the unity of what it represents. I fell in love with it.


Shantel: That's great. I love what you said about birthing this idea, and the network of people that helped support that along the way. Coming from not this background, or not exploring this and starting this journey on your own. How did you find the resources and that network of people that would pump you up, and push you along, from a funding level, but then also just from an entrepreneurial network.

Nate: I didn't have an entrepreneurial network. I had no idea what I was doing. My network was my friends and family, initially. People not telling me, "You're an idiot. Go sell insurance. Go get a 'normal job'." And I think I knew something was different there, where I had interviews early on where I could have gone and been in the real estate world. I could have gone and done this, that, or the other that might have been 'more normal' and I wasn't going to have it. I wasn't going to take no for an answer. I didn't know what I was doing, and still don't, but I'm a lot further along than I was. I think there's a little bit of crazy that's got to be in there, and ego.  It takes a tremendous amount of fortitude to come out the other side, if you're chasing your own dream, and a tremendous amount of sacrifice. As you know, your relationships suffer when you are so hell bent on getting something out of you. But to really circle back on your initial question, once I realized it was in the food business, I dove in to working at the ground level, in a handful of different restaurants, because I was missing that business experience side of it. I had to do that, and that drove me to the poor house, but I didn't care about money, still don't really. I wouldn't say I don't care about it, it's just not one of my main drivers that I get out of bed in the morning for.  Really what I did was, once I realized I had a knack for flavor finding, and a knack for putting these complex ideas on the head of a pin, once I realized this idea was formulating, I was trial and erroring to death in my kitchen. I really would just load up pots and pans, and my big green egg in a minivan that I was driving. And drive around demoing this idea, and selling this crazy vision to different folks, begging for money. When you are an entrepreneur at the bottom, you hear this sometimes, but you truly have to put your entire life on the line, and you have to ask every single person, from friends to family, to complete strangers, believe in me, believe in me, believe in me.  I finally got to a point where the brand seemed believable. My story made sense, because I had two or three years in the industry. I had enough business savvy to be believed in. And then eventually, in the restaurant business you've got to have a piece of real estate to make it real, and we ended up over here at gusto! number one across the street from a hospital. That's kind of the quick version, but it's just for me it was being scrappy along the way, along with basically asking every single business person that I knew, every question I could come up with, and I'm the kind of person who takes notes to everywhere I go, and really tries to suck the value out of information I was getting.

Shantel: I love when you mention the scrappiness of starting a business, and then also the vulnerability of not knowing everything, but trying to figure it out and learn from those experiences, and talking to multiple people. Is there something that you wish you would have known when you first got started? Or a bit lesson that you learned pretty quickly, or early on, that you would share to anyone starting a company?


Nate: Well, I think you and I were talking about this the other day, but if I had to do it over again, I think you can get where you're trying to go quicker if you harness the expertise of others. So I think if I had to do it over again, it would have been nice to find a partner or two in the early stages of it that could help me. And I even approached a friend or two, and the problem was that those guys were moving up the corporate ladder of real estate, or whatever, and it's such a big risk to jump off of that cliff and say, "I'm all in." So I found myself alone chasing this dream. Again, huge support network, and I gained a couple mentors along the way. Doing it myself, it may have been what had to come out of me. It may have been a journey that I had to go down alone, but it cost me time, which is a resource that we all know we can't ever get back. So if I had to do it over again, simply, to answer your question, I would have tried to find a legitimate partner or two, because I think it would have happened sooner.

Shantel: I like how you mention the time part. So in addition to resources, and just sharing that burden with someone else, helping distribute your strengths and the time piece of it. Would love to dive into balance. I especially struggle with this, is just turning the business off. I would love to hear your take on how you've set some parameters, if you feel like you have, around your business, and your personal Life, so that you still can build those relationships with people that are important to you.

Nate: This is going to turn into a therapy session quickly, because I have not. A lot of articles you read about successful entrepreneurs, they say you're going to have to sacrifice friends and family, and that's just how it is. If you want to be the best in class, you have to be obsessive compulsive about your idea, about your brand. You have to eat, sleep, breathe this stuff, and fortunately, or unfortunately I do. If you ask most of my friends, family, and my employees, or coworkers, that I'm in it. I wish I could tell you that I had that figured out.  For me, balance is ... I guess if I'm close to balance, it's because I'm doing one of a couple things, I'm exercising. I know that exercise makes our brains feel better. It makes our bodies feel better. So when I'm at my best, that is a part of my routine. For me, getting in and out of church, and spending time praying meditating. When I'm at my best, that is an important part of my routine. Being in the woods is something that I force myself to do. Just because I love nature, and I love these evil devices that we carry in our pockets with us all day long, every day. I've got to go hang out in the woods. And it sounds like a Lord Huron song, but straight up, that is where I find peace, and serenity, and ... Other than that, obviously friends, family, relationships that I have.  Another source of balance for me was kind of unexpected Shantel, and I don't know if you have experienced the same thing. But having 60 employees while ... It knocked me off my kilter for the first year or two. To be responsible for that many human beings in some capacity. Now I truly feed off of these personalities, and their smiles, and their stories, and their families. It may sound weird, but I get real sense of balance and counterbalance from all of these folks that I get to work with on a daily basis, and they keep me going.

Shantel: I don't think that sounds weird at all. 60 employees is such a true testament to the company you're building, and the culture you've created. Would love to talk a little bit about the culture. I've been into the locations. I hear it. I see it, but would love to get your take on how you've set up that culture, and how the team has continued to grow on that.


Nate: A couple of things. Again, you can write all the stuff you want in a business plan about what you want the culture to be, but until you actually perform it, and live it, day in, and day out, you don't know what it's going to shake out to be. I'd like to think we've created the kind of place that embraces discovery. We have brand pillars such as 'alive' and 'witty' and 'balanced'. There's certain things that you sketch out on paper, but like I said, until you put it in motion, you don't really know.  My first reaction would be, the most amazing thing has been taking employees who were themselves really scared of these flavor profiles, and watching them believe in the idea over time. It's almost like clockwork. We get a new employee, and they're scared to death to try certain things. And not only do we have to educate them because they have to sell our menu to our guests, but they all start out with the chipotle mango avocado, and "I would never touch that apple curry peanut." and "I'll turn my nose up at tzatziki. I don't even know how to say that word." And, "What do you mean tuna. I'm not trying." You know what I'm saying? So to watch this discovery to happen, to where an employee has been with us who wouldn't touch apple curry peanut with a 10 foot pole, to watch apple curry peanut, that they were so terrified of six months ago become their favorite dish, it just is really a testament to that discovery. And what I believe in is that most people, like most things, are just scared. And I've been experimenting with tag lines, and the one that just popped out recently was, we believe in your taste buds. I really think that conveys on concisely what my life's journey and mission has become, which is, your taste buds want that juicy tomato. It's your head that's getting in the way.  And the reason why it's a convincing rather story, is because I used to be one of those people. I hated tomatoes my whole life. I grew up not letting my food touch on the plate. Like different categories of food can't touch on my plate. And now of course, I like it all. So I really feel like there is almost a religion of food, or a religion of the planet that I am so excited on a daily basis to share.  Part B of my long winded answer would be, a culture internally that embraces the word heard, H-E-A-R-D where anybody who's worked in the restaurant industry, they would say, "Well that's not unique to you guys, everybody uses it." And indeed they do. I don't think everybody uses it like we do. We use it in text. It trickles into the way my parents and I communicate, my friends will hit me with a heard. It is a fun, fun word that when you talk about culture, I really have embraced. When I first got into kitchens and people were saying heard, I was like, "What the hell are they talking about? This heard, it's a bizarre thing. And then I realized it was all about "I got you. I'm listening. I got your back. I'm paying attention. I'm with you." It's just kind of like 10-4 in trucker terminology, and it's very endearing. And if you come to either one of our restaurants, you'll hear our guys communicating. So it's only the tip of the ice-berg, but we call it the heard mentality, and it's something that I'd like to develop further, as our business grows.

Shantel: I love that double play on the word there, too. You're creating a community and a culture, and it is essentially a herd of people that believe in something with their whole heart.

Nate: Yeah, see what I did there?

Shantel: I also laughed when you touched on that employee that was afraid of the sweet soy Sriracha, or the apple curry at the beginning. And something kind of clicked for me when you were talking through that. At the beginning, you talked about being so curious, and there was a word you used, and it's slipping me. Kind of that you described that curiosity in your life, and I think that it just dawned on me that, that rubs off on everyone around you, and that's part of your culture now. You were cultivating this curiosity for your entire team, and the people around you, and your customers, which I think is outstanding.


Nate: Let me pause here, and write, not literally pause. Let me, cultivating a curiosity, I like it. I'm going to write that down. But the words I used was a culinary awakening, and if you read ... we have a manifesto on our website, and one of them is, we believe in an awakening, an awakening of the mind, of body, of the senses. And I agree with you, generally employees even if they come in close minded, all of the sudden, we are trying to push this awakening on to everybody. And one of the ways we do that is, while we have many choices, we have minimal modifications on our menu. You can't take the tomatoes out of the sweet soy Sriracha, and that's just how we designed it. That comes with a lot of pain and suffer, as you can imagine, because people like what they like. It's really, dare I say, courageous to cut against the grain. It's a little bit of a chef's mentality in that, "This is how we make it. Take it or leave it." It's not truly like that, because we will bend with certain modifications, and we want to make everybody happy. But in general, you're touching on the very reason why I've been able to get this far with this group of people, and this idea is that, I realized we had something when I had different customers coming to us with their bowl in hand. This happened so early on, it happened frequently, and it was just the fuel that kept me going when times were really tough at the beginning. I thought, "Oh my god. Here we go, here comes a complaint." Or somebody found a hair in their food, or whatever. And they'd come up, and they go, "Damn! This was way better than I ever thought it was going to be. This blew my mind." And these are the kind of customers that come from all over the place. We don't have a very tight cross section. You come into one of our restaurants. You're going to see a wide variety of different types of people with different experiences, and different backgrounds. It takes a ferociousness to own and hold onto an idea, because I was dealing with 65 year old lady on Saturday who'd never been here. She strait up said in front of me, in front of all her friends, "Like who picked this restaurant." Because I was telling her our language, and how we do things. And she really did not want to bend, but after she finished lunch, she loved it, and was excited about it. I can ramble, but I think what you were getting at, is there's a consistency in that cultivation of curiosity, and that maybe these little awakenings I'm passing along [inaudible 00:28:10].

Shantel: Well your passion certainly shines through. I think in everything that you do, and even just this conversation. I've got two more questions to wrap it up, one speaking of that passion specifically. And as you're continuing to grow, at one point you were the chef, and the cashier, and everything else. How are you still leveraging your strengths, and not feeling like you're taking things off your plate that you still really enjoy, is the first question.


Nate: You and I visited. My roles, in order to grow a company, my role has needed to change, right? You've got to go from an inventor, to operator, to business owner, or CEO, or whatever you want to say. I am most happy at my stores. I'm most happy taking orders, and most happy on the line, truly. My employees will tell you that. But in order to fulfill the destinies, or some of the career aspirations of some of the folks that we have on board, we have to grow. And that means we have to open more and more restaurants, and that involves real estate, and big time financing. So in a short amount of time, a lot of my roles have had to change. I had a real hard time taking my hands off of the product, which meant truly trusting people with the baby. I'm trying to get the hang of it. It makes it easier when you have good people, and if you saw the amount of positive notes that we get on a daily basis about interactions with our team, it really makes me proud. I don't know if I'm answering your question, but my duties have changed in that my job is to grow the company, and really dig into the brand's DNA, and figure out where we're headed as a company, and not just selling individual bowls and filling orders.  Really my job is to lead these folks and to enable proper communication. Communication is absolutely the number one reason why something is working or not, in my opinion. That's what I've seen across several businesses, and it's something that we are constantly working on trying to get better at. But I will tell you, and you know this. If you come in the store, we are still learning, because 30, 40, 50% of our customers are still new, and every time we enter a new market, they're going to be new.  And we have this new equation, that is our menu, that we have to sell. So the reason I'm not taking orders Shantel, is typically because those interactions are data points, and priceless pieces of information on how people see, and perceive our menu. That goes from a 12 year old, all the way to a 90 year old. No matter were you're from, I am constantly studying our customer base, and begging for feedback, because I'm trying to make it, its best version.

Shantel: The communication certainly rang true to me. You guys are great at that, and from a friend level, and customer, I'm really proud of you guys, and the growth that you're seeing. It's very transparent the passion that you guys all have for the company. Last question, what is next on the horizon? You talked a little bit about real estate. What's new for your guys, shaking out?

Nate: New for us is really just ... Unfortunately it depends on new real estate and new deals. Unlike your business, where you can grow Imagine under the same roof by eventually adding new team members, we have to physically go open a store. And that involves general contracting, and architecture, and design. What's next for us is opening two to three more stores in the next year and a half. Re skinning our website so that it's a little more in line with the brand that has been growing and changing a little bit. That will also, on the management side, put some of our key people in some elevated positions, and I will end up with a little bit more of a corporate team, which will enable me to, instead of wearing 30 hats, maybe wear 4 or 5, and really be able to pass along some of these hats to some of these folks who have been with us for a while, and leverage their talents. Because again, in order to scale, in order to move forward, I have to pass along responsibilities, and that is a complicated and difficult journey for somebody who's like a controlling parent, looking at their baby nonstop. That is something I'm learning, and every chance I get, I'm talking with other entrepreneurs about it. Because we're all doing the same thing, we're just doing it in different sectors, and different industries, and with their own idiosyncrasies. But to grow is to trust others. In its best form it is hella fun to do that, but it's also really scary.


Shantel: Yeah, certainly. Well I love that last piece. That quote that you left us with, "To grow is to trust others." I think that's extremely powerful. How can people get in touch with you, learn more about gusto!? How can they do that?

Nate: I don't know if we want to be getting in touch with me.

Shantel: You're a busy man. Well, what about the website?

Nate: I'm just kidding. If anybody ever needs me, it's NateHybl@gmail.com I'm just kidding. I love hearing from everybody. WhatsYourGusto.com is our website. It gives a flavor of who we are, and what we sell. More than anything, I'd love to see you at one of our stores. We carry a pretty good vibe with us. We have pretty modern interiors, and we like to listen to good music, and again, a live theme. One of our brand pillars, it's imperative to me, that our environments are bright and active, and there's smiles all around.  So whoever is listening, I'd love to see you at one of our restaurants. Not as much to sell you food, but just to share an experience with you. WhatsYourGusto.Com and like I said, restaurant on Ponce, across the street from The Claremont Lounge. And Peachtree, across the street from Piedmont hospital. We do have one for sure coming to Decatur next summer. Two more to be determined, but I'm working on the deal, so.