Industry Superstars Navigating Healthy Change: Steven Goldstein

Industry Superstars Navigating Healthy Change: Steven Goldstein 11/29/18
By Anita Jones-Mueller, CEO of Healthy Dining

This interview is one of a six-part series, “Industry Superstars Navigating Healthy Change” presented as the keynote sessions at the California and Florida Restaurant Association Shows. Other Superstars featured in the series, include: Jonathan Rollo, Commander-in-Leaf, Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop; Erik Oberholtzer, Co-Founder, Tender Greens; Nicole Bushnell, Vice President of Marketing, Luna Grill Restaurants; Rich Wagner, President, Nature’s Table; and Maria Caranfa, Registered Dietitian and Global Nutrition and Food Policy Lead, Bloomin' Brands.

Anita Jones-Mueller: I’ve been a fan of Sharky’s for a long time! I love their Tofu Tacos and Kale Caesar. They have a great salsa bar, so I add salsa instead of the dressing – and that makes for a fabulous salad! To me, Sharky’s was one of the first fast casual brands to be ultra-focused on the quality of the ingredients served.
Steve, tell us about your background and why you chose Sharky’s as your next career endeavor.
I started my career as a chef and cooked for many years. I became interested in food marketing and gave up my chef’s hat to for The Food Group and then moved on to The Culinary Edge in San Francisco. My brother, David Goldstein, became the COO for Sharky’s Mexican Grill. David and I talked about this for quite a while. He was the person who got me involved in the restaurant business, washing pots when I was 14, so it only made sense that eventually we would work together…40 years later.
Sharky’s is a fast casual Mexican-inspired concept that has been in the Los Angeles area for about 26 years, and more recently, we’ve been expanding into other national markets. We want people to feel good about what they are eating at Sharky’s, and we pride ourselves on serving ingredients we know our guests appreciate.
We serve food for consumer lifestyles, based on their own definition, so we provide both healthy and indulgent options. As we know, people eat differently on different times of the day and days of the week, and we want to provide the opportunity for them to eat as they see fit, from healthy to indulgent. We respect our guests and help them meet their needs inside the context of a Mexican restaurant. 
Tell us about your guests – what do you find is important to them?
Our founder, Steve Paperno, is a self- proclaimed “gym rat,” and we have many guests that describe themselves similarly – very focused on health and fitness. They like that they can eat great Mexican cuisine at Sharky’s while still fueling themselves for physical activity. Even back twenty-six years ago, our founder had the vision and created a concept that allowed people to eat Mexican food based on their lifestyle preferences.
The “gym rat” demographic definitely doesn’t define everyone who eats with us, and we offer food that meets a wide range of preferences and occasions. We know that Tuesdays are different from Saturdays, and January is different from July, and these differences can correlate with different eating habits. We don’t like to put any consumer in one category exclusively, because fulfilling a consumer’s changing lifestyle needs is the key thing.
Sharky’s menu definitely offers a wide range of options with great messaging within each location about the quality of ingredients. Tell us more about your menu.
What we want to be able to do is bring the best ingredients we can. For the most part, we try to source all organic produce, using unadulterated meats and sustainably caught seafood. In this way, we do the best we can to bring people the best food to fulfill their lifestyle goals. Tofu has always been a big staple of our menu. Our burritos can be made with tofu, and so can our tacos and power plates. This is a bit of the opposite of what you normally get within the context of Mexican food, but we want to differentiate for flavor and food styles, as much as we can.   
We believe that our guests should have ample choices to fulfill the needs they’re having that day, that meal period…so variety of ingredients is important – from what they perceive as healthful to what they perceive as indulgent menu items…all made from ingredients they can feel good about. We communicate the attributes of our ingredients through signage in the restaurant, (these are called attribute boards) and also in our external guest communication. This helps our guests know what to expect from us.
Tell us about how and where you are growing.
We have been working toward the next generation of brand expression, menu, and guest experience and believe that will be the platform for the next growth spurt.  Sharky’s is a blended model of company-owned and franchised restaurants, so we would like to build out the newer franchised markets, like Portland, Oregon and northwest Arkansas, as well as the Las Vegas, Nevada, which is a company market. We would like to explore the Northern California, Denver, Colorado and Phoenix/Scottsdale, Arizona markets, as well.
We just opened in Northwest Arkansas – which is not a lot like Los Angeles (laugh). In Arkansas, the number one item (on our menu) is fried Baja Fish Tacos, and that same item is probably #15 on the menus in LA. We appreciate that people there are eating our food and feeling good about it because of the sustainable and unadulterated proteins we offer. That’s how they define health, and it’s important that we allow them to define health and indulgence the way they want to. Across locations, it may be a different menu mix, but all under the umbrella of Mexican food you can feel good about eating.
With 26 years as a brand that has always had a focus on health and food quality, do you see that your guests’ expectations are changing, and how are you preparing for the next few years of change?
A lot of our guests have been regulars from the start and are growing older with us. At the same time, we’re continuing to meet the new taste preferences of the younger generations. For the past two years, we’ve been embarking on a process of an evolution of our concept: creating a more contemporary dining experience, a more contemporary way of providing our genuine hospitality, and a more contemporary way of serving flavor profiles that are differentiated – and all of that within the context of feeling good about eating Mexican-inspired food. We know that people are growing in knowledge and awareness about food and ingredients, so we want to continually evolve to serve new interesting flavors and high-quality food to our guests.

In going through this evolution, we’ve introduced some new braised proteins like Chicken Tina made from boneless, skinless chicken thighs, and guajillo braised pork, made with pork butt. These are both made from unadulterated product. We are also looking at more creative vegan options. We have a new vegan roasted cauliflower and mushroom taco. It has a chorizo seasoning with mashed organic yams, steamed spinach, roasted cauliflower, mushrooms, and fresh arbol salsa on top. It is extraordinary with no lack of satisfaction – even if you aren’t a vegan!

And we continue to work to be good stewards of the earth because people want to eat where they know the brand cares about what the impact of the food on the earth is.