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Lessons in humility: Baja Fresh CEO on “Undercover Boss”

3 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

The values of hard work and humility ran throughout Sunday’s episode of “Undercover Boss,” featuring Baja Fresh CEO and co-owner David Kim posing as reality-show contestant Ken Sang, and culminating in Kim giving away a Las Vegas franchise to one of the fast-casual chain’s particularly impressive young managers.

General manager Jose started at the chain’s Las Vegas store as a cook after his family moved from Mexico, spending two years in the job as he learned to speak English and began to hone the skills he would need to realize his dream of owning a restaurant. The young manager’s story of supporting his family struck a chord with Kim, himself the son of a former Korean diplomat who came to America with no money.

“I made a passionate decision then that I will work very hard so my parents don’t have to anymore,” said Kim, who along with a group of investors paid $31 million to acquire the chain from Wendy’s in 2006 and has built it into a 400-store chain.

CEO meets his employees and listens to their stories

Reminders about the importance of remaining humble, both in business and in life, filled the hour as Kim tried his hand at running the register (long lines, apologies and free-food coupons followed), making a burrito (which required a do-over) and losing his whisk in a vat of salsa verde. At each stop, Kim listened to inspiring stories of employees struggling to take care of families and working hard to make the most of their opportunities.

Kim, who was born in South Korea and moved to the U.S. 30 years ago, took on his undercover adventure at a time when he was dealing with his father’s incurable lung illness, resulting in some emotional scenes, including a father’s reminder to his son to stay humble and never forget where he came from. Four of the workers Kim met reinforced that reminder, with tales of working to overcome their own hardships to take care of their families.

Kim’s time on the front lines paid off for the workers whose stories struck particular chords, including Rami, who took on a failing franchise store as manager and turned things around. Rami’s story of his relationship with his own Jordanian immigrant father spurred Kim to reward him with a $5,000 check to further his education and another $5,000 to take his dad on a golf trip.

Anthony, a 20-year-old native of the Philippines, received $15,000 to help his mom and siblings, whom he supports. Carrie, a Boise, Idaho, operations manager, works days and then takes over child-care duties for her 2-year-old daughter as her husband heads off to his night-shift job. Carrie is full of ideas about how to build the brand and the business, including delivering lunch to nearby office workers to give the chain a competitive edge. Her reward: a $7,500 check to start a scholarship fund for her daughter and the promise of an expanded role where she can share her brand-building ideas throughout the chain.

But the night’s biggest winner was Jose, the Las Vegas general manager whose dedication to perfection at the restaurant and determination to make a better life for his family earned him his own franchise, a Las Vegas store set to open in August.

“When you’re blessed with so many things in life, you tend to forget where you came from,” Kim said at the end of the show. “Success is not about achievements and money, it’s really about your relationship with your parents, with your kids, with your family.”