Among the successful businesses here in Arizona is Aaron Pool’s Gadzooks Enchiladas and Soup. On today’s edition of Desert Dreamers, Aaron shares the story of how he turned his dream into reality, and how a small restaurant expanded into five locations in almost ten years. Aaron takes us on his entrepreneurial journey with the hope of redefining the food industry.
Kristen Keogh: Hey, thanks so much for joining us on Desert Dreamers presented by Local First Arizona, I’m your host Kristen Keogh. In each episode, you get to hear from a local businessman or woman who went from dreaming it to doing it and today we are joined by owner of Gadzooks Enchiladas and Soups, Aaron Pool. Aaron, thanks for being here.
Aaron Pool: Thank you.
Kristen Keogh: I’m stoked because this is one of my absolute go-to spots to grab some food in Arizona and I’m blown away by the path that you’ve taken because we both graduated from ASU in 2009. And in that time, you have managed to open four locations in Arizona plus you have Gadzooks being sold at Hewlett River arena, so technically it’s almost five.
Aaron Pool: Yeah, kind of.
Kristen Keogh: There’s kind of the West Valley location there. What a journey. How did this all begin? How did you get the idea for enchiladas?
Aaron Pool: Yeah, I mean, I tell everyone about how Gadzooks came to be. I mean, it’s stupid, right? It’s just but it’s, it’s fun and that’s kind of what Gadzooks is, it’s just like this kind of quirky, fun brand. But I was a freshmen ASU in 2005 and we’re up on, I had an idea in my microeconomics class, I’d like to doodle stuff, and I like knew that I wanted to do a restaurant even though no one in my family had ever worked in a restaurant. So I had this idea, I remember coming home to my parents, I’m like, ‘hey, I want to do a, I don’t know what it’s going to be, but I want to do like a quick-service restaurant.’ So then flash forward to the winter of 2005, my first winter break, and my mom made a chicken enchilada casserole that I think a lot of probably families have across the US and, you know, just very basic, but we’re up in Lake Tahoe and then like a light bulb goes off in my head, I’m like
Kristen Keogh: This is it.
Aaron Pool: Enchiladas! That’s it. Because I was trying to find a niche, right, something different and unique. And I think that’s what it comes down to when starting a business is like, why should you even exist? And for me, it was like, well, I need to find a niche. And I’m like, well, what about enchiladas? Because I thought even at that time back in 2005, I thought, burritos and tacos were already saturated. I mean, we’re talking about 14, 15 years ago.
Kristen Keogh: Yeah. Chipotle was reigning too at that time.
Aaron Pool: Yeah, yeah. And I’m like, I wonder what, you know, enchiladas; I grew up in Phoenix and I have the same I think, horrifying experiences as a lot of people were, you’d have that. You could tell a corn tortilla came out of a bag, orange cheese, red sauce. It didn’t taste like anything, some diced white onion and then they put some shredded lettuce in black olive on top.
Kristen Keogh: Yeah, yours are way better than that.
Aaron Pool: And then that’s like how you would think of an enchilada and then when I created the concept for Gadzooks is like redefining, when we say redefining enchilada, it’s literally taking these things that I found in San Francisco, in New Mexico, parts of Mexico, that you tie it all together. And that’s where you can get Christmas style sauce and a sunny egg on top or pico de gallo. I had never seen pickled onions on enchiladas until a trip maybe to California somewhere.
Kristen Keogh: So you have no experience in the restaurant industry. And you really hadn’t even cooked up until this point, right?
Aaron Pool: No.
Kristen Keogh: So take me through what it was like for you to try to perfect a recipe and come up with something that you were proud to sell them that you knew people would like.
Aaron Pool: Yeah, and the silly thing about the whole, all the recipes like I had never worked in a restaurant never you know waited or nothing. So very naive going into it. And then cooking, I always loved baking with my mom, something about it’s just very…
Kristen Keogh: It’s like soothing. It’s like therapy, right?
Aaron Pool: Yeah, you’re just measuring stuff whereas cooking is different. You know, you kind of can throw and play around with stuff. But when I was developing on all my, my recipes, I was living at home with my parents. And, for example, I would spend all day trying to figure out how to braise; like what I thought was just beef. So I didn’t know. I thought it was the weirdest thing. How did how did places figure out how to like shred meat, like that’s how naive I was, and like I don’t know how to like cook something to make it shred.
Kristen Keogh: Or how do I make it that tender?
Aaron Pool: Yeah, so you start with like a cut of meat, now you get like a chuck roast because that’s what they said like well, like break down.
Kristen Keogh: Yeah.
Aaron Pool: And then I would cook it in like a stainless steel pot at 400 degrees for like eight hours like they said with however much liquid in it and then it would be cooking for eight hours. I would take it out of the oven, open the pot up and go to shred it and it would just like, it would just do this it would…
Kristen Keogh: Disintegrate.
Aaron Pool: …it wouldn’t, it wouldn’t shred and it would like bounce like a bouncing ball. You know, I’m like ‘oh my God’, I don’t know how to do this. Well then you start you start figuring out like okay, what kind of cut am I using? What kind of pot in my cooking it in? At what temperature? How long? What’s my liquid level because it’s going to reduce. So you start figuring out, like playing with different things. And I think it was one of the greatest things ever when I figured out, like, I pulled out a pot, maybe like pork shoulder and like I put my fork through it, and it just like fell apart.
Kristen Keogh: Oh, hallelujah.
Aaron Pool: It was like a TV show. I’m like, ‘Oh my God.’
Kristen Keogh: You know, they say that different phases of your life or will require a new version of yourself. And I feel like that’s the perfect example of that. But I do think that a lot of people run into a lot of frustration in that phase of being an entrepreneur where you have this great idea, but then when it’s time to actually go do that hard work. It’s so easy to get frustrated and say, ‘You know what, forget it. I’ll just go work 40 hours a week for someone else.’ What was it that kept you persistent at that time, no matter how frustrated you got?
Aaron Pool: Yeah, for me, this one, like, it’s so vital. It’s like persistence, right? And it’s like, well, then there you get to that challenging part of like, to persevere through anything, sometimes you get like, well, should it feel this hard? Should it be this difficult through every step of the way? And luckily for me, my roommates, my mom and dad, but especially my mom, right? She was, she was at home with me and I would spend all day cooking red sauce, for example, I’d make five different versions and everything would suck, right? And I would try and like, ‘Oh my god’, you just want to give up because you’re like, ‘if I can’t even do it reddish enchilada sauce, I’ve got like 40 other things I got to figure out. How am I going to figure out all these other things?’, and she would come in and she should be like, ‘Aaron, don’t be discouraged’. And ‘you’re going to figure this out’. And I, I think the key is, it doesn’t matter. I was getting 90 literally like 99% of people telling me ‘don’t do it’ for various reasons, if it was financial, if it was because it was the restaurant industry and you don’t know what you’re getting into, etc, etc. And I always say it’s, if you have just one, all it takes is one person literally; not like a dozen. It’s just one person, if you have one person that you respect, that is encouraging you, and pushes you through to persevere. That’s all that it takes. Because I would be at rock bottom right where I just wanted to give up, and she could come in and make it all better. You know what I’m saying?
Kristen Keogh: Wow. Shoutout to mom.
Aaron Pool: Yeah, but it’s true, though. I mean, it’s just if you have that one person that like encourages you and that you also respect and know well, then that’s, that’s what can get you through the 99 other people that say ‘no’, you know.
Kristen Keogh: I love that. It is such an important part of all of this is having a support system. And I like that you say just one person because most people will be discouraging when you’re chasing a dream. Really, that’s just the reality of being an entrepreneur, unfortunately, so, but there were some really daunting aspects of this; you know, you’re, you’re very young at this time, you don’t have that experience. How did you get the money? That’s, that’s the question everyone’s wondering. How did you get the money?
Aaron Pool: Yeah. And, you know, I went the same route everyone would go, I went to Chase, you know, well I don’t want to call out all, but big banks.
Kristen Keogh: All the big banks.
Aaron Pool: All the big banks. It’s the same story every time. Like, yeah, Aaron, come on in, you just got to open this business account, this business credit card checking account, and then you got to transfer your personal account over to us. So I do that, and then I can talk to a lender. So once I would do all that. And I would want to proceed to talk to the lender like, ‘Well, no, you can’t, you know, qualify for a loan, because you don’t have any money. You don’t have any experience.’ I mean, it was just a list of things.
Kristen Keogh: Yeah. And that’s got to be the most discouraging feeling in the world when they don’t even give you the time of day to listen to what the business plan is and see, even know what the product is just don’t even care about you enough.
Aaron Pool: Right. And this is back in 2000. I’m trying to find, to find financing in 2010/2011.
Kristen Keogh: That was a rough time in financing, so yeah.
Aaron Pool: There’s no loans, there’s no construction at Phoenix. It’s so night and day from where we are now. So what happened was, my parents remembered their first mortgage that they had got in Phoenix. And they knew that there’s some brothers that that had started that bank, they had sold it in theirs; they had started another bank maybe five or 10 years prior. So they somehow find this person’s contact, I call up. It was Pinnacle bank at the time, they’ve recently been acquired, but they just had the one branch up in North Scottsdale. And I called them they’re like, ‘you know, that’s an interesting business plan you have Aaron, why don’t you come up and we could discuss it in person’. So I thought for sure, I’m going to go up there. It’s going to be the same bait and switch, whatever. So I get there and they lead me to the actual boardroom and I’m like, ‘Oh, this is different, because I never got past the front.’
Kristen Keogh: Oh wow, I feel like I’m actually respected here, this is weird.
Aaron Pool: And they go in there and there’s like the four or five executives of this bank. I’m like, ‘oh my God’. So that was like, big time moment.
Kristen Keogh: Was your heart like racing when you saw all these people?
Aaron Pool: Yeah, I was like ‘Oh my God’, because I’ve got my business plan. And then I’m like, oh, I’ve got to actually pitch that, like what I learned at Arizona State, you know, you’re going to give, not even an elevator pitch, but just a pitch in general. And it’s a little bit ‘fake-it-till-you-make-it’ right, where I’ve got this business plan and the business plan forced me to identify a market, why we should exist or differentiation, you know, on and on and on. And I had the menu, but I still, you know, where I was faking it. I didn’t know how to cook 75% of the stuff. So I’m pitching, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, its great guys. You know, we’ve got our Modelo-braised bison’. I don’t even know if you could braise bison.
Kristen Keogh: That is hilarious.
Aaron Pool: Yeah.
Kristen Keogh: ‘Oh my God’, but it worked out. That’s how you ended up getting a huge loan.
Aaron Pool: Yeah. So it just happened to be the property that was identified on Seventh Street in Osborn was for sale. And the only way that I could get the loan, because it was an SBA loan, a 7A was they could collateralize the loan with that property, that’s the only way. If I was just going to do a lease, and I needed say, $600,000 I could have never gotten the loan, because if I default, they have nothing to collateralize I have, I had like $22,000 and I had not a single asset, you know, I was just at mom and dad’s house, but the most expensive thing I owned was probably, like, maybe a laptop, you know.
Kristen Keogh: Yeah.
Aaron Pool: It was crazy. So it just so happened to work out where they could collateralize the loan with purchasing that property. And then you were able to get that loan because I only had to come up with 10% of the total loan. So say, a million bucks, I had to find out $100,000 which how a traditional loan was for restaurants especially, they want you to come up with like 40% of the total, which makes no sense. So that’s where I had to go find friends and family to see if they could lend me 100,000 bucks, which is much more attainable than the other way.
Kristen Keogh: So what would you say to someone who knows that they’re going to have to go down that road where they have to sell their plan, and their dream to these executives who are deciding their fate? How do you prepare for that?
Aaron Pool: I mean, you, you can’t, you literally can’t prepare for it. And like you can it’s one of those things, you’ll always say you’re not ready. You’re always going to be like, you know, ‘I just, I need more time I kind of like figure these, this part of the business plan out or I need to do some other thing.’ At some point, you just got to, you just have to go in and you have to be, I mean, you have to be naive, right? I mean it’s, so if you knew all the answers then you would never do anything. So I was super naive, I just went in there and then you, you’re going to have situations that’s not going to be controllable, you know, and you’re just going to have to, it’s not winging it, but you just got to go with it. And I remember I think at the time when I was doing that, I read like, the infamous like Steve Jobs book and he always made the comment about like, you know, all the all, I don’t know, this isn’t the exact quote but he’s like, all fear of failure and all fear of embarrassment washes away in the face of death. And I always thought that’s very fascinating because you’re like, ‘well, if I freaking drop dead tomorrow, like asking for this loan, it’s a penny on a bucket.’
Kristen Keogh: Not a big deal.
Aaron Pool: It’s not a big deal. It really in the grand scheme…
Kristen Keogh: Just a little blip on the radar.
Aaron Pool: Yeah. And it’s not, you know, being embarrassed or it’s, it doesn’t matter.
Kristen Keogh: You really have to let the ego go…
Aaron Pool: You really have to let the ego go.
Kristen Keogh: And sacrifice it and just go with what you know, your dream is leading you to.
Aaron Pool: Yeah.
Kristen Keogh: …which is terrifying, but it must be done. So now I mean, you have these amazing restaurants, amazing food; it’s hard for me to believe that there was a time when the recipes weren’t working because I enjoy your food. I probably have Gadzooks once a week, it’s an absolute go-to for me. What is it like for you to now walk into your restaurants and see people eating your recipes and then coming back for more because they’re loyal customers?
Aaron Pool: Yeah, I mean, it’s, it is a crazy feeling. I mean, and it’s all relative like from, I remember opening the restaurant; this is a weird thing about it too. So I’m making all these, these recipes that mom and dad and once I figure out how to make something, I just like check it off and I work on the next thing. No one other than me and my parents had ever tasted Gadzooks until we opened, like from the public, until we open it.
Kristen Keogh: Wow…
Aaron Pool: And that’s psycho, right? But it’s…
Kristen Keogh: I kind of love it because you’re not going to get discouraged ahead of time.
Aaron Pool: Exactly, so…
Kristen Keogh: That’s what I love about it.
Aaron Pool: And I think there had to be some, I mean, as being naive, there has to be some confidence there, I guess when you reflect back of like, I had to believe my palate. And I had to be like, I think this is good. And I think people are going to find this good. And I didn’t, because when I started finding if I had anyone try like something, there’s always going to be like 10 comments of like, ‘well, it could, you can adjust this’ and then you’re going to just lose your way because you can’t be everything for everyone, right? So you just have to believe in what you do. And that’s what we did with Gadzooks is you know, we’re a food brand first. So the reason why we exist is because I believe the exceptional quality and consistency and flavor profiles of all the food. So when I made the product from the corn tortillas that we freshly make in the restaurant or the half and half tortilla to the sliced pickled onions to the salsa rojas, I benchmark like ‘who makes the best flour tortilla’, ‘who makes the best shredded beef’ and I benchmarked what who I felt was best in its class. And any of the recipes that I made, I felt had to taste as good or better than what that benchmark was and that’s where you get the really special flavors and textures and colors at Gadzooks, right. And you can, you know, I get a chicken enchilada with a short rib enchilada, the Christmas sauce and the freshly grated Chihuahua cheese.
Kristen Keogh: It’s all so good.
Aaron Pool: You get a (unclear. 16:30) and the honey vinegar slaw and a lava salt, you know, and you’re just getting those different layers of flavors, textures, colors, and then that’s when you like, bite into it. You’re like, ‘Oh my God’, like, ‘I don’t know if I’ve had this flavor combination’.
Kristen Keogh: Yeah. It’s unlike anything else.
Aaron Pool: And for like, and we’re all about, you know, you’re just, it’s kind of and that’s kind of how I just like live it’s you’re under promising and over delivering. Like someone looks at me and they’re like, ‘okay, that guy is an idiot,’ you know, whatever.
Kristen Keogh: They’re like ‘does that guy make enchiladas?’
Aaron Pool: And then you just let the, you know, a place called get Gadzooks enchiladas and soups, you know, you’re under delivering and like people thinking like, that place probably sucks and then they eat and they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is wonderful, this is awesome.’
Kristen Keogh: Yeah, and they call their friends.
Aaron Pool: Yeah.
Kristen Keogh: Yeah, you know I really love what you’ve said about not being able to please everyone along the way. And I’m really big on hoping that everyone finds their way and chases their dream because we would all be missing out on this if you would have exposed yourself to one person who discouraged you and kept you from following that dream. And I always think that’s so scary that that one opinion because you know that there are so many people who didn’t chase their dreams because of that one opinion that scared them off. So thank you for sticking to it and for bringing something so awesome to our community. What would you say to the person out there who has a dream just like you did but they don’t have the courage quite yet to go chase it?
Aaron Pool: Yeah, I mean, I think you hit on it so well just now, it’s don’t let; you have to identify that one person, that like just one person that you believe in, that is encouraging – stay, have them stay close to you, and all the people discouraging you. I mean, ultimately, if, that’s what’s so sad about is like, if you get these people discouraging you to create an idea that you have in your head, you don’t get some you don’t get an enchilada shop named Gadzooks.
Kristen Keogh: That would suck.
Aaron Pool: You know, and that’s what’s so bizarre. It’s like always you, I’m just such a believer in just encouraging people to do like what they want to pursue because we’re going to; we get rewarded as consumers with what, when people actually get to go and create something. And I always say like, what was hard for me is like, being an entrepreneur, you’ve got this idea in your head and you’re trying to paint a picture. For people and no one’s going to get it, the architects not going to get it. I remember our architects saying like, ‘okay, so it’s like, you know, you’re going to have your like bean bar over here and this is why…’ and we’re like, ‘No, no, it’s not that at all.’ And you’re, what you’re trying to explain this and then the most gratifying thing is you, you get to the point where you build a restaurant, and you start making your food. And then people start coming in and your friends and family and everything that couldn’t quite grasp it, and then it all makes sense. And they’re like ‘now I get what you’re saying there’ and like in your trying to piece it together for them but you can’t let that get discouraged. Don’t let other people what, what they say or why you can’t succeed or whatever discourage you, you just have to continue to push through and persevere.
Kristen Keogh: And they don’t need to understand.
Aaron Pool: They don’t need to understand. No, no, they don’t.
Kristen Keogh: Yeah, as long as you have it in your head and your heart and you keep going. And I love what you said about finding that one person who will support you, that’s a great takeaway. Aaron, fascinating story and delicious foods. So thank you so much, it was wonderful getting to learn more about one of my favorite spots in the valley.
Aaron Pool: Yeah, thank you.
Kristen Keogh: Thank you for joining us. We’ll catch you next time on Desert Dreamers.
Find and understand the emotional response to what you are doing, so it can help you navigate even in tough times. Creating a career around doing something you love is the greatest success for any entrepreneur. Even when they are at the brink of giving up, their heart is in it, and they are encouraged to continue.