Mahasti Vafaie on Taking the Plunge into Restaurant Ownership
Fresh out of college and uncertain of whether to further her studies in engineering or to switch gears to pursue her passion for foodservice, Mahasti Vafaie chose to go with her gut. Unable to say goodbye to the comfort and excitement she found in a busy kitchen while paying her way through college, she opted to forgo her graduate program and get to work in the kitchen.
With her mind made up, she dove back back into what existed of a Knoxville food scene in the early 90’s. She was balancing her time between two local restaurants and in the thick of the only formal education she would receive in preparing for life as a restaurant entrepreneur. It wasn’t long before Mahasti’s drive had her headed toward the development of her very own concept: The Flying Tomato.
The Flying Tomato: On Making it Work
In the early days, there was no plan. It was a keep-your-head-above-water kind of start driven by a passion for the industry. With much to learn and no option for failure, it was a time of experimentation and creative problem solving. Early on, the restaurant was limited to lunch service by the small, but hard working staff of four. They worked every shift and felt a personal responsibility to make it work.
Serving the moderately-sized, commuter downtown community, the majority of clientele were lawyers and bankers – nothing quite like the city dweller vibe it has today.
The kitchen was secondhand, sort of a skeleton of the pizza joint that once occupied the space. Unbeknownst to Mahasti, those hand-me-down ovens would eventually be responsible for thousands of delicious pizzas and satisfied customers. But that wouldn’t happen until they conquered the task of getting folks through the door.
There were a few tactics employed in the early days to encourage dining at the restaurant. With no marketing budget, this was when the creative problem solving came into effect. The team got together and crafted flyers for the local community, they conned friends and family to come check the place out, and eventually opened for dinner service and promoted it through the live music offering by the band Exit 65.
Ultimately, the band drew the crowd, but the food kept them coming back. When reflecting on those tough first days, Mahasti explains, “If it wasn’t for the staff’s desire to make it survive, it wouldn’t have lasted. Honestly, we probably wouldn’t have opened for dinner that third week, which is how long it was until we had a single dinner customer. “
Developing the Brand:
With a relatively small weekly order, Mahasti had to look for alternate forms of sourcing food products. The major food suppliers wouldn’t provide an account for such a small order, so she looked to local farmers and bakers. She would purchase locally when possible and relied heavily on her community to keep her restaurant stocked with quality ingredients. The menu changed often and typically was dictated by what was available. Mahasti and her cook approached each day with the question, “What can we cook today?” Ultimately, this led to a farm-to-table menu long before the style had a name or a following.
The evolution of the menu was a joint effort. The staff would present ideas for items and Mahasti would go to work testing the viability of the suggestions – a tactic she learned from her early chef mentors while working in college. The development of the menu was a combination of employee and customer opinions and requests. The crowd sourced menu has become more consistent since the early days, but customers continue to return time and again for the menu offering everything from locally-sourced, vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free, to just simple fresh cooking.
Around year five, things settled into a routine, the menu was set, the team was growing, the name had changed, and the customers were loyal. Mahasti began considering renovations and expansion to both the restaurant and her family. The constant focus on the next opportunity has kept a momentum that’s sustained what has become a local favorite.
Expansion, Change, and Perpetual Planning:
From that first dinner customer to the days of lines out the door, much has changed. The restaurant is now known as the Tomato Head, Mahasti has expanded to two locations, and the brand also includes Flour Head Bakery. As Mahasti looks toward the future, she knows there is much in store. While the planning isn’t always meticulously calculated, she continues to look for the opportunities that present themselves.
Just a few years ago, she wouldn’t have imagined her products being sold in a chain of national grocery stores but if you’re driving through Knoxville and happen to pop into a Kroger, you’ll find her famous hummus and Flour Head baked goods. The Tomato Head may have started out as a dream and a daring escape from life as an engineer, but through intentional creativity, confidence in the team she employed, and reliance on good food, Mahasti has grown her little lunch spot into quite the family of businesses.
As I wrapped up my chat, I asked Mahasti what she would share with young entrepreneurs. This was certainly the part of the conversation in which her expertise shined. So, for you budding entrepreneurs, here’s what she had to say:
Mahasti’s 5 Keys to Success:
1. If you love it, you absolutely must do it
2. Don’t undervalue the importance of being well-funded but don’t let that limit you
3. Know you must let go if you’re heart isn’t in it
4. Work in a restaurant before you think of opening your own
5. Most importantly, serve the food you want to eat
Be sure to stop into the Tomato Head the next time you are in town or find Flour Head baked goods at a local Kroger. For more information on Mahasti Vafaie’s family of businesses, visit www.thetomatohead.com.