Thomas Nguyen

Co-Founder of Peli Peli

Thomas Nguyen is a co-founder of Peli Peli, a South African full-service concept currently one of the best-reviewed restaurants in Houston on Google, TripAdvisor and Yelp, and Peli Peli Kitchen, a South African fast casual concept that was named Eater Houston’s Fast Casual Concept of 2017. Thomas was featured on season 3 of CNBC’s Restaurant Startup.

An alum of the University of Texas at Austin and University of Texas School of Law, Thomas practiced for three years as a litigation attorney. While at UT, Thomas helped found Omega Phi Gamma, currently the largest Asian-interest fraternity in Texas.

Thomas is a 2019 Golden Fork Faces of Diversity Recipient (Greater Houston Restaurant Assoc), 2015 Houston Business Journal 40 Under 40 recipient, 2016 Houston Asian Chamber of Commerce Entrepreneur of the Year and 2016 & 2017 EY Entrepreneur of the Year Finalist.

Where did the idea for Peli Peli come from?

I co-founded Peli Peli with Chef Paul Friedman in 2009. He had always wanted to bring the flavors of South Africa to the mainstream. I was a former attorney who was searching for something that I could be truly passionate about. Creating a brand new restaurant concept and brand from scratch not only inspired me, but it really allowed me to create something of my own and become an entrepreneur.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

None of my days are ever the same as I wear many hats (like every entrepreneur). That being said, in order to make it productive I have to make sure that everything that I do impacts either something that I feel strongly about or something that impacts the bottomline. If it doesn’t fit either of those two categories, I delegate it to someone else.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I am fortunately surrounded by many people much smarter than me, such as our executive chef, Ryan Stewart, or our CEO, Shehzad Roopani. They allow me to dream and think of ways that Peli Peli can create a positive impact in the community or create positive experiences for our guests. Once I have an idea, I get great feedback from them, fine tune the idea and figure out logistically how to bring it to life.

What’s one trend that excites you?

In the restaurant industry, I feel like there is a trend to introduce more authentic flavors. That excites me because I don’t think we live in a world where we need to water down or “Americanize” the traditional and authentic flavors of the cuisine of the world. It excites me that more and more of my colleagues in the restaurant industry are bringing unique and true flavors to the table.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

This is probably a bad habit, but I am always on my phone. As a result, I can respond to social media comments and emails very quickly. This isn’t helpful for my personal life, so I have to force myself to put my phone down during quality time with family. But it definitely helps me be more productive as an entrepreneur!

What advice would you give your younger self?

That it is more than ok to be different and not like everyone else. In fact, those that are able to stand out will be the ones being rewarded later on in life.

Also that after college, relying on natural skills and intelligence is not going to be enough to succeed. It will require all of that PLUS a lot of hard work and a strong work ethic.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

That the world would be a better place if everyone felt and appreciated the unconditional love of a dog (or cat).

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I wake up at the same time generally every day and early, even if it is on the weekend. It allows me to exercise, take care of personal chores and still be more productive at work over the course of a day.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Be open to how other businesses, especially in different industries, are adapting to change. For example, Amazon has fascinated me in many ways, but none more so than in how Amazon has revolutionized retail by making reviews a core component of the user-experience. As a result, Peli Peli is a review-driven restaurant brand. Everything we do relates to creating a 5-star experience for every guest that comes through the door.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Blind trust in others when there were red flags that told me that the trust was not warranted. Ultimately the way I overcame it was understanding that no owner is bigger than the brand itself, and that we all work for the benefit of the brand, not the other way around.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

When opening a restaurant or business, make sure to limit the amount of customers you accept in the first two months. It is important early on to make sure every single customer is 100% satisfied. Too often, restaurants open with a big bang, get a flood of customers coming in to try it out, and often resulting in way too many disappointed customers (and bad reviews) because the new restaurant wasn’t ready. Think longer term, build a powerful 5-star reputation, and you will see a slow sales trend upward that sustains itself.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I recently bought a tennis racket because I want to start playing tennis. There is a saying now that “health is the new wealth” and I think there is an ounce of truth to that. We underappreciate our health, and investing in things that will make me get out and exercise more is more than worth it.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

Learning how to use Slack and it has been great so far. I like how it integrates with everything that I already use and helps me better communicate with my team.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Setting the Table by Danny Meyer. It is the bible for any restaurateur. But even if you are not in the restaurant industry, understanding true hospitality is valuable in any industry, Understanding how to write the last chapter with any given customer is a true skill that needs to be developed.

What is your favorite quote?

“Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy”

Key Learnings:

  • We live in a review-driven world. Embrace it.
  • Always surround yourself with people that are smarter than you. This will constantly push you.
  • Writing the last chapter for a customer and ending with a great experience is valuable in any industry.