While working in a restaurant wasn’t John Banquil’s first job, once he started in hospitality, it became his career. He, like many before him, happened into the business, taking a position at a Scottsdale, Arizona, cafe simply because a friend worked there. And, also like many before him, once Banquil got a taste of restaurant life, he was hungry for more. A series of positions at restaurants in the area followed, but he credits a stint at Seasons Rotisserie and Grill in Scottsdale, Arizona, as the one that sealed his fate. “I just fell in love with all aspects of fine dining,” Banquil says. A once-picky eater, he credits that restaurant with broadening his palate, and, also, for sparking his appreciation for and knowledge of wine. “The wine reps would come in and teach me anything and everything they knew about wine. I was just a sponge, absorbing it all!” he notes.
Banquil was a college student, but as his knowledge grew and he took a position at The Bamboo Club, he jettisoned his formal studies at university to immerse himself in all aspects of hospitality. Learning the ins and outs of operations and management, “It was very much like business school, and that real-life experience made all the difference for me,” he says. After moving on from The Bamboo Club, he ultimately landed at Ling & Louie’s Asian Bar and Grill when his resume caught the eye of a former Bamboo Club colleague who’d landed at the group. “I came on as an assistant general manager and worked my way up through the company, becoming the general manager within a couple of months,” Banquil states.
More advancement followed, including stints as the group’s regional manager (The group’s parent company had previously operated franchise locations of Ruth’s Chris Steak House and Romano’s Macaroni Grill restaurants in Hawaii in addition to Ling & Louie’s current locations in the continental U.S. in Scottsdale, Arizona, Chandler, Arizona, Dallas, Texas, and Merdian, Idaho) and, later, director of brand development, overseeing marketing and digital media. He left the company for another opportunity in 2018, right around the time the group’s owner was pondering retirement. Knowing Banquil was a steadfast steward of the brand, “The owner approached me about buying Ling & Louie’s and running it as my own restaurant,” he says. The deal, which allowed Banquil to finance the buy-out with a working loan from the owner, was finalized in 2019. “The owner made it very easy and he said, ‘We know this is your dream. We want to help you achieve that dream.’”
Even with his extensive experience in management within the company, Banquil admits, “We weren’t as profitable that first year as we’d been in previous years.” However, he wasn’t discouraged, he says, because “I realized we were investing a lot more back into the restaurant to improve operations – new equipment and so on.” The restaurant began gaining greater support in the community and continued to make progress – until the pandemic struck. Fortunately, Ling & Louie’s Asian cuisine travels really well, so, he says, “It was a pretty natural transition” to focus on takeout and delivery.
Without having to lay off any staffers, Ling & Louie’s was able to stay afloat until the restaurant was able to open their dining room at fifty-percent capacity. Still, it wasn’t enough, and Banquil started thinking, “There’s no other way to increase sales under the current conditions unless we can corner another market.” And so he doubled down on takeout and delivery with Ghost Street Asian Taqueria, which serves Asian-inspired street tacos. True to its name, it is what people have come to call a ghost kitchen. “It’s a virtual restaurant. The only way you can order is online.” He leaned into his talented corporate chef Greg Smith to come up with a menu that used ingredients that they already had in-house and the concept launched in September 2020. “We’ve been on a steady incline in terms of sales for several months now and a lot of that has been because of the revenue we’re generating from Ghost Street,” he says.
The newest member of the brand’s family is Ling’s Wok Shop, which opened its doors in the fall of 2021. If you’re thinking someone might have to be an uber-optimist to open a restaurant during a pandemic, you’re correct. But the decision was born out of logic and numbers. Banquil says, “By operating at a fifty-percent capacity during the pandemic, we realized we could take the Ling & Louie’s model and simplify it a bit but with a smaller footprint and delivery and takeout baked in from the beginning.” After his real-estate broker found a space in an area chock full of thriving businesses in addition to robust residential housing, the hybrid that is Ling’s Work Shop was born. It operates as a fast-casual restaurant during the day and transitions to a full-service eatery in the late afternoons and evenings, including happy hour.
While it has been a success since opening its doors, launching Ling’s was not without its challenges. Supply-chain issues due to the pandemic led to long delays, missed deadlines, and issues with staff recruitment. There was a lot of hurry-up-and-wait during the hiring process because the opening date kept shifting. Banquil was cognizant of how frustrating the experience could have been, so he relied on steady communication with new hires and also allowed them to pick up shifts at his other restaurants so that people could earn a paycheck. How did he keep the faith – and his cool – throughout such uncertain times? He laughs, “A lot of it was crying in bed at night. And bourbon!”
As with any restaurant, obstacles remain. Banquil is not immune to the impact of the labor shortage. He says, “The restaurant industry is in desperate need of an overhaul in terms of how we treat our staff, and while we can’t turn the whole industry on its head overnight, we can work on culture and treat our staff as the most important piece of our business.” He starts by hiring great people – and then actively cultivating that greatness. “All you have to do is give people an opportunity to shine and create an environment in which they can be themselves. Whatever position someone holds, we, as management, have to be there for them and treat them with respect.”
He backs that philosophy up by hiring managers who are actively engaged and want to work side by side with all staffers. “I don’t want managers to be point-and-tell-people-what-to-do managers. I want managers to show people what to do. They need to be out there helping people all the time, helping bus tables, getting their hands dirty. Some of our managers even act as part-time cooks,” he shares. “I have no bones against walking into one of our kitchens and helping to cook or wash dishes. We’re here to be working managers, not stand-there-with- folded-arms-telling-people-what-they’re-doing-wrong managers.”
On the heels of opening two new concepts in roughly a year’s time, he doesn’t have his official growth plan etched in stone, but he hopes to open a brick-and-mortar Ghost Street in the future. As for restaurant industry vendors looking to bend his ear to sell their wares and services to his current or future establishments, his advice is to be mindful of how restaurateurs operate. “Don’t show up at 12:15 on a Friday afternoon when we’re in the middle of the lunch rush,” he says. Rather, drop by during off-peak hours. And focus on building relationships. “Restaurants are a people business – that drives everything. Develop a relationship with a manager and remember to be respectful of their time. Even when I don’t have time to talk, I’ll tell someone to shoot me an email and if what they’re pitching will help us achieve our goals, I’ll call them and set up a meeting,” notes Banquil.
About Brizo Data, Inc.: Brizo Data helps the foodservice industry by providing the strategic data you need to win in your market. We empower restaurant vendors and restauranteurs with better data for Business Intelligence, Market Research, and Competitive Analysis. Brizo monitors the online footprint of every food serving establishment in the US and Canada – from social media presence, online reviews, menu items, market composition, and even technological choices.