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Noodles and Co.’s founder talks entrepreneurship, healthy food and new concepts

4 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

This post is by SmartBlog on Restaurants and Restaurant SmartBrief contributor Janet Forgrieve.

Aaron Kennedy spent more than a decade building a restaurant chain based on the simple concept of noodle-based comfort foods from a variety of cuisines. Kennedy launched his first Noodles & Co. location in Denver’s Cherry Creek neighborhood in 1995, two years after conceiving the concept, with the goal of eventually building a 20-40 store regional chain. Instead, he built the chain into a nationwide name with 170 restaurants and a growing franchising program.

Always deliberate, Kennedy took three months to quietly think through his plan to retire in 2007, before handing over the reins to handpicked replacement Kevin Reddy and moving on to his next adventure, after a break for some much-needed rest and relaxation with his family. Recently, we caught up with Kennedy, still the chain’s fourth-largest shareholder, who shared some insight on his decision to retire, an update on his new venture and a bit of advice for the next generation of would-be restaurant owners.

Why retire?

In the fall of 2007, as I adjourned the autumn board meeting, it struck me nearly as clearly as when the lightning bolt hit me that people all over the world have been eating noodles for centuries that I had finished what I started at Noodles & Company. At that time we had 170 restaurants serving fresh, delicious noodle dishes to enthusiastic fans across the country. That was well beyond my original dream, which was lofty: to build 20 to 40 restaurants across four or five cities within seven years.

So, 14 years after conceiving of the idea to create America’s first global noodle shop and recently concluding a liquidity event for all our investors who wished to cash in on their investment, I felt totally done.

Did you have a plan in place?

There were two additional desires stirring in me at the time: the need for a long break from thinking and the interest in feeling the startup entrepreneurial rush. I missed that juice. So, first I resigned from everything I was involved with, including the Noodles & Company board of directors, Young Presidents Organization, etc. I exercised, slept long nights, read the newspaper, jotted down business ideas that surged into my head, went for hikes and bike rides, spent lots of time with my children and gave myself permission to rest.

In slightly less than a year, I became so captivated with a new idea (one of the many I fostered during the hiatus) that I just couldn’t sit on the bench any longer. The media messages about the rising childhood obesity epidemic burned in my mind. “If I can do something else to help turn the tide of childhood obesity, I must,” is what I said to myself.

That spawned Commotion Fresh Foods. We are working to develop food brands that will be sold in grocery (retail) that are better versions of the things kids already eat. Think healthy Lunchables, high-quality snacks, etc. We’re going to try to revolutionize the product categories we enter with cool brands that provide “delicious, nutritious food for kids that are easy and affordable for mom/dad.” Our mission is to cultivate a healthy, active youth culture in America to create a more fit nation.

Development is slow, but we’re moving forward on several product lines at once and hope to have something in market by next year.

Kennedy’s advice to aspiring restaurant entrepreneurs

  • Love, love, love your restaurant idea … all aspects of it: menu, design, culture, location(s). You’ll need this passion to get you through the difficult times emotionally and physically.
  • Quickly gather feedback directly from customers and staff members to adapt your concept; thoughtfully migrate it to optimal, to the bull’s-eye.
  • Keep it fresh. Continue to reinvent yourself within your unique brand/culture. You must stand for something that’s also important to your customers. Stay true to that, but continue to get better and better at it.

Have additional advice gleaned from your own restaurant experiences? Tell us about it!

Image via Noodles & Co.’s Facebook page