Thursday, November 5, 2009

Interview with eeZ Managing Partner Marcus Hall

Foodie’s Note: Originally I was going to just have a transcript of this interview. I mean, it seems simple enough. Record the interview. Type the interview. Done. Right?

Wrong. As conversation flows, there’s just too much going on that simple text doesn’t convey. Also, there’s length. My interview with the Managing Partner of eeZ, Marcus Hall went WAAAY longer than expected. The conversation was so easy, in the blink of an eye, almost an hour had passed. And my tape recorder (yes, it’s actually uses a micro-cassette) was almost full. Do you guys want to read 8 pages of text??? Yeah, me neither.

So, below is the interview I promised so long ago…. Enjoy!


Birkdale was the reason my wife and I decided to move to Huntersville. The shopping, the movie theater, and the food constantly call us. As you know, food is one of my passions – I’m always on the lookout for unique and freshly prepared dishes. And some of the best meals I’ve found are at eeZ. My wife and I are almost regulars there. In fact, we’ve been there so much, we don’t even bother with the menu – we already know what to order and expect.

However, when I sat down with the Managing Partner of eeZ, Marcus Hall, I didn’t know what to expect. The last time I interviewed somebody I was in grade school, and one of the questions was “What’s your favorite color?” So, needless to say, I was out of my element.

But I’ve gotta say, this interview was a lot of fun. Marcus comes across as a good guy and is easy to talk to. And, boy, does he know his way around the restaurant industry. Starting as a dish washer at age 15 at the Rockola Café (think Applebee's and Chili’s) Marcus has spent much of his life working in restaurants. And through all those years he’s learned that the customer’s dining experience is the concern of all of the restaurant’s staff, “if you want the customer to return, you’ve got to keep them happy and give them a good value.”

But it wasn’t until after graduating college and being stuck behind a desk at Georgia Pacific that Marcus realized that he wanted to stay in the restaurant industry, “It just wasn’t me. I spent all day long looking at the clock on the computer screen.”

A few years later while enjoying some pizza at a Cici’s Pizza Marcus ran into this future business partner and co-owner of eeZ, Alan.

So, with all this experience you’d think that eeZ was going to be a guaranteed success. But in all honesty, it almost didn’t make it. As it turns out eeZ was originally going to be a local franchise of Zyng Asian Grill.

Don’t remember Zyng? Don’t worry nobody else does either.

Zyng was originally set to be a series of 45 franchised restaurants in the U.S. Focusing on the Pan Asian segment, Zyng would bring healthy Asian cuisine to the Birkdale area. Unfortunately (but fortunately for us), Zyng had a bad game-plan. With pre-made foods, frozen ingredients, and bad management, Zyng Corporate was bound to fail.

However, Marcus and Alan thought the Asian Fusion idea was good, and they kept eeZ going. First they brought in a Chef to help them create a new and original menu. This time all the food was prepared from scratch and nothing was pre-made. Then, due to customer demand, eeZ started offering Sushi.

There were a few bumps in the road, but eventually they brought in Master Sushi Chef Rifali Almunir. Originally from Indonesia, Almunir is as much an artist as a chef. In fact, Almunir is the mastermind behind the eeZ originals like the Filet Mignon Pin Wheels and even a roll inspired by a regular customer.

Longtime eeZ regular Doug came in for a drink almost every night. Then one night he came in for a drink, and ordered two filet mignon dinners to go – he was taking dinner back for his girlfriend who wasn’t feeling well. By the time he finished his drink; he left, and forgot about his dinners. Once the meals were ready, and nobody was there to take them, Almunir took the filets and then created the Doug's Filet Roll. By the time all was said and done, the Doug Rolls sold out before the end of the night.

While Almunir keeps watch behind the Sushi Bar, Executive Chef Mat Turney, oversees the kitchen. Turney came to eeZ after serving as a developmental chef to Darden, the company that owns many restaurants including Bahama Breeze, Olive Garden, Capital Grill, etc.

But he wasn’t always at eeZ. For almost three years, eeZ operated with only kitchen managers. However, Marcus credits Turney with being the “glue” necessary to hold the kitchen together and hiring him was the “best move ever.”

However, it wasn’t until the mention of General Manager Louis Camire, that Marcus really started gushing. Camire is a 20 year veteran of the restaurant industry and has been with eeZ since before the beginning. While Marcus referred to Turney as the “glue,” he called Camire the “super glue” of the entire organization.

Fortunately, eeZ hasn’t felt the effects of the recent economic downturn. Offering a six page menu (with minor tweaks for the spring and fall) with everything cooked to order, eeZ has a lot of choices. Or as Marcus said, “we’ve got something for everyone.”

And if you’re wondering when eeZ will open another restaurant, you might not have long to wait. They’ve already looked at places in South Park, Ballentyne, and Dilworth. Unfortunately, none have been a good fit for a second eeZ. However, Marcus pointed out that eeZ is currently staffed for two restaurants, and has two separate and strong management crews, so he anticipates opening another soon.

It appears that the eeZ model is built around the customer experience. Though not necessarily cheap, Marcus has worked to ensure that eeZ is a great value that keeps the customer happy, “(We) work hard to give customers a great experience every time, and if they don’t, we want the opportunity to make it right.”

Based on their success, it seems that eeZ already knows what the customer expects and apparently, they deliver.

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