Bert Mueller’s Passage to India to sell California Burritos

 It is not every day you see a 22-year-old, travel half way round the world to sell California Burritos! Bert Mueller, entrepreneur extraordinaire, left behind a promising career in music to share his dream with the denizens of Bengaluru. FAB spoke to the man who is feeding Bengaluru with Mexican delights!

FAB: From a journalist to a music composer to a restaurateur – how did this journey happen?

Bert Mueller: When I was 6, my parents discovered I have “perfect pitch” so they encouraged me to learn music during my childhood. Then, when I was 10, my good friend and business partner, Gaelan Connell, got selected to act in the Johnny Depp movie, Chocolat. So, I became very interested in film music. I very nearly went to college to exclusively study film music. I was accepted to the highly-regarded Thornton school USC film music program. It was a tough choice not to attend.

But, I enjoy adventure and am not afraid to take a risk. I became concerned, I could find music too dull, with too much time sitting around. Instead, I studied music and public policy at William and Mary. In college, this sense of exploring lead me to India and I chose to study in Jaipur. I have always been interested in food and flavor. When I was studying in Jaipur, I had the idea to start California Burrito. Once the idea was in my head, I wrote a business plan, we raised money, and moved to India.

FAB: A composer of music works alone; a restaurateur has to work with a diverse team. How did you make this transition?

Bert Mueller: Thats a great question – it’s very true. The transition has happened over a period of time. And by making mistakes! I never preferred working alone which was one of the reasons I moved away from music. But, I had worked alone for much of college and didn’t develop these team skills. At the beginning of my business journey, I was not a strong team player. I have become better. Not having any corporate experience, I had to figure out my management style from scratch. There have been great mentors along the way. I always ask questions and take guidance from the people I work with at every level.  The core of the restaurant business is about people. We must cherish our people and also hold them accountable. This is a tricky balance to strike.

FAB: What is the toughest challenge that you have faced as an entrepreneur?

Bert Mueller: Growing our business from 1 to 26 restaurants has been a masterclass in business and management. There has been an evolution. It has been a trial by fire.  I can highlight 3 challenges. Firstly, a great challenge we faced was discovering people we had hired had made some serious ethical lapses. We wanted to build a robust and ethical system. After opening 3 stores, we fired our entire team and started fresh.

Second, as we’ve grown, some valued team members have not been able to execute in their expanded responsibility and have shifted into new roles that matched their skills. Third, we have fought with the government many times, on taxes, on municipal code, RBI related paperwork etc, and often, we have won through tenacity and argument. My auditor always jokes to me that all he does is argue with government officials about how the law is written! But no one will fight for the business harder than the founder. You will have to fight to get the results you want.

FAB: What role does culture of the founders play in the setting up and then the success of the enterprise?

Bert Mueller: We spend a lot of time interviewing people,so we can find the best and hardest working winners for a fair wage. In our food industry, it is not always the highest paid people who are the best performers. I believe that the personality and “taste-in-people” of founders will both select and attract certain types of people – which then leads to the culture. Then the culture will mirror the values of the founders.

I believe in nurturing and mentoring great people, so they can understand and embody the founders’outlook. Sometimes we hire the wrong people. We must hire fast and fire fast. As a founder and CEO, you are the role model and energy for your business. All of your team looks up to you! This means you need to show them the way and also, give them the energy to perform. You set the benchmark for what performance is at your company. Almost no one will work harder than you.

FAB: What advice do you have for wannabe-entrepreneurs?

Bert Mueller: Cash is King. This was great advice from my mentor Bob Crawford.When I was writing my business plan for California Burrito in college, I decided it would be a good idea to try taking a business school course.  Since it was only for business students, I petitioned to get into the course and the professor allowed it. All the students were given advisors and I got Bob Crawford, the CEO of Bigelow Teas which is America’s 2nd largest tea company, as my advisor. He’s a very smart guy – seasoned, with great experience and lots of good advice. But he would always emphasize the most important: CASH IS KING. If you want to succeed, you must always have cash in your bank account. No cash means the game is over. Ta Ta, Bye Bye. In any business, you will certainly run into tough times. And when that happens, you need a way to maneuver out of it. Maybe a new idea that requires a prototype. Maybe additional marketing. Maybe just a lifeline to pay key staff until you raise more money. All such maneuvering requires cash.

Make incremental steps every day. I see some wannabe entrepreneurs who keep waiting for all the pieces to fall into place. They want everything to be “perfect” before they make their move. I think it’s very important to keep things moving, even if incrementally. Start today and don’t make excuses about why you should wait. Better to act.

Another thing: don’t neglect the feedback from your (potential) customers! They will give you the advice to ensure impact in your actions. Sometimes we fall victim to our own biases: we ignore what others are saying – or decide to spend money on things we think are valuable but have no impact to the customer.

FAB: How has your family contributed to your success?

Bert Mueller: My family has been very supportive and never doubted mu ability to succeed. They have contributed by helping where they could and not pushing any agenda to have me stay in the USA. They even helped convince our friends to invest.

Most of my friends and extended family thought I was crazy: India? Mexican Food? Restaurants? To prove them wrong, that no I’m not crazy, I got a job at one of the largest Mexican chains in America. I did a lot of research on Indian food trends and wrote a business plan, and the started asking people for money to invest. My mom in particular, enthusiastically persuaded our investors along with me. Money came in slowly – most people we asked didn’t feel 22-year old Americans would do very well starting a food business in India. But we moved to India, set up a Tumblr blog, started posting pictures of us looking at kitchen equipment, testing corn chips, visiting bakeries and inspecting properties. And over time people were impressed.

FAB: How difficult is it for a ‘foreigner’ to set up a business in India?

Bert Mueller: Many people wonder whether I as a foreigner have a tougher time starting a business in India than an Indian. I don’t think so actually. We face different challenges. I hear from north Indians in the south and South Indians in the north facing the same issues that we face, whether it’s with local language or with different traditions being carried out at a local government level.  But we all face the same problems so there is a great camaraderie amongst entrepreneurs. And India is a very welcoming place. The people of are so welcoming. 

When we first came to Bangalore we didn’t know anyone here. Literally no one. And we hadn’t done business before either. So, we spent our first Bangalore summer walking around Bangalore in suits – which we thought must be very professional.  But I have to say, all it did was make us very hot! Of course, no one in Bangalore wears suits for business, so we actually looked like we didn’t know what we were doing. And we didn’t. But setting up a business means putting one foot after the other, so we did just that – first you open your company, then you open your bank account, then you fill it with money, then you start spending the money, you look for properties, you find suppliers for ingredients and kitchen equipment, sign a lease, build out the store and then, start selling food!

FAB: Conversely how difficult would it be for an Indian to set up a business in another country?

Bert Mueller: I believe it will depend on the ease-of-business in whichever country they choose. If you look at how successful Indians are in business in countries across the world, there is great precedent for success. I recently read about the Murugappa group whose roots to started in Burma – a very impressive story. It’s an inspiring story for anyone thinking to start-up abroad.

FAB: What are some of the key learnings you have had in the last seven odd years of serving burritos in a market that was not familiar with the product?

Bert Mueller: Always keep experimenting. Especially if you’re doing something new. India is not very familiar with burritos and so we keep trying new things to understand how people feel about the food and also, what they expect from our brand. We have tried Indian flavors which interestingly didn’t work well. Customers have shown they don’t want Indian food from our brand.  Over time, we have brought in some aspects of Indian cuisine – making the beans with a tadka, adding slight green chili to the pico and corn, increasing pepper levels in sauces, etc. This has been about elevating the flavors to match expectations but not making the flavor “Indian” per se.

Another key learning is that incentives and targets really work. They help orient the team towards goals and give the managers a clear objective to rally their teams around. Whether it is sales targets, EBITDA targets, rating targets, etc. it’s very useful to give people measurable numbers to focus on. When Ajay Kaul, former CEO of Jubilant Foodworks, joined us as an advisor, he helped us understand the power of this. People will do wonders and achieve great things if you give clear, incentivized goals.

As an entrepreneur in India, we must always be ready for change and think fast on our feet, to come up with creative solutions. There have been many large changes that have occurred. In just the past 2 years, we saw demonetization, a plastic ban, huge changes in taxation, and a 47% increase in minimum wage, to name a few. Always, must have contingencies!

FAB: What is your favourite Indian food?

Bert Mueller: I am a lover of Andhra cuisine. I love Hyderabadi biryani and I am amazed no one has marketed it in in the USA. Should I? Let’s see. Indian cuisine is known across the globe for its flavours. I always consider our number one competition to be Indian food.