So its Monday, May 25, 2015 and things could not be going better for Peli Peli.  We are one month into the opening of our Galleria location, and the team we have there is full of love and sales are encouraging.  We are negotiating leases for a flagship Peli Peli location in my second hometown – Austin, Texas (hook em!) – and for our first Peli Peli Kitchen concept at I-10 and Campbell.  This will be our franchise/fast casual concept focusing on comfort foods (think of a South African Pei Wei but better, way better!)

This month was also stressful because I completed my first Ironman (barely! 16:24!) at the Ironman Texas (Woodlands) on May 16th!  Lots and lots of blessings to count so far in 2015. But there is one event that has been on my mind since the end of January, and its our upcoming “Starry Night” service event with the Star of Hope.  This is the 2nd event of my initiative to change the way people look at service and to encourage people to give something sometimes way more valuable than money – their time.

For this event, Peli Peli will shut its doors for dinner on Monday, June 15th, and serve a complimentary, 3-course dinner experience to over 150 clients of the Star of Hope!  We will have 50 of our Peli Peli customers come out and serve with us including assisting the hostesses, bartenders, and servers.  This idea was born from conversations that I had with our brand master, Chan Do, and his experience with charities and other service events.  The point of our service event to is give the clients a night they might not ever experience.  Remind them that through all of the darkness they have experienced, that there are people out there who do care about them because they matter.  We will have makeup artists come out and give them free makeovers and touchups before their dinner and have a professional photographer captures photos of them all night – for them to have as a keepsake afterwards.  Yes we are going to lose a lot of money doing this event but honestly, if we didnt, then to me, it really wouldnt mean as much right?  We have to set the right example and it needs to be one of selflessness and sacrifice.

We want to encourage other restaurants to do the same thing and shut down their business on a night to serve an organization of their choice.  So far through initial contacts by Kimberly Park, our PR guru, we have interest from Justin Turner from Bernie’s Burger Bus and Ryan Pera from Coltivare.   My goal is to have 10-15 of the best restaurants in Houston close down on a night next year and serve an organization that they support.  Each one will allow their customers to participate and volunteer as well.  How amazing would that be?  I think Houston has something more than any other city in the US, and thats heart.  This would be one hell of a way to show it!

So why am I doing this and where did this all come from?  Good question!  I get asked that a lot. I wish I could tell you that I have a history of volunteering and that I have always been about giving back and charity work.  But I can’t (boooo).  Im actually kind of selfish and have mostly focused on my personal goals of making Peli Peli a household name and spending time with my beautiful wife Kristine and my 3-year old son, Tyson (a black pug – adorable!)

ack in June of 2014, our company planned a trip to Las Vegas with some of our management like we do every year (snowboarding trip is in January – yes, we are spoiled).  It was during the World Cup, and all I could think about was catching the game at a casino with good friends and even better beer (sweet girly beer of course).  Lots of it.  I mean what else do you do in Vegas?  haha.  My business partner and best bud, Michael Tran, had coordinated the trip but with one additional item on the itinerary – we had to spend a day volunteering with an organization.  He wouldnt tell us which one until that morning.  It is called Opportunity Village and provides support and training for special needs and those with intellectual disabilities.  I remember my first thought when I saw this was “this sucks!  ugh really Michael – what a party pooper”.  I mean seriously?  People dont go to Vegas to do these kinds of things do they?  or so i thought.

One more thing to mention about myself – I have a hard time dealing with special needs and intellectually disabled individuals because I cant help but feel so bad for them.  Like how unfair is their life?  I cant even watch the Special Olympics without crying, so I knew this was going to be a very difficult day.  My feelings ranged from annoyance (we would be missing one of the U.S. World Cup games) to sadness and pity.
There were three different levels at Opportunity Village with Level 1 being those who were performing job tasks for income, Level 2 being those who just needed occasional supervision and then Level 3 being those who were basically completely incapacitated.  I looked at my other business partner, Chef Paul Friedman, and we both knew for some reason we were going to be with the Level 3 kids.  I knew I was going to have a difficult time being there, but for some reason it just made sense that if I was going to be there, that I would need to be in the place that would be least comfortable.  Over the next few hours we spent time trying to play with the kids, having lunch with the workers, interacting with the staff and even helping to transport the kids to their wheelchaired-equipped schoolbuses at the end of the day.  Some of the staff that were there did not plan to be there as an employee, but ended up there through life circumstances.  I saw the difficulties that they had to deal with every day, and even understood some of the difficulties that the parents dealt with in their personal lives.  The staff at Opportunity Village were amazing and had the heart to make it a better place, but for me, all I could see was sadness and despair.  At the end of the day, the Peli Peli team all shared our experiences with each other and what we learned from the experience.  I felt really stupid about caring so much about watching the US World Cup game.  I felt very lucky that my parents, as much as they have suffered in their lives, to me still had it better than any of the parents I met that day.  I also personally felt really thankful, that no matter what was going on in my life that I definitely did not suffer like the kids in that room.
Every day I complain about trivial things, like how my sleep could have been better, how much traffic sucks, how much work I have, why things dont always go my way, why I dont have more money, why my mom cant just be proud of me for being a restaurateur.  These things used to be important to me until that day.  Until I realized that what I complain about in my life is so stupid and relatively unimportant.
So eventually we came back to Houston and went back to our normal lives.  All in all, it was a memorable trip filled with team building, a little bit of blackjack losses and lots and lots of eating.  We had a ton of pictures, and I remember sharing my experience with some of our regulars at Peli Peli Vintage Park.  But one day, after telling my experience for what seemed like the 100th time, I remember one of them saying to me, “wow, I wish I could have experienced something like that”.
“I wish I could have experienced something like that”.  Such a simple sentence yet it made so much sense to me.  Why couldnt we give our customers an experience like that or at least set up an experience for them to serve like we did?  How unreal would it have been if our customers could go through what I experienced?
So the light switch came on and I realized that we could really make this happen. Peli Peli could create an amazing experience for a local organization where its members would have an experience they have never had before, and it would allow our own customers to come out and serve with us.  No requests for money, just time. The first Peli Peli service project was with the Sunshine Kids Foundation in Houston, Texas which is a non-profit dedicated to children with cancer.  On January 24th, we threw the first ever, South African Culinary Carnival, in which we had Chef Paul make every child a “Chef” for a day, cooking demonstrations, 8 different food stations featuring South African cuisine, face painting, and balloon making.  Over 180 kids and parents and 48 Peli Peli customers came out and enjoyed a wonderful day together.  Walking around that day and seeing all of these kids smile and have fun, seeing our customers take time to make them crafts and laughing, I felt for the first time that there had to be a bigger reason for all of this.  My skill set, all of the blessings I have been given by God, where my life had ended up.  It all had to have a bigger meaning and maybe this was it.
The success of the Sunshine Kids event gave me the clarity of what I needed to do moving forward.  I will create the most unbelievable service projects that will change the way people look at what it means to serve.  Yes, it can be dirty and tiring and inconvenient.  But it can also be fun, life-changing and fulfilling.  I think most people do care and want to give back but do not know how.  If we can create these experiences and encourage more and more people to give back with their time, to share these experiences with those less fortunate, how much could that impact their own lives?
All of our service projects are meant to be grown and replicated. I want to encourage other restaurants to do the same thing.  Create an experience for the staff of these organizations and their members.  Allow your own customers to give a few hours of their time to volunteer.
On Monday, June 15th, (my 39th birthday as well!) we will give an experience to those who have been dealt a very difficult hand in life.  Show them that people do care and that there is hope.  Experience what it means to be selfless and to care about total strangers. Lets see how much of a change we can make.  I promise you will come away from this experience with a different perspective on life.  Promise!  Serve, change & inspire.  Who will join me?
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