Frank Hennessey, President and CEO, Bento Sushi

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Evolving guest experiences: Frank Hennessey, President and CEO, Bento Sushi
By Steven Chester
Septebmer 12, 2013

 

Frank Hennessey, President and CEO, Bento Sushi


Frank Hennessey says his greatest strength is curiosity. While tackling constant conundrums regarding guest preferences and human behaviour, his persistence has helped Bento Sushi grow exponentially since his arrival just over three years ago.

Hennessey became enamoured with the foodservice business despite an unsuccessful test run. After finishing a degree in history and political science at the University of Western Ontario, Hennessey’s first foodservice venture saw him joining a couple of friends in opening up an O’Toole’s franchise.

“None of the three of us had any experience in the food business at all,” laughs Hennessey. “We had a great time. We were young and naive.”

After the O’Toole’s endeavour expired, Hennessey underwent a five-year stint at Darden (then known as a division of General Mills) as it was beginning its growth phase in Canada.

“That was really the start,” Hennessey explains. “I credit my time with General Mills, which later spun off the Darden division, with my schooling in the restaurant business – both from an economics point of view and the guest experience point of view.”

 

Looking for something different, Hennessey then took an opportunity and transferred to Florida, getting his feet wet handling seafood procurement in the purchasing department while still at Darden.

“We bought about $700 million worth of seafood direct from 44 countries,” says Hennessey. “We had buyers in Florida, a buying office in Singapore and in Fortaleza in Brazil. It was incredible. I got to see the world.”

Hennessey’s purchasing experience caught the eye of the recruiters at Cara, which brought him back to Canada. He headed the company’s purchasing department for a few years while going back to school for his MBA from the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. Progressing through the company, he was promoted to senior vice president of guest experience for the company’s five restaurant brands.

While Cara was undergoing changes during Hennessey’s tenure, he found himself involved in much of the mergers and acquisitions activity. He eventually became president of Harvey’s Restaurants.

Opportunity knocks

In connecting with some Bento associates, Hennessey sensed an opportunity when being asked to assist with the retail side of the business. After being on board for just a few months, he was asked to take over the company as president and CEO.

“The company was struggling on many fronts,” says Hennessey. “So we put the right team in place. Really, we went back to basics, and it starts with the food. To me, in my whole career, it’s always about the food. You can have lots of gimmicks; you can make lots of noise and have great ambience, but if you don’t have the basics of great food and service, you’re short-lived. Bento seemed to have gotten away from that so we went back to what we knew worked: great tasting and visually inspiring sushi.  

“The results have been unbelievable. Our sales in the last two years are up 34 per cent, and our bottom line is more than double that. We had great success, and it started with putting great tasting and visually inspiring sushi in the coolers and having great chefs out there that deliver it every day.”

The largest sushi company in Canada, Bento has over 350 on-site sushi bars, many of which are in supermarkets and other foodservice facilities. About 50 locations are also in colleges and universities, and 25 retail locations are in shopping malls and office towers. The company has three locations in New York.

Sustainably sourced

Bento was recently certified by the Marine Stewardship Council as the largest restaurant company in North America to receive MSC certification. Packaging is recyclable and all seafood is sustainably sourced.

New products are coming to the market constantly, with adventurous flavours and new ingredients arriving seasonally. The evolutions are inspired by Hennessey’s “businesses need to evolve or perish” mantra of constant, curious innovation.

The company’s newest endeavour is mysushi, a LEED-certified 1,400-square-foot location in Vaughan, Ontario. The restaurant allows the guest to customize their own sushi roll, choosing their own wrap, rice, protein, vegetables and sauces, allowing for nearly 800,000 unique combinations.

“You can either customize it your way or you can pick it up off the menu board,” explains Hennessey. “Regardless, we’re going to roll it fresh in front of you. We opened in November, and it’s getting great reviews. We think it’s a natural evolution of the fast-casual sushi business.”

Passion and flair

Hennessey commends Bento Sushi’s “unique breed” of chefs and employees for the passion and flair they bring to the table. He cites the company’s recently completed second annual Iron Chef competition as an example. Bento chefs from all over  

North America compete to develop their own sushi roll. Chefs are also given a mystery box of ingredients with which they are asked to develop a sushi roll in 60 minutes.

“We had a chef from New York City, who came in second,” says Hennessey. “He went back to his Manhattan restaurant with his cash reward and gathered all of his teammates together to apologize to them for not winning.  He then proceeded to give each of his teammates a $50 gift card and promises to do better next time. And that’s what’s unique about this company. There’s a pride. There’s a craftsmanship among our sushi chefs. That’s the stuff you just can’t buy.”

Aside from enjoying golf, fitness, and spending time with his teenage son and daughter, Hennessey also spends a good deal of leisure time as chair of the board at DAREarts, a Canada-wide charitable organization that uses the arts to empower children and youth at risk.

Hennessey feels rewarded by the daily challenges he faces in the restaurant industry.

“Oh man, I love this business,” Hennessey says. “I have the luckiest career of anyone that I can imagine. I have two kids, and I constantly tell them that what you’ve got to do is find the things in life that you’re passionate about and do it. I’ve been lucky enough to find something that I’m passionate about – because it’s people. It’s different. It’s not cookie-cutter. It’s competitive, and I like that competitive aspect. It’s always going to be new.”

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About the author

Steven Chester is the editor and social media community manager for Restaurant Central. His 13-year journalism background includes writing and editing for digital and traditional media. He is an expert in social media, online content and email newsletter development. Follow him on Twitter at @restaurantCRFN.

 
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