It may be the most famous restaurant that never opened: the José Andrés eatery planned for the Trump International Hotel in downtown Washington, DC. After Andrés dropped out of the project following then-candidate Donald Trump’s comments about immigrants, the ensuing standoff, with lawsuits threatened and angry tweets sent, became a national news story.
“It was interesting,” Kimberly Grant, the CEO of Andrés’s ThinkFoodGroup, said with a laugh in a recent interview for POLITICO’s Women Rule podcast. And, with the benefit of hindsight, Grant doesn’t regret how things turned out.
“You make decisions based on the best information available to you when you make it,” said Grant. “And to second-guess it once you know more information is kind of unfair to yourself, right? But I don’t think that we would have made any different decision, even knowing what we know. “
Grant’s own path to the c-suite is atypical. She started working in restaurants while playing semi-pro volleyball up and down the East Coast. “The only job you could really do if you’re playing volleyball during the day was to be a waitress at night,” Grant said. She had a knack for the business, saving up money to invest in a Ruby Tuesday franchise, and joining the chain’s corporate team.
“I didn’t have a college degree. I was working with the finance team, reporting to the CFO. And I didn’t technically have any credentials from that perspective,” said Grant. “But what I did know that they didn’t: you can have the best MBA in the world, but if you’ve never run a business, you’re missing a part of the equation.”
Recently, Grant sat down with POLITICO’s Anna Palmer to talk through what it’s like to be caught in a national media story, what she’s learned from working her way up from waitress to CEO, and the all-important skill of managing up. What follows is a transcript of their conversation, edited for length and readability. For more, listen to the interview on the newest episode of Women Rule.
On the spat between President Donald Trump and José Andrés
Anna Palmer, POLITICO: There was a famous restaurant that did not come into existence, which was the planned José Andrés restaurant in the Trump International Hotel in D.C., which he pulled out of in response to the president’s statements about immigrants. It was very big news. What was it like to go through that?
Kimberly Grant, CEO of ThinkFoodGroup: It was interesting. [LAUGHTER]
Palmer: That’s a very political answer.
Grant: Listen, I think every challenge in business, even the toughest ones, you learn a lot from. And I think that it added to the life experiences and business experiences for both me and José, but also our investors, our board, and our entire company. So it’s a part of our story now.
Palmer: So you came out of it maybe stronger? Going into future partnerships or different ideas, do you approach them differently? Do you make sure you have a better sense so that it doesn’t repeat itself, a problem like that? Maybe it’s unique.
Grant: I think it’s easier said than done. You can’t control all the aspects of a business deal. And looking back on not just that particular case, but other cases where I would say that maybe we should have paused, or thought, or what have you, I still don’t think it would change the decision at the time. You make decisions based on the best information available to you when you make it. And to second-guess it once you know more information is kind of unfair to yourself, right? But I don’t think that we would have made any different decision, even knowing what we know.
It was an iconic building with an incredibly rich history, and it’s in our city, and we wanted to be a part of it. So it was as simple as that.
Palmer: You took my question right from me. Would you have done something differently? But it doesn’t sound like it.
Grant: No. I mean, I think we go through this all the time. As a global company, we look at some of the most amazing assets all over the world. And a lot of the most amazing assets are owned by very… interesting, dynamic, wealthy people. And everyone has their own path to how they were able to become wealthy. So you evaluate it just like you evaluate the business risks and what have you.
On her unconventional path to becoming a CEO in the food business
Palmer: From what I’ve read, it sounds like you didn’t always know you wanted to be in the restaurant or the food business.
Grant: No. It really happened by accident, in many ways. I came to be in the restaurant industry out of a love for volleyball, believe it or not. I played volleyball very competitively in high school, and a little bit in college. And when I left college, I played a little bit of the — I guess you’d call it semi-professional, where you play for money on tournaments up and down the East Coast. And the only job you could really do if you’re playing volleyball during the day was to be a waitress at night. I worked in the restaurants at night as a result of that. And I happened to find something that I really loved.
Palmer: So eventually, you work your way up to being COO of Ruby Tuesday, the restaurant chain. When you started out, was that your goal: the C suite?
Grant: No. Definitely not. I started out as a waitress, and then within a couple of years, did what a lot of restaurant people do: we move up through the ranks. So I became a manager. But I very quickly — I was, I think, at the time, 22 or 23 years old — had the opportunity to invest in my own restaurant, my first restaurant. At that time, the brands like Outback and Ruby Tuesday offered what they called “partnering programs.” So you could invest money into a restaurant. You had to be one of the better operators to be able to do that. So I scraped together $10,000 and invested in one of the restaurants, actually right here locally in the D.C. area.
So I did that, and was really successful at running a single restaurant, made a lot of money for me — I was a young person, so it was a lot at that time. And at the time, Ruby Tuesday’s was spinning off to become its own public company, and I had an opportunity to go be a part of the finance team as a result of how well I was doing running a single restaurant when it moved back to Knoxville, Tennessee in the late ’90s.
Palmer: Talk a little bit about the being a business executive who worked your way up. I mean, that’s very different, kind of having to go to the corporate environment versus dealing managing waitresses and bartenders and buying food.
Grant: Absolutely. I went through a culture shock in the beginning. At that time, I didn’t have a college degree. I was working with the finance team, reporting to the CFO. And I didn’t technically have any credentials from that perspective. But what I did know that they didn’t: you can have the best MBA in the world, but if you’ve never run a business, you’re missing a part of the equation.
So I was able to bring a lens of operating, having employees, dealing with the P&L, and being able to understand the real world. And so, my experience, once I was able to get over the culture shock, was really where I was able to contribute something that others didn’t know, and I was able to learn from them what I hadn’t learned in a classic way.
On what people don’t realize about restaurants
Palmer: The restaurant industry is pretty famously difficult — people start restaurants all the time with no real understanding of finances, of what goes into it, human resources, all of those things. You, yourself, have been in the restaurant business for pretty much your whole career. How is it different than maybe what people expect?
Grant: I think it’s a lot harder than everyone thinks it is. It’s very operationally intense, long hours. And you know, every day — José says this the best way: every day has to be a good day. You have to be happy. And even though you may have other things going on in your life, other things going on in your business, you’re there to uplift and bring people to a better place than when they entered the restaurant to begin with. I think people underestimate the strength that takes.
Palmer: I imagine too that this is a job where people looking from outside — particularly in today’s society of celebrity food chefs and cooking shows — and see the glamourous side of it. But peel back the curtain for us: What are the things that people don’t see?
Grant: Perhaps the part that people miss is just how long it takes to lift a restaurant up. Sometimes we’ll be working on projects anywhere from 3–5 years before they’ll actually open and serve guests. And I think a lot of people, they see when the construction begins, and they know that in 9–12 months, there’s going to be a great new restaurant in their neighborhood, or the hotel is going to be opening soon, or what have you. But a lot of the planning started 3–5 years before that. And you know, halfway between there and when the construction begins is when you start looking for the people. Like right now, we have projects that we’re opening in, perhaps, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Chicago. To find the right people and the right team to move to those cities takes time.
On having a celebrity boss
Palmer: You joined José in 2014. Back then, he wasn’t quite as public a figure as he is now. And he certainly was not as political. How has your job changed, or has it, as he’s become more of a public and political figure?
Grant: I mean, I’ve known José for over a decade, long before I joined. And he was always outspoken. I think the difference is, is that he has a platform. And I think the nature of communication is so much different now, you know, between social media. And obviously, he is a millennial at heart, he adopts it so quickly.
We have the complexity here of not only managing restaurant brands, but his personal brand. And sometimes they align, sometimes they don’t align, and our job is to kind of weave them together, where one plus one equals three. It adds a bit of complexity, but it also allows us to really have a way to fulfill the mission of the company, which is changing the world through the power of food. If José didn’t have those platforms, and he wasn’t able to be outspoken, and a thought leader in topics beyond being a chef, you know, life would be a lot less interesting.
To hear more from Kimberly Grant, listen to the full podcast here. Women Rule takes listeners backstage with female bosses for real talk on how they made it and what advice they have for women looking to lead.