Studio IX: We'll start simple. Who are you and what do you do?
Alberto Namnum: My name is Alberto Namnum. I was born in Mexico, moved to New York when I was young, came to UVA for school, and I started a restaurant called Roots Natural Kitchen. It's a healthy, fast casual restaurant.
Studio IX: What part of Mexico?
Alberto Namnum: Mexico City.
Studio IX: Amazing place.
Alberto Namnum: Yeah, I go back three times a year, four times. I love it.
Studio IX: What are you passionate about?
Alberto Namnum: Oh, that's a good question. I think I ... ooh, I've not ever been asked this.
Studio IX: Take your time.
Alberto Namnum: I do think a part of me is passionate about restaurants, but I think there's a reason why I always wanted to open a restaurant. I was in this class at Wake Forest my first year, and they asked us, what's your goal? And then it was weird because the rest of the class then got to ask you questions, and then would assign a percent likelihood that you achieve your goal, which is a weird concept.
But my goal was to open a restaurant, and then I only got assigned a 1% chance, I remember. Because I guess I didn't like to cook, which is why they only gave me 1%. I think the reason I like restaurants is because, it's all a really emotional experience. In a way there's certain, you go for the entertainment of it.
The food is part of it. The service is part of it. I guess I'm passionate about making people feel good. I've never said that out loud though, so that may not be true. I don't know, but it's interesting. I feel like our restaurant's a really big part of that, like natural food is a really big part of that. Maybe that's a good thing, maybe I should go with that.
Studio IX: Did you have experiences growing up in Mexico City, where you thought, "I want people to feel this?" Or did you come to this more recently, due to the culinary boom, new concepts, etc…
Alberto Namnum: No. I'm actually Lebanese, and food was always at the center of everything. My Dad's mom was a phenomenal cook. When I would go down to Mexico for four months, the entire summer, and we'd just hang out the whole time, There was just the details, the sensitivity around how food was prepared and presented.
There was always something so exact and beautiful about the attention and detail to food,. It seems liked half of it is like one part of the brain, which is how things look and feel, and the other part is lharder to put a finger on. It's like ordering things, and having them for people prepare ... I don't know. It just seemed more complicated. I guess that's why I was interested in it. And then my family, well my dad's uncle, owns four taco restaurants. They're sit down, but it's Mexican street food in a sit down setting in Mexico.
Studio IX: What's the name of it?
Alberto Namnum: Casa Del Pastor
Studio IX: Sounds good.
Alberto Namnum: Tastes good.
Alberto Namnum: You can always tell, the smaller the tortilla, the better the taco.
Studio IX: What do you love most about the work that you're doing right now?
Alberto Namnum: You can affect a lot of people on a daily basis. The people that work at Roots, but hundreds and hundreds of people that walk in every day. If it goes well you can do something awesome. If you run poorly one day, you can ruin it all. It's really intense, you have an influence in the world. When people describe their day, a lot of people will mention where they ate or how they felt after what they ate. For 1,000 people in Charlottesville, for a part of their story to be at Roots that day, is cool. And that's each day.
Alberto Namnum: So it does feel like we're changing things. Even though it's slightly, we are doing something.
Studio IX: Influencing the culture and the community.?
Alberto Namnum: Yeah.
Studio IX: Absolutely.
Can you share a memorable story?
Alberto Namnum: Yeah.
There's a lot. I think one of the funniest stories for me, well, there's two. I remember the argument over whether we serve romaine or not was a good one. It was like, "You have to serve romaine, you're a salad restaurant. I was actually heading more to the other side of it.
And to Alvero, my co-founder, to his credit, he was like, "Well, we're not. We don't have to do anything." I just remember that was probably days and days, had this session over romaine lettuce. It's so funny. If you walk into Roots now, you don't even think about it. There's so much thought in every single detail ... and romaine is a big one.
The other one that's memorable, is when we rolled out our app. We were doing dollar bowls, and the app was supposed to limit how many people could order. Because otherwise thousands of people would order, and we didn't know how to make 1,000 bowls. But some part of the code didn't work, it kept letting orders in.
And then before we know it, we're there, it's 10:30 and we're starting to make the orders for 12:00, which is the first pickup window. It's only supposed to be 10 orders, and it was actually 987 orders. So we had a line that was literally six people wide. I don't even know where you'd put 1,000 bowls let alone how you would make them. So we had to give out so many free bowls. We also let everyone into the restaurant.
Out of that $1 bowl, some people ended up getting three free bowls. Because we refunded everyone. We printed everyone's name, and they could come into the restaurant, we gave them a free bowl card, and we give them food. But that moment of going through the iPad and scrolling, and realizing that the scroll bar was the size of a cell. I was like, "Oh, something didn't work." That's a very vivid moment.
Studio IX: Great problem. (laughter)
It's very obvious to me as a customer that everything is considered, because I walk in there and it's just right. Everything flows, and all the flavor profiles and all the options, as far as greens and bases and all that.
Alberto Namnum: A lot of credit there is due to the chefs we hired, the Zocalo guys.
Studio IX: They're the ones who came up with the menu?
Alberto Namnum: They designed it. Yes. We were super involved but a lot of credit is due to them.
Studio IX: It's so good.
Alberto Namnum: Thank you.
Studio IX: What's an aspect of your work that people might be surprised to know?
Alberto Namnum: Let's see. I think most would know that it's hard, they know it's stressful. There's a lot of moving pieces, that they all know. It's hard to think about what's going to be a surprise to others. What did I not think was in restaurants, before I did this?
There's just a lot of processes to every single thing, like how many rags you order, and where you store the rags. How wide apart you put the shelving. If you hide pita chips behind the line, or under the line? Do you break down the lid boxes before you put them under, or not? Every little thing, because there's so many moving pieces and it's all going so fast, has to be considered.
It just seems like, I don't know, before when I would walk into a restaurant, I thought, "Oh this is just how they put it up and this is what they got." Maybe some places do that. But there is just a lot of thought to even the smallest thing, which is kind of funny. Because it's helping set up the staff for success. Otherwise, there will just be frustrations and stresses, at every point of the day. You don't need that.
Alberto Namnum: I don't know if that's the most exciting answer.
Studio IX: It’s great. The importance of the little things. Because you're only working with a footprint of maybe 30 feet? Right?
Alberto Namnum: Yeah.
Studio IX: A tight space that all of those people are working in.
Alberto Namnum: Particularly in this restaurant, yeah.
Studio IX: And the volume of customers coming through. When I look at the tongs straddling the glass at the base of the greens — it just makes sense.
Alberto Namnum: Yeah.
Studio IX: Efficiency.
Alberto Namnum: Every little thing you see had a whole thought process behind it.
Studio IX: Where do you see yourself, the company, this industry in the next five to ten years?
Alberto Namnum: Oh Wow. Let's go with industry first.
Studio IX: Okay.
Alberto Namnum: Food is definitely going to become on par with how people see medicine and nutrition. I think the concept of going to a doctor, getting your blood checked before you have something occur. Trying to eat more blueberries in your diet to deal with blood pressure, then getting your blood checked. I think it'll become more mainstream to eat foods targeted at what your potential issues could be.
I feel we're going to start thinking about food beyond the obvious. We all know it's important to be healthy, but it's still a little bit of this concept of you eat healthy in order to live to 90, as opposed to living well and you eat unhealthy and you live to 80. I think we're going to go past that, past the 10 year difference, and realize the immediate benefits — things you start to feel.
Same with supplements. It's really hard to know what supplements you're meant to take. I was looking into it for a long time. I'd be like, "Who's meant to take Tumeric?, who isn't? Who's meant to take vitamin D, who isn't? I didn't know you need vitamin K in order to properly take vitamin D, because it helps the body to process it. This information is really hard to find. Why is it so complicated? So I just think it will become much more accessible. Everyone will start to know this stuff, and it'll be tailored to who you are and what you need.
Then hopefully, we'll have a lot more Roots locations. And potentially be doing a lot of fun stuff with catering. I think being industry leading in catering could be really interesting. Exploring these avenues of where I think the future of the industry is going. So on the app, and Alvero talks a lot about this, what kind of foods are people eating? How did they sleep that day, based on what they ate, etc ...
We’re starting to explore & go one step beyond the restaurant. Starting to get into where we think the industry is heading. It's like food as a tool. It's every day that you see it. I was on iTunes last night, and you're just starting to see the signs everywhere. The more popular documentaries, four out of the 10 were all about healthy eating. I get that it's January, it's still a resolutions season. But still, every day there are more people that want eat this kind of food.
The concept for us is in the attempt to make it actually taste good. If taste didn't matter, it'd be really easy. Everyone's just walking around with rock Kale. It'd be like, "Yeah, that food looks great." But sadly, unhealthy food has been made to taste so good, that you have to get somewhere close, to make it work.
Studio IX: So it's almost like dialing in impact versus efficiency? You need to produce food that can sell, that tastes good and moves, but it also has an immediate and positive impact on one’s energy and health?
Alberto Namnum: Yeah.
Studio IX: It does seem to be catching. Even high-end cuisine. You see it in shows like : “Chef's Table”, “Ugly Delicious”, all these superstar chefs who are coming to a point of, "Oh, we have to bring this into a more mainstream impact." To make it not so exclusive.
Alberto Namnum: Exactly.
The information is so exclusive right now. It's so hard to know what supplements you're meant to take. I actually do believe in supplements. They work. It's just difficult to know what you're meant to take.
It just seems that the way the medical field works is, “ I'll take your blood, if anything is wrong then I'll tell you to do something. If everything is okay, I won't tell you to do anything”. But things could be better than okay. I do think there's a range where we can do more to feel even better, even though technically there’s nothing wrong.
Studio IX: Yeah. That's a whole different view.
Alberto Namnum: Yeah.
Studio IX: Which is amazing. It's not just preventative, it’s seeking greater potential.
Alberto Namnum: Exactly. What's the line, where you go into the doctor, and say, "Oh, I'm having trouble sleeping." They would go probably go with the traditional route. I mean you can google it. It's like, are there too many screens you're watching before bed, or drinking coffee too late? But what have you had for dinner?
Studio IX: Yes!
Second to last question. Who came up with the pickled jalapeños??
Alberto Namnum: Did they tell you to ask that?
Studio IX: No! (laughter) I'm a heat junkie.
Alberto Namnum: Did you actually just ask that?
Studio IX: I always get sriracha, always get the hot stuff and I love the jalapeños.
Alberto Namnum: I came up with it.
I tried them at a local place here in town, something similar, and I was like, "We have to sell something like this." They're the greatest thing ever.
Studio IX: So good!
Alberto Namnum: Did they tell you to ask me that? (laughter)
Studio IX: No, I mean, I told the team "I'm a heat Junkie, and I love pickled jalapenos." They're like, "You've GOT to ask Alberto about them. He's gonna shit."
Alberto Namnum: The running joke is that I asked Henry what he thought of them, and he said, "They're normal jalapenos." Since then, the joke has continued that I'm really waiting for someone to write a review, whether on yelp or Google, that exclusively says, "These are the greatest, most irregular jalapenos I ever tasted?"
Studio IX: Yes! (laughter) .
Studio IX: Okay. Last question. What do you enjoy most about being here at Studio IX?
Alberto Namnum: It's awesome. You know what? Now that I think about it, it's something about the design, the layout or the interior, I feel this peaceful energy. Maybe it's atrium? It's good vibes. All you really need is this much space to be at work. But it's about the stuff around you, right? It affects your mind and your soul. I think there's good energy.
Alberto Namnum: And maybe the very cool coffee shop (Sicily Rose) with a rose logo. I have very few stickers on my computer, but I put that one on. Because it reminds me of here.
Studio IX: Totally agree.
Alberto Namnum: I missed it, being in *Pittsburgh.
Studio IX: So great to hear.
Studio IX: That’s all she wrote! You crushed it.
Alberto Namnum: Was that helpful?
Studio IX: It was great. Such a pleasure. Thanks, Alberto.
Alberto Namnum: Thank you.