Miss Details is proud to work with a variety of unique brands headed by brilliant entrepreneurs. To further support our communities, we periodically showcase some of these business owners whose visions we’ve helped fulfill.
In this feature, we turn our eye to John Banquil, Owner of the Ling & Louie’s restaurant brand. Read on to learn all about John’s journey in nailing down the details.
There’s no question that 2020 was a pivotal year for the American restaurant industry. The COVID-19 pandemic, which has lingered over a year, forced many restaurants to shut their doors permanently. Those that managed to keep afloat did so through rapid adaptation to a transforming landscape, largely relying on take-out and delivery sales rather than full-service dining.
But even now as the country tentatively and hopefully looks towards a return to normalcy, some restaurateurs are emerging with more success, innovation, and confidence than ever before. John Banquil of Scottsdale, AZ is one of them.
As the owner and CEO of Ling & Louie’s, a full-service restaurant offering modern Asian cuisine in a bold and edgy environment, John experienced the same initial struggles as many other restaurant owners across the country during the spring of 2020. And yet, he managed to not only significantly increase his restaurant’s revenue, but to develop two entirely new brands under the Ling & Louie’s umbrella—all during the most economically challenging period in recent memory.
How did he do it? With the help of brilliant branding and a compassionate community—plus a fearless flexibility that allowed him not only to adapt to the restaurant world’s new rules, but to find joy in breaking them altogether.
Learning The New Rules: Ghost Street Asian Taqueria
Although our story begins during the middle of March 2020, John’s own story began much earlier than that. Hardly a newcomer to the restaurant industry, John had spent years working his way up the Ling & Louie’s ladder, progressing from manager to director of operations to franchise owner, before terms like “coronavirus”, “social distancing”, and “flattening the curve” were in the public lexicon. But when John learned all restaurants in Arizona would be required to temporarily cease all in-person dining, he found himself lost for direction.
“2020 was supposed to be one of our busiest years ever,” John said. “The pandemic threw everyone for a loop. My wife and I said, ‘What are we going to do?’”
John immediately switched his focus to take-out and delivery orders, reassuring his staff that, although they may see decreased hours, they wouldn’t be laid off. But when it became clear that, even after the Arizona governor green-lit in-person dining again, the impact of COVID-19 was here to stay, John went a step further: he created an entirely new restaurant brand concept in response to the pandemic.
“What we saw was, thankfully, at 50% capacity we were filling up pretty much every night,” John explained. “So we said, ‘Well, we’re not going to be able to grow sales by filling more seats, because we don’t have any more seats to fill. So what can we do?’”
Within the restaurant industry, the concept of “ghost kitchens”, or “virtual restaurants”, had been rapidly expanding as a result of the pandemic. A ghost kitchen is essentially a restaurant that operates out of a separate restaurant’s kitchen. John saw a unique opportunity in the concept.
“We had some Asian-inspired tacos on our menu already,” explained John. “And I said, ‘Why don’t we just expand on that?’”
The result was Ghost Street Asian Taqueria, a new restaurant that offers an innovative Asian twist on popular street tacos. Because it operates out of the Ling & Louie’s kitchen in Scottsdale, Ghost Street only offers take-out and delivery service—or, at least, that was the original intention.
“The goal was, maybe people would get Ling and Louie’s one night for takeout or delivery, and then the next night they’ll get Ghost Street Asian Taqueria,” said John.
But it turns out running a brand within a brand comes with unique challenges of its own.
“We reached out to influencers to take the food home and try to drum up some interest, and it almost worked too well,” John said. “We kept having people coming in wanting to eat the tacos in the restaurant, and we’d have to explain, ‘Well, it’s our ghost kitchen concept.’”
John credits this confusion in part to the behind-the-scenes nature of the restaurant industry. “You don’t realize, as a consumer, all of the processes of a restaurant,” he said. “And purposefully so—as a restaurateur, you don’t want your guests to think about that.” But he found himself torn between dine-in customers, who didn’t understand why they couldn’t order a strictly to-go item, and overworked kitchen staff, who hadn’t been instructed on how to present those items in a dine-in context. “We hadn’t even worked out what plate the tacos were going to go on,” said John.
Eventually, the Ling & Louie’s team found a happy—and profitable—medium. “I said, why don’t we take this and embrace it, and make it kind of a secret menu,” John said. “If you know, you know, and if you don’t know, you can scan the QR code on the menu and find out.”
This secretive branding was helped by a thoughtful design from Tanya and the Miss Details team. “I told Tanya I wanted a geisha with Mexican-accented fonts,” John explained, “and we ended up with this killer logo.” That logo has come to symbolize Ghost Street Asian Taqueria not only as a restaurant in its own right, but as an in-the-know, exclusive extension of Ling & Louie’s.
(For more on the nature of exclusivity and exclusive promotions in the marketplace, take a look at this paper.)
John also allowed for a more casual overlap of the brands by incorporating some of Ghost Street’s offerings into the happy hour and brunch menus at Ling & Louie’s. “It exposes people a little bit more,” he said. “The best thing that could happen to us is, someone scans the QR code, looks at it, is like “Oh that’s cool,” and then continues enjoying their meal. Then later, they hop back on their phone and Ghost Street pops up again.”
John’s efforts paid off, and by the fall of 2020, both his brands were not only surviving, but thriving. That’s when he achieved something truly incredible: the birth of a third brand.
Breaking The Old Rules: Ling’s Wok Shop
About five years ago, John developed a new vision: a trendy, casual, counter-service Asian restaurant that would combine the bold flavors of Ling & Louie’s with some of the biggest trends in the dining industry.
“We had come up with the idea for Ling’s Wok Shop when fast casual dining was really booming,” he said. “Our concept was perfect for fast casual, but we never went anywhere with it.”
Fast forward to the autumn of 2020: The Ling & Louie’s brand was seeing so much success that John was looking to open a new location—but was struggling to find the right building. Then his broker approached him with a bold suggestion.
“He said, ‘A deal fell through on this space. I know you threw out the idea of a wok shop, your fast casual brand, this would be perfect for it.’”
The broker was right—after seeing the space, John decided to pull the trigger. But instead of sticking to the conventional counter-service model, John took an innovative step further. Ling’s Wok Shop will open as a “flex-casual” restaurant, offering counter service during the day and full service during the evening. It’s a unique model that allows for a range of new possibilities for both staff and customers—for instance, offering a full bar, complete with specially crafted cocktails, in a fast casual environment.
“The most exciting piece of coming out of COVID, and trying to figure out what the restaurant scene looks like going forward, is there’s no rules,” John said. “So, let’s come up with something cool, and quirky, and fun, and let’s use other people’s experiences. Because ultimately it comes down to, when you leave the restaurant, how did you feel? You can get a really great vibe out of any sort of dining experience.”
John again enlisted Tanya’s help in creating that experience—and found that his inspiration went even deeper than he thought.
“It wasn’t until I actually sat down and talked with Tanya that all of these things just started spewing out of my mind,” he said. “How we wanted to approach it, what we wanted the space to look like, how we wanted people to feel. With Tanya’s guidance, that’s when I knew this could be something really special.”
Ling’s Wok Shop is set to open in summer 2021—the second new Ling & Louie’s restaurant brand to come out of what was possibly the most devastating year in history for the dining industry. But ironically, the ways in which Ling & Louie’s adapted to the rapidly shifting needs of its consumers accelerated, rather than hindered, the creation of Ling’s Wok Shop.
“Ling & Louie’s went through COVID, operating at 50% capacity, and 50 or 60% of our sales were take-out and delivery, and crazily enough, we were even more profitable than we were at full capacity,” John said. “That was the model for Ling’s Wok Shop, and we made it the model for our next restaurant.”
Community & Core Values
Despite his impressive triumphs, John is the first to credit others in his restaurants’ success. He still fondly remembers the first Friday night of Arizona’s COVID-19 restrictions.
“We were super busy for takeout,” he said. “My wife showed up and I told her what the sales were, and I told her all about the people I saw from our community. We both just teared up and broke down a little bit. It was really touching to see all the support from our friends, from our community.”
It was at this point John came back to what he considers the single most important piece of entrepreneurship: his business’s core values.
“One of our core values is being neighborly, and for us that means giving back to the community,” he explained.
Although Ling & Louie’s had regularly donated their time, skills, and money to charitable causes in the past, seeing how his community stepped up and supported his restaurant during a time of crisis made John determined to double down. Over the past few months, Ling & Louie’s has provided their local Boys & Girls Club with staff meals every Friday, assisted in a major virtual event for the ALS Association of Arizona, and made donations and contributions to numerous other organizations.
In addition to promoting goodwill throughout a global pandemic, tapping into their community provided Ling & Louie’s with unique opportunities to promote their brand. “This is what gets people engaged in your restaurant,” John said. “When people see who we are as a company and the heart we have, they reciprocate that love back tenfold. And that’s been a big saving grace for us.”
John has made a point of building his other core values directly into all three of his brands. “Ours are an acronym for the word FEELING: Fun, Energetic, Engaging, Loving, Innovative, Neighborly, Genuine,” he explained. “Everything we do has to fit into that.”
Miss Details incorporated all these values in her previous work with the brand, and the two new brand concepts were no different.
“Ghost Street Asian Taqueria is innovative, it’s fun, and how we’re presenting it to the guests now is engaging,” John said. “Ling’s Wok Shop is very genuine, it’s coming from a place of, ‘We learned this through operating through the worst of times, and we’re pouring our hearts and souls into this because we really feel this is the next evolution of who we are.’”
Tanya helped John with the more tangible aspects of expanding his brand as well. “What’s important to me is all three brands have a similar look and feel, but they’re all very different,” John said. For instance, you can see Ling & Louie’s signature orange and teal colors in the Ghost Street and Ling’s Wok Shop brands; however, Ghost Street’s designs include purples and grays to reflect the mysterious, exclusive nature of the brand, whereas the minimalistic Ling’s Wok Shop employs much more white space.
“Tanya just gets it,” said John. “When I say, ‘This is the look I’m going for,’ she knows what I mean.”
These feelings of respectful collaboration are mutual. “John has an amazing talent,” Tanya said. “He knows how to run a restaurant—from the details to the execution. He’s everything you want in a restaurateur.”
Out Of Adversity: What John’s Story Can Teach Us
Benjamin Franklin is quoted as once saying “Out of adversity comes opportunity.” If any restaurateur personified that sentiment in 2020, it was John Banquil. Rather than resisting the changes to his industry caused by the pandemic, John met and adapted to them head-on, learning the new rules of running a restaurant before going on to boldly break them.
Critically, John also recognized that these new challenges were too powerful to face alone. Instead of trying—and inevitably failing—to single handedly take charge of everything, he surrounded himself with a carefully chosen team of trusted partners (including Miss Details) to make his good ideas even greater.
The wild success John has experienced with all three of his brands speaks not only to his skills as a restaurateur, but to his commitment and dedication to his community during a time when, more than ever, we searched for new and exciting means of connection.
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