Ieat a lot of bowls. Ask any of my coworkers and they will tell you about the countless bowls of very little variety I bring to the office every day. It’s quick, easy, filling, and relatively healthy. As often as I can, I also brag about how good they are to the unfortunate souls that have to watch me eat it without any to try for themselves.
In reality mine aren’t great, but the inspiration for my cooking habits traces itself back to a close friend who figured out a way to make one of the best affordable, fast, and healthy bowls in the country. Three years ago, and fresh out of business school, Nelson Monteith decided his desire for fast, high quality food, was not only something many other people in Austin wanted, it was something worth starting a business over. Fast forward almost 2 years and it’s pretty clear his intuition was onto something.
Honest Mary’s was recently named one of the Top 100 Restaurants defining Austin Dining, and it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. Their strategy is clear and simple. Spend any time in the restaurant or browsing their Instagram page and you can quickly pick up on the clean and inviting look of their food and space. This isn’t by accident, but rather a sign of the culture and environment that Nelson has created. I sat down with Nelson and asked him a few questions to learn about what he has done behind the scenes to get Honest Mary’s where it is today.
How and why did you start Honest Mary’s? Has the initial vision lived up to what you hoped/expected it would be?
Two answers to the ‘why Honest Mary’s?’ question. One is self-focused, and the other is others-focused. I believe both are necessary.
Selfishly, I wanted to start a business in general because the idea of creating something from nothing, being my own boss and betting on myself sounded like a total blast. More specifically, why Honest Mary’s? There are a few reasons. First, healthy fast casual is a growing market; people’s lives aren’t slowing down, and everyone is looking for new ways to be healthier. Also, restaurants are filled with talented & well-meaning chef/artists, but not enough entrepreneurs who truly consider the customers’ needs & desires over their own ideas and craft. Without customer need, there is no business. On this note, Mary and I were the prototype customers from the get-go. We’re consistently looking for genuinely healthy food on the go that is not a salad. On a more personal note, I had a health scare in college that helped to learn the power of healing our bodies through healthy eating. All of these forces came together to fuel the passion to start Honest Mary’s.
From an other’s focused perspective, the truest goal of Honest Mary’s is to be a blessing to others. Our vision is to positively impact countless lives through life-giving fast food. This means genuinely trying to give life to people – customers, partners, investors, employees and beyond – in everything we do. The way we serve people, the kind of food we make, the hospitality we provide, the aesthetic of our space…everything. I believe that if we can prioritize the needs of other people over our own, we will all ultimately have greater joy, more benefits, and experience a greater quality of life. This, I believe, is how God intended things to be. The hard part is that this takes more intentionality, because at the core we are prone to care more about ourselves than others. So, a very personal goal for Honest Mary’s is that we would help create a world that displays the beauty and power of caring for other people. I believe we’re doing some of this already, but certainly have a long way to go. That’s the fun part.
In the last year and a half of starting and running Honest Mary’s, what have you figured out you are really good at and how?
I’m not great with aesthetics, making food, building and fixing things, and managing a restaurant store. These may suggest I’m in the wrong industry. However, what’s carried me so far is my love for systems and processes, communication skills, vision, and hiring great people around me, with the last one being the most crucial. Truly, I’m nothing without the team around me. They know it and I know it. The goal is to make something great together, beyond what any one person can make on their own. In terms of figuring out what I’m good at and not good at, it’s just a matter of jumping in and figuring out where I’m strong and weak. Weakness just means opportunity for others to thrive.
What do you know now that you wouldn’t have believed if someone had told you before you started Honest Mary’s?
This one’s going to sound a bit funny and perhaps shallow, but the impact of basic accounting items like taxes and working capital. I really didn’t think too much about taxes before starting a business, but now it comes up all the time, and it has an impact on so many decisions: from the way you pay employees to the way you structure your company to the money you spend on the people to handle your taxes! On the working capital side, payables, receivables and inventory are a huge part of the business that were hard to wrap my head around until I actually saw it playing out at Honest Mary’s.
What have been the most rewarding aspects of starting and running a restaurant?
Creating opportunities to bless people in genuine ways. For employees, it’s not just creating a job (there are plenty of those in Austin), but creating a good job that dignifies them and creates joy and purpose in their lives.
For customers, it’s not just being another restaurant, but constantly seeking to bring life to their days through our food, service and space. For vendors and prospective vendors, it’s often as simple as treating them with respect by thanking them or just replying to emails in a timely manner.
We’re not perfect, but we’re always trying to be better in this area of caring for others, because at the end of the day that’s what makes it a win-win for everyone.
You really speak to kind of the culture that you’ve created. I want to hear more about the culture at Honest Mary’s and what specific things that you’ve done to create it?
First of all, that’s a tough question because I don’t feel like there’s a ton of like super practical things that we’ve been able to implement so far because we’ve been growing constantly since we opened. That’s a huge blessing, and a ton of fun, but it has put us in this place where we’re constantly trying to keep up and learn how to serve more people. That said, I think we’ve found ways to care for people through more practical means. One of our core values is just to take care of ourselves. So, we’re always making sure that is the case with our employees. One example would be asking our people if they are getting in enough sleep. I think a lot of times it’s also in the little things when the stress is really high – not letting the moment make me or managers all consumed with putting out whatever fire is currently going on – but making sure our people are still cared for in the process.
How would you say that mentality is communicated to potential employees during the interview process? Or how do you describe Honest Mary’s as a place to come to work?
So, we’ll always talk about our core values when we’re hiring people and we’ll ask questions about situations that prospective employees have had in the past. We try to get a sense of what they have done in the past in certain situations and see if they are closely aligned with caring for other people.
And sorry, add on question, I don’t think we’ve talked about this yet. What are your core values?
We have four core values, two are really core and two we would consider more aspirational. Our number one core value is getting to know people. Our mentality is that we’re constantly wanting to know people and understand who they are. We believe that life is found in relationships and you will thrive when you are known and loved. So, we seek to understand people’s stories and openly share our own. Another one is just being excellent. One of our phrases around this is “The way you do anything– is the way you do everything.” You know in the restaurant industry, it feels like a lot of the things you’re doing are just kind of small, insignificant things. But each of those things amount to who you’re becoming and who you are. Another one, this is more of an aspirational one for us (which is just to say that we don’t feel like we’re completely here yet, but it’s something we’re striving for), is going the extra mile. This is really about serving customers and teammates on what is expected. I think for us, it all starts with treating our employees well because if you’re treating your employees well, it’s just going to rub off on customers. There’s no way you can you can control every interaction with a customer, but if you treat your employees well, then you don’t have to worry about how they’re going to treat your customer. The last one is taking care of ourselves, which I kind of already explained.
Tell me maybe one example that comes to mind one as one of the hardest things you’ve had to do with Honest Mary’s. What was that really hard thing, and what was the result or the outcome?
The hardest thing that I’ve done so far is raise the money we needed to open the store. I truly didn’t think it’d be as hard as it was. I learned a lot about persistence. At the end of the day, though, it wasn’t just about my persistence. I believe it was the Lord who provided the capital we needed to finish construction and open at just the right time. He made me ask him – beg him – for it. Ultimately, he provided what was needed. It’s funny how the hardest things have always been the most beneficial for my faith in God.
What are some of your daily rituals that are really important to you getting things done?
(This is an ideal day. Life happens.) The early morning (5-8am) is my favorite part of the day, so I like to take advantage with this routine:
- Go to bed around 10pm and wake up around 5am
- Make coffee & take my dog on a walk
- Connect with God through prayer and reading the Bible
- Eat a great breakfast, usually with lots of eggs
- Sort through my inboxes and plan my day
Between 8-12, I’m focusing on my ‘ONE Thing’ (Book Recommendation: The ONE Thing). The goal here is to play offense and move the needle on my most important project, with as little distraction as possible. From lunch on, I’ll continue working on the big project, or otherwise have meetings with people, work on smaller checklist items, etc. In the evenings, I like to set work aside as much as possible and spend time with Mary or friends. This goes for the weekends as well, outside of Saturday mornings which I like to use to plan my week ahead.
How have you learned to balance the demands of your job with demands of family/personal life?
It’s really hard. In fact, I’d say I do a poor job much of the time. I’m constantly trying to figure out how to balance my time better. One thing I’m learning: you can’t do it all! If you want to do something great, it’s crucial to say ‘no’ to lots of things – even great things.
What one thing are you really into right now?
You got to give me a little more than that. What do you mean?
I’m learning that the more things that I try to do the less stuff I actually do well. So, I’m trying to learn how to focus in on the stuff that’s really important and what’s most important right now. It means saying “no” a lot and I hate saying no. I think it was Steve Jobs that said that focus is all about saying no and it has been a massive part of being able to really move the ball forward with Honest Mary’s. More personally I’ve thrown a lot of physical stuff away in the past few years. Mary and I have really bought into simplifying our lives (Book Recommendation: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up). We did this exercise where you literally hold in your hands, every single thing you own, and ask the question “Does this bring me joy?”. It was really powerful because you end up throwing away tons of stuff and it’s pretty freeing.
There isn’t an insider chef scene or like restaurateur scene in Austin you are a part of is there?
While I don’t discount being active in the restaurant community, I also don’t think it really helps me to spend a lot of time ‘networking’ or ‘being connected’, outside of some key relationships with close restaurant friends.
I didn’t start this to create the most beautiful dish in the world. I created it to solve a need which was healthy, fast, fresh food. I think we are the only restaurant in Austin that serves genuinely healthy, genuinely fast, genuinely fresh food.
One more thing I’ll add. When I was setting out to consider starting a healthy fast food restaurant, I read everything about every restaurant. I did my research and I understood the market really well, but once I decided to do this it became unhelpful for me to continue to track every restaurant because it just created in me this frustration that we weren’t moving fast enough or a fear that we were going to get caught up to. Surveying competition is healthy to an extent, but then you just need to put your head down and go. That’s where we’re at right now.
Alright, on to the easy questions. Ideal day spent in Austin?
Starts out with a run around Lady Bird Lake. Then Grab breakfast tacos & coffee w/ friends at Tacodeli & Houndstooth. Probably do something productive (I could skip this and sometimes Mary makes me, but accomplishing things always makes me feel good). Drink more coffee; then an IPA. Dinner at Eden East with friends. See a great show at ACL-Live followed with a nightcap at the Hotel Van Zandt. Of course, sleep in the next day!
For anyone that is reading this and hasn’t tried Honest Mary’s. What should they order their first time?
They should order either the Sedona lime or the Aloha poke bowl. Sedona lime is what I like to call our every man’s bowl (think a Chipotle bowl with sweet potatoes and spinach sourced with a bunch of local ingredients). It’s really approachable and it’s everyone’s favorite. It has our favorite sauce in it (cashew lime crèma sauce) which is an avocado based sauce. The Aloha poke bowl is actually our number one selling bowl right now. What’s funny about that as we almost didn’t put poke on our menu at all, but realized it was such a trendy thing and it was relatively easy for us to add.
When can we expect to see a new restaurant or where?
Without giving too much away, the next restaurant will be in Austin within a year now.
Last question, if someone should hear anything from your experience with Honest Mary’s, what should they hear?
Seek to value and treat others well. It’s worth it.