Welcome to Trep Talk! Trep Talk features some of our city’s compelling entrepreneurs who are boldly building what is uniquely Memphis. The spotlight series is curated by Elizabeth Lemmonds, Director of Talent Programs for the EPIcenter.
Welcome to Trep Talk! This week we get to know Ed Cabigao, co-owner and operating partner – with his wife, Brittany Whisenant Cabigao – of both South of Beale (SOB) and the new Zaka Bowl. While I am a loyal fan of their latest venture, I want to add that I have been going to SOB on South Main since their early days. Memphis’ first gastropub, one of the things I admired about SOB was their social media prowess. Weeks before the doors opened, they were letting followers on Twitter “behind the curtain,” photographing the space as it developed and sharing early menu and bar ideas. When they opened, they already had a curious customer base!
Ed and Brittany have also been incredibly supportive to the local entrepreneurial community. Many a startup networking event has been hosted at SOB over the years; they also graciously allowed Memphis Threat and Hoop City (I haven’t covered them yet, but those who know me understand why those tee shirts are close to my heart!) to host popup sales during Grizz season.
After a few years of dishes like duck fried rice and pulled rabbit risotto (did I mention that they were featured on Food Network?), Ed decided to change his lifestyle. He started in 2014 by switching to a vegan lifestyle, which he considers both a healthy and compassionate diet. Now don’t worry: SOB still maintains a very omnivorous menu. But the Cabigao’s set out to try an ambitious second idea. A more casual space than their original venture, at Zaka Bowl you build a hearty vegan, gluten free bowl of goodness and top it with one of six house-made sauces (seriously: try the green tea vinaigrette).
I wanted to feature Ed here for a few reasons. Creative and effective marketing. Repeat business ownership, including the somewhat risky decision to take this second spot in a very different direction. Husband and wife team. Fierce support of Memphis entrepreneurship. And, well, his reference to the MBTI, love of comics and admission of that guilty pleasure were bonuses! I hope you enjoy getting to know him as much as I did, so with no further ado…
Give us your elevator pitch! What sets you apart?
At Zaka Bowl, we believe that compassionate choices lead to a cleaner, happier, healthier you and planet. That’s why we’re the only ‘create-your-own-veggie bowl’ concept in America that is meat-free, dairy-free, gluten-free, mouthwatering and delicious!
What inspired you?
On February 1st, 2014, I was pushing 220lbs, and my energy was always fleeting. That’s the day I decided to go vegan. I slowly started feeling better and better each day, and my energy levels started going up everyday. About a year later, I was down to 180lbs, and that’s when I started running. I went from running two miles to a half marathon within six months. And I was down to my current weight of 160lbs.
Being able to transform myself through living a compassionate lifestyle really opened my eyes to an opportunity that’s lacking in Memphis. We need more places that celebrate people trying to be the best versions of themselves. We need more places that show that healthy living can also be fun, delicious, and lighthearted. At Zaka Bowl, that’s what we hope to accomplish.
Did you always know you were destined for entrepreneurship? What’s your background?
I’m an ENTP (for you fellow Myers-Brigg people) so I tend to have a lot of ideas, and I tend to flesh out a lot of those ideas. So I definitely think I was destined for entrepreneurship. When I was younger, I didn’t think the restaurant industry would be the place I’d do it. But when I started waiting tables, bartending, and managing, I found myself really loving the business side of the restaurant. And I always enjoyed serving other people, so when the opportunity arose to open our own place, I instantly jumped on it. From there, the rest is history!
What are the most rewarding parts of owning this business? Any unexpected benefits?
The most rewarding part of owning a business is, without a doubt, the ability to control your schedule and feel in control of your future. An unexpected benefit would be the lasting friendships I’ve made with staff and guests as they come and go. I can’t tell you how many people I can call my friend, whether they’ve been with us for five years, five months or five weeks. I always knew I’d get to meet a lot of different people owning this kind of business. But I wasn’t expecting to be able to build a culture strong enough to last beyond people’s time with the business. It’s been amazing.
What are the biggest challenges you face as an entrepreneur? How do you overcome them?
I think the biggest challenge is finding your partner-in-crime. I’ve been extremely lucky to find it in my wife. Not only is she a business partner with me, but her strengths completely compensate for my weaknesses, and vice versa.
Finding a partner, mentor or colleague you can trust, confide in, and keep you in check is extremely fleeting. If you can find it and keep it, you can go far.
What is the best piece of advice you wish you’d been given before launching your own business?
I wish someone had told me to learn more about how to run the business through numbers. There are so many benchmark numbers and percentages that help interpret the health of the business that I didn’t know. But I guess that’s why the school of hard knocks is the best school to go to!!
Which local resources helped you the most when converting your bold idea into a solid business model?
The best local resources were the other small business and restaurant owners who helped along the way. From our local contractor to neighboring restaurant owners, I leaned on them for help with the most random questions, and they were more than obliged to help out.
What additional resources would you like to see developed in Memphis, to help smooth the path for future entrepreneurs?
There definitely needs to be a more clear way to communicate how to open a business when it comes to proper permits, licenses, and fees. There are so many different steps you have to take at different times with the City and the County that it seriously delays a lot of time, and it takes way too much effort for things that should be simple. Whether you’re opening a restaurant, gym, or a law office, there needs to be a clear outline of what it takes to get open, and what it takes to stay open.
How do you maintain the elusive work/life balance? What are your favorite ways to unwind?
I think I’m still trying to figure that out! My wife and I own our businesses together, so it can definitely get in the way of work/life balance. But we’ve dealt with it by making sure we have one day off a week TOGETHER. And during that one day off, we don’t do anything business related. Now, that’s easier said than done, but we’ve been making strides!
And personally, my favorite ways to unwind are pretty simple- I love to run, and I love my two dogs. And I specifically love to run on the Greenline. It’s so relaxing the way it feels cocooned with the trees overhead and the bridges over the lakes. And I love passing other Memphians enjoying it so much. And I love taking Brittany and the dogs to the Shelby Farms dog park. It’s truly a hidden gem. Being able to hike around 100 acres with our dogs off-leash enjoying the immense space is completely tranquil. The way I see locals enjoying the Greenline and Dog Park make me proud of my city.
What should be on every entrepreneur’s bookshelf?
The War of Art is a great book about discipline and perseverance.
Setting the Table by Danny Meyer is a great example of legendary service, whether or not you’re in the restaurant industry.
Who’s on your playlist right now?
Ha. I’m big on comics, so whenever I’m in the car, I’m usually listening to comic book podcasts like iFanboy, Fatman on Batman, DC Noise, and Major Spoilers. And multiple people have told me that my taste in music is awful.
Got any guilty pleasures you’re willing to share?
I currently have ‘We Don’t Talk Anymore’ by Charlie Puth and Selena Gomez on repeat?
What are some of your own favorite local businesses?
ALL of the local breweries! I’ve been able to form relationships with all of the brewers in town, and I think what they’re doing collectively for the city is amazing. They’re each helping raise the profile of the city, and it’s great to see how they each evolve differently.
Muddy’s Bake Shop, owned by Kat Gordon, and run by one of my closest friends, Kip Gordon, is always a local favorite! I love seeing how they’ve evolved their brand from a single bakeshop to a multi-faceted business. They have great business operations and strategies that I hope to emulate!
And of course, I love my local comic shop- Comics and Collectibles. They’ve been around forever and are run by super nice, dedicated people!
Anything else you want to share that we didn’t ask?
I just want to say that we are extremely excited to start this concept in Memphis. There are a lot of people doubting that a concept like this will work here, and that I should’ve moved to Denver, Portland, Austin, or even Nashville. But I’m very confident that Memphians are ready for this, and we’ve already gotten a great start so far, and we wouldn’t want to start it anywhere else. We love this underrated city, and we know it’s ready for something like this!