"The Healthy Fast Food"
Meet the Owners of Quark's American Bento in Downtown St. Cloud
How did the whole idea come about?
Adam: I grew up on the west coast for a good portion of my life, and that’s where the concept for Quarks came from. Many people in that area eat a lot more healthfully – choosing to eat more real foods instead of processed foods. So, when I say that the concept "came from there,” what I mean is that we didn’t copy an exact model but rather we took a mix of multi-cultural healthy eating concepts and created one simple solution – bringing it here to Central Minnesota.
Lisa: In the spring of 2014, we both found ourselves jobless. It was definitely the push we needed to take the leap from being dreamers to becoming actual entrepreneurs. We started working with the small business development center on our business plan and concept. Then we collaborated with a chef friend for menu creation. He would come to our test kitchens, sample our combinations, and make recommendations. Through these processes we slowly developed the business plan, concept, and menu as you see it today.
Can you define “bento” for people that don’t know?
Lisa: It’s Japanese for “box lunch to-go.” Anything in a box. We’ve Americanized it by combing all the essential nutritional elements in a bowl. It’s completely customizable – and guests can build their bento bowl however they desire. We also serve cabbage wraps and soup in the same build-your-own style. Also, we offer rice balls - which are kind of a Japanese thing.
Adam: But Quark’s is not Japanese, it’s all American. It’s real American food - steak, chicken, rice and a lot of vegetables that people should be eating more of. And we make it taste fantastic!
Did you know that it would be a challenge from the beginning?
Lisa: You can read about all the various challenges of owning your own business or being in the restaurant industry, but you don’t really grasp what uncomfortable means until you find yourself in those situations. And so it can be very uncomfortable sometimes!
Adam: And you think you know what hard work is, but you don’t really know what hard work is until you are forced to constantly define and redefine what hard work means to keep your business on the path to success.
One thing that I noticed when I walked is that it’s so simple in here; it is almost like a Mac store. There’s like three products, everything else is clean.
Adam: Yes – that’s intentional. You saw how simple our kitchen is – it’s mostly work tables. We have a flat top, we have rice cookers, and we have 2 little stove top burners. That’s it. And gigantic windows with lots of natural light.
Let’s talk about reaching people. What was your initial strategy to get people in the door?
Adam: First of all, we were very confident that the food itself would sell, and it does. When you look at all the various reviews on Facebook, Yelp, Trip Advisor, you can see that we don’t have any issues with the food. And after the first year of working out the kinks in operations, we don’t have significant challenges there. We really thought social media would make us go viral and everybody would just flock here.
But we are in the middle of central Minnesota. You can have the greatest marketing or social media person in the world, and there will still be challenges in bringing people in. We have Kim here doing all of our social media and she gets extremely high reviews. If you look at our social media pages, you can see that they’re top notch. But compelling people to come and eat downtown, is just not happening how we originally thought it would or wanted it to. Quarks is a small organization. We don’t have thousands and thousands of advertising dollars for traditional media like many other restaurants.
Lisa: We’ve found significant benefit in aligning ourselves with different fund raising foundations, such as the March of Dimes, the YMCA Promenade, SCRUBS camp and several others. Whether for large events or small events, we often serve up our mini bento sample cups providing us with more community exposure and recognition. We highly value finding unique ways reaching out and connecting with the community. We often go to various businesses and drop off samples as well as promotional materials.
Adam: We’re really looking forward to our partnership with the St. Cloud State University athletics department. Our desire is to eventually encourage all of the teams to eat our food and to see how that affects and enhances their performances. Normally most high school or college teams eat subs or pizza – and that’s possibly the worst thing you could eat pre-game. As a 3-sport athlete. I should know. That’s how we always did it. We’d drink pop and grabbed pizza before we went out and played our games.
Lisa: In working with the SCSU Athletics departments, we function as in-kind sponsors. We feed the athletes, and in return they provide ads or promos for us during home games. We’ve done many other types of in-kind business trades and intentionally pursued networking opportunities. This not only provides greater awareness about Quarks through non-traditional marketing, but it also helps connect us to the community in more meaningful ways.
When I tried your food, it tasted so fresh. And at the end, I was full but light. I wasn't heavy, like "Let's go home and lay on the couch." I had energy!
Adam: That is one of the things we have to overcome. There seems to be a stigma that healthy food isn’t tasty. But as you can tell, the healthy food we make is actually very delicious. And it's really healthy, as there is no processing that we do. All the meats are cooked fresh as needed. The veggies are all chopped by hand. We prioritize using only simple, clean, whole foods or ingredients. Our desire is to prove that fast food can be done this way We really want Central Minnesota to understand that “ you can eat healthy, have a great tasting meal, and actually expect to feel better afterwards.”
So what was the response from friends and family when you started launching this?
Lisa: “You're crazy!” The restaurant industry is so tough, you know. They pretty much discouraged it, because they’re concerned for you.
Adam: Yeah….Quarks is “crazy” food. If it’s not a burger, a pizza or a sub, it’s considered “crazy” food around here. Who knows, maybe it is. Maybe we’ll learn that central Minnesota isn’t quite ready for this – yet. But we think it is. St. Cloud and its downtown region is continually growing and developing. We know that in big urban centers, similar concepts aren’t considered crazy, they’re a big hit. Quarks has the potential to be an absolute hit. People come into the restaurant all the time telling us we need to be in Houston, in New York, in Santa Monica, in the Twin Cities, in the airports, in pretty much every state. But for now, we need to focus on getting this first restaurant and location established. My personal big audacious goal is that one day we’ll be known as the greatest company Saint Cloud has ever had.
Adam: I had a really incredible experience two weeks ago. This little boy, perhaps around 8 years old, came in straight from having some sort of treatment at the hospital. He still had his IV port in and was accompanied by his mom. She started crying and said: "He is between his therapies and he chose Quarks for lunch". He came here and was having a great time and his mom knowing what’s going on was visibly upset. It was a needed little break, and they needed somewhere she could come, where her son would want to eat, and be comfortable. She was just sitting there crying. We are told all the time how grateful people are that we provide a completely gluten-free restaurant, with healthy, delicious options that are completely in line with their elimination diets or health restrictions. You don’t expect to be a part of people’s lives like that.
That's so crazy! You didn't expect to impact people in that way?
Adam: You don’t expect that and that’s not what got you into doing this, but then it impacts you and you realize who you are becoming, what you’re meant to be for those around you... And that’s what we are looking at. Who are we going to become? We’re going to become the next generation of fast food that people can eat everyday of their lives – fast food that improves their lives rather than the opposite.
Lisa: So, one of our awesome regular guests is a self-described foodie. He turned out to be one of the first 100 people who won free meals for a year from a new chain restaurant that just opened up here in the Saint Cloud region. He won the prize, got it, and started eating his free meals. Later on he came in to Quarks and said, "I need to cleanse myself, I feel so gross. I can’t even think of [that restaurant] anymore! Give me a bowl!"
Adam: He ordered our chicken – even though he’d been eating chicken all week long, and he was saying, "I could actually eat your chicken and not get sick. It’s the best chicken in town." Our approach to cooking our meats is very simple, all we use is kosher salt and pepper.
Lisa: People don’t often realize that their bodies are reacting poorly to the foods they eat. Often they are so used to eating whatever. It isn’t until a person does a cleanse diet, removes those processed elements, or simply opts to choose a clean-eating, high-vegetable, diet that they realize, "Oh my gosh, this bread was making me so sick!" or whatever it might be. It’s definitely cultural shifts that needs to happen – but it has such significant impact on not only an individual’s health, but on the health of the community as a whole.
Thank you for the opportunity to talk with you, Lisa & Adam!
You have a positive impact in the St. Cloud community, and I wish you the best!
Address: 125 5th Ave S, St Cloud, MN 56301
Phone: (320) 774-1289
Hours: Open 10:30AM-8PM Monday through Saturday (Not Sunday)