Business Profile: Pacific Wok Teriyaki Grill Brings Healthy Asian-Fusion Food to Central Minnesota
When you walk into the Pacific Wok Teriyaki Grill, you might imagine you're about to eat at a trendy regional or national franchise quick-service restaurant with a big marketing budget.
You would be very wrong.
Pacific Wok -- or "PacWok" as it's known -- is unique to the St. Cloud area. Its only two locations, on Sartell's Pinecone Road and in downtown St. Cloud, are the brainchild of 42-year-old Brandon Testa. And the menu is unlike any other in the area.
"It's very simple food," says Testa, describing PacWok's small, Japanese-influenced menu. It ranges from noodle and rice bowls made of steak, chicken, shrimp or salmon, to "Samurai Salads" to steamrollers and sushi.
But this is not traditional Asian cuisine.
No Raw Fish
"We don't have anything fried here," says Testa. "It's either fire-grilled or steamed." "There's no raw fish" in PacWok's sushi, either. That's made with rice and veggies and cooked proteins.
The restaurants' motto is "Fresh, Healthy, Fast" which sums up Testa's vision to provide good-tasting, healthy food at an affordable price. "People get a little freaked out when they hear Japanese food," he says. "But once they taste our food, they understand."
He concedes the concept for PacWok comes from a similar restaurant he worked at while going to college in Colorado. He says he did everything in that restaurant from washing dishes to ultimately managing the store.
Testa made the decision to return to Central Minnesota. He took a leave from his career with "Wok & Roll Teriyaki" to come home and help his dad with his restaurant, St. Cloud's legendary "House of Pizza."
In early 2001, Testa ultimately bought the business from his dad and started running things his own way.
"I learned a lot and made a lot of mistakes," he says.
In 2002, Testa says he was approached by the developer of a new Sartell shopping center -- Pinecone Marketplace -- to expand his pizza business there.
It was a great opportunity.
But always in the back of his head was an idea to create a healthy, Asian-style quick service restaurant, inspired by the one he worked at and managed in Colorado.
So with his future landlord's consent, his restaurant management experience and $60,000 in student loan debt, Testa went to the bank to finance not only a new "House of Pizza" in the Pinecone Marketplace, but his quick-serve Asian-fusion concept restaurant -- the Pacific Wok Teriyaki Grill -- as well.
"I didn't have anything but drawings and a business plan of what I envisioned," he says.
He got the loan. And the first PacWok opened in April 2004 in Sartell.
But initially, Pacific Wok wasn't a big hit.
"We've built this brand," Testa says. "We gave away a lot of food the first two years" to get people to try it. But once people tasted it, Testa says they understood. Many became loyal fans.
Then 2008 happened.
The most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression was hammering America in 2008. Business nosedived amid the uncertainty.
Business was bad. Testa struggled and began reassessing the Sartell expansion. "[Our landlord] worked with us during that time. Without him, we wouldn't have stayed open."
He became more than his landlord. "I consider him my friend today," Testa says.
As the economy got better, so did business. And by 2009, Testa opened another PacWok in downtown St. Cloud, just a block or so from his original House of Pizza on 5th Avenue.
Today, Testa oversees all four restaurants and over 100 employees. And every month or so, he gets at least one email asking how someone can buy a PacWork franchise.
"I send them each a nice email telling them I'll put them on the short list."
It may be a while before they hear from Testa again.
"I have 11- and 14-year-old boys," he says, "and that's more important to me than franchising or expanding right now." "I don't always make it to their games or concerts," he says. "But I do what I can."
Expanding the brand, he explains, is not off the table. "Would I entertain the idea of expanding someday? Yeah, if it felt right."
For now, Testa says PacWok is focused on better serving its health-conscious customers in Central Minnesota. They introduced "Power Add-Ons" earlier this year -- foods like eggs, avocado and edamame beans to help customers punch-up their nutrition and further customize their bowls. Testa says that was also an effort to make PacWok's offerings more of a dinner option, rather than just lunch. And he says they're working on ideas of dinner catering options for busy families.
Is there a secret sauce for Brandon Testa's success with Pacific Wok?
Well, here's what he says has worked for him:
- Get involved in your community and donate your time. Testa coaches, donates to local causes and is a big supporter of Sartell and St. Cloud. "It's important to give back to your community."
- Be prepared to do the work. Testa says he learned early on he needed to do what it takes to get the job done, no matter what the job. "You're no better or worse than any other employee."
- Don't go too big right way. Testa says he opened -- and had to close -- a PacWok in Kenosha, Wisconsin. "Not a lot of fun."
- Find your mentors and surround yourself with smart people and friends -- at and away from work. That includes bigger companies and vendors who continue to help improve his restaurants with their knowledge and expertise.
- Always look for good people to work with you. Testa says they're always looking to hire smart, hard-working people. "There's an opportunity to learn a lot here."
Pacific Wok Teriyaki Grill
Pinecone Marketplace, Sartell | 320-258-7200
Downtown St. Cloud | 320-257-5200
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