Meet Michael Phillips: Founder of Coconut’s Fish Cafe

Michael Phillips was a successful entrepreneur in the restaurant industry, before retiring to the Island of Maui in Hawaii. Not content to just sit around, and desiring a restaurant offering fresh, healthy food and outstanding service, Phillips started Coconut’s Fish Cafe to enjoy great-tasting meals with his neighbors in Kihei. Today he serves as the company’s CEO.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down and ask him questions about life and the business.

How did you bring Coconut’s Fish Cafe to life?

Since opening our flagship cafe on Maui in 2009, Coconut’s has consistently lived up to its beloved reputation. Three clear distinctions define the brand and separate it within the fast-casual segment of the restaurant industry. First, it’s the Alohaspirit that guides each cafe’s operational excellence. Kindness fills the cafe, cleanliness can be observed throughout, guests are given undivided attention and vibrant colors, custom surfboard tables, and Hawaiian décor electrify the atmosphere.

The next distinction is the restaurant’s menu, which is filled with fresh flavors that burst with every bite. For example, the brand’s signature dish, Fish Tacos, have seven textures and 17 different ingredients. The flavors Coconut’s developed for its menu are true to the brand’s Hawaiian roots. The use of pineapple and mango deliver the tropics directly to each guest’s plate and the brand’s fish are caught wild.

In addition, Coconut’s offers value to its customers unlike any other concept. Nowhere else is fish of this high quality offered at $12; in upscale restaurants, the same pieces of fish are sold for $40 or more.

My neighbors and friends appreciated getting fresh made from scratch food for $12.

Where do you see Coconut’s Fish Cafe in five years?

We are pursing a plan of controlled, franchisee-centric growth. Over the next year we have plans to open several locations in the Dallas and Austin, Texas markets. In the near future, California will become a prime franchise growth region.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

We were blessed with success from the beginning – it would be hard to find something that we would change. If I could change anything, I would like a bigger kitchen!

What does your typical day look like?

Anyone who has been restaurant industry knows there is no “typical day” but at Coconut’s we’ve been fortunate – every day is truly extraordinary. Our fish cutter gets to the restaurant around 5:30 AM when we start to prepare for our approximately 600 guests per day, some days we feed up to 1,000 guests out of our 1,165 ft.² restaurant that seat 86 people.

What is one trend that really excites you?

I really enjoy the emergence of fast-casual restaurants like Coconut’s. While I always enjoy going out and spoiling people with fancy, formal dinners, I love being able to go and enjoy top-quality foods in a more casual environment. That’s one of the things that we’ve focused on at Coconut’s, embracing a fast-casual, chef-driven experience. And because people have embraced us, we’re now able to bring Aloha and a piece of our Maui home to cities across the Country.

What is the worst job you’ve ever had and what have you learned from it?

When I was younger, I was police officer. While I sometimes loved the job, I hated some of the things I had to do. One responsibility, in particular, was the first notification made to a family after a fatal accident. It was 35 years ago when I went to tell a family that a drunk driver had killed their child. I just remember thinking how horrible but preventable the death was. It was terrible. The obvious lesson was to never drive after drinking, and I don’t. A more lasting lesson is that life is a blessing and each day a gift from God.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do, too?

Treat customers like you want to be treated. In my business, I always put myself in the customer’s shoes. It’s not just some catchy tagline. It’s our mission. We deliver the experience that I want as a customer to each of our customers.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

It isn’t always easy being in business for yourself. Back in the 1980s, I owned a chain of pizza restaurants. The economy took a dive and suddenly everyone was hit with interest rates as high as 17 percent. Overnight, people didn’t have the money to go out, rent would come due, and I’d look at our accounts and weigh options. It was an extremely difficult time. But fortunately we were able to ride out the storm with minimal damage, only closing one of the locations.

What is one business idea that you are willing to give away to our readers?

The only boundary to your success is how hard you are willing to work to achieve your goals. When I was a boy, I spent my summers with my grand parents. During those summers, my grandfather taught me that honest, hard work is the key to success. That became something of a mantra: hard work pays off.

When I commit myself to a new goal, it nearly becomes an obsession. Until I achieve that goal, I work seven days per week, 14 or 15 hours per day. I did the math once and by the time I was 40, I had already worked the hours of a 70 year-old. I figured I qualified for retirement, so I sold my business and retired until I got the itch to open Coconut’s.

If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and how would you go about it?

People say chivalry is dead, but I think it’s simply part of a societal moral fiber that’s largely been ignored. Doors don’t hold themselves open, “Please” and “Thank You” aren’t spoken on their own, and kindness and generosity shouldn’t be exceptions, they should be the norm.

One of the greatest blessings that I’ve had with my success through the years is the ability to help others. I believe that leading by example is the greatest way to influence other people. And while my example may not have a global change, I hope that it has an effect on the part of the world I call home.

What are your three favorite online tools or resources and what do you love about them

I’m an old dog, so I’m slow to adopt new tricks. But eventually I’ll catch on. Take, for example, social media. My daughter, Frances, was on Facebook long before I even knew what it was. She had to set up my first Facebook profile for me. Now, I love social media. I especially love social review websites like TripAdvisor and Yelp. Not only do they give me feedback to my restaurants, they help me find places that I want to eat. I hardly go to a restaurant now without first researching it online.

I also think I wouldn’t be able to live without email now in today’s business environment.

Lastly, our franchising process at Coconut’s depends on a great deal on video conferencing. There’s an undeniable advantage to seeing someone when you’re talking with them, putting a face with a voice and a name, and reading body language.

What is one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

The Bible. Take it as The Word or not, the example for how to live a love-driven life is undeniable.

Who is your hero?

It’s impossible to deny the sacrifice and bravery of our men and women in uniform. They are heroes.

Do you (or did you ever) have a mentor?

I was extremely blessed to have more than a few mentors in my life. My first boss really invested in me when I was just a kid learning the restaurant business. Without his help and guidance, I never would have learned so much so early in my career.

Tell us a secret.

In the 1980s, I almost lost everything I’d worked for in business. Few people know how close failure was and how seriously I had to consider bankruptcy. I had a conversation with my dad about it, and he set me straight. He reminded me that commitments must be followed through no matter what, and that my word is my promise and cannot be broken. He also, emphatically, told me that quitters take the easy way out and that if I wanted to feel like a success I’d better find a solution.

Fortunately, I was blessed and found a solution. Despite the tough times, I never reneged on my commitments to anybody in business.

Where can our readers find you on Facebook?

Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today!

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