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Guru's spurs passion — and interest

When the founders of Guru's merged their dreams to create a "mini youth foundation" in every restaurant, they turned to the wisdom of socially minded sages for inspiration.

Little did they know their idea would also attract gurus of a different kind.

Kevin Hall and Deven Moreno's novel concept of creating a business that would develop and motivate its young employee "partners" while also supporting a private youth foundation and community causes has attracted attention from some of the industry's heavy hitters.

With just four Utah locations to its name since first opening its doors in July 1999, Guru's Restaurant has caught the eye of the national media, leading to meetings with Macaroni Grill founder Phil Romano and industry legend Norm Brinker, among others.

Hall and Moreno reported spending an afternoon feeding the homeless from a van with Los Angeles-based California Pizza Kitchen founder Larry Flax — a practice they say he has continued.

Even Starbucks icon Howard Schultz has called.

"For this little, tiny concept in Utah, we've sure had some tremendous contacts," Moreno said.

Better yet, Hall said, each meeting has imparted the kind of practical insight money can't buy.

"Does the socially responsible thing work? Well, it's sure given us invaluable expertise we didn't have to pay a dime for," he said. "The challenge is keeping that pure."

Heck, even the restaurant's signature plates, emblazoned with memorable quotes such as Henry David Thoreau's "Be not simply good, be good for something" or Oscar Wilde's "Life is far too important to be taken seriously," are on their way to becoming a million-dollar business, Hall said.

Both have been windfalls to the two men's originally separate missions.

For Hall, a former Franklin Quest executive and motivational speaker who "retired" at age 35, the goal was to provide a continuing funding source for the private foundation he and wife Sherry began to oversee the "physical, social, mental and spiritual" development of at-risk youths. Construction is under way on their Guru University on 3,500 acres in the Uintas.

For Moreno, a former Einstein Bros. Bagels area manager who grew up working in his grandmother's successful San Bernardino restaurant, the dream was to create a workplace where each employee was a true partner in the business.

"So we put our two dreams together," Moreno said. "We both felt passionate about including them in the business."

The business is now 25 percent owned by the Guru's Foundation — a stake both owners claim will remain larger than their own.

And Guru's partners each receive 365 shares in the business after one year of employment — a potentially nice nest egg if expansion plans materialize. All are encouraged to do four hours of paid community service each month, budgeted at $1,200 a month for each restaurant location.

"Our kids get passionate about it," Hall said. "Half the time these crazy kids, they don't even bill us back for it."

With about 75 percent staff participation, partners feed meals to at-risk kids each week, volunteer with the Special Olympics and several cancer-related causes and recently helped collect 13,986 cans of food for the Utah Food Bank in four weeks.

An added by-product has been low employee turnover, high productivity and good morale, according to managers.

"We benefit from it, too," said Kim Johnson, who oversees Guru's community service projects. "We certainly do it for the right reasons, but as PR and what we get from our employees, it's pretty incredible."

"It makes you feel good about going to work and like you're doing something different than just serving food," said 18-year-old Landon Fitzgerald, who single-handedly collected 1,592 cans in the Food Bank drive. Helping those who are less fortunate has been rewarding and an eye-opener, he said.

"It's just a reality smack in the face," Fitzgerald said. "Because for me, everything is real abundant."

Hall goes so far as to prescribe Guru's brand of community service as a cure for teen angst.

"To me it's like you have a mini youth foundation in every store," he said.

"You initially do the projects to say, 'We're going to go out and help the community.' But that's not the real impact," Moreno said. "The real impact is in the partners."