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Brennan Foxman, founder of Wokworks, on starting out

Turned down by 20 banks, Brennan Foxman nevertheless kept going. He believed in his Chipotle-like restaurant of Asian food.

"When this idea came along . . . I had to pursue it," says Wokworks founder Brennan Foxman.    
"When this idea came along . . . I had to pursue it," says Wokworks founder Brennan Foxman.    Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

It takes vision to start a new fast-casual restaurant concept in a town like Philadelphia that's brimming with lunch options. And it takes something rarer and bolder than that to do so while still in college.

While his Tulane study-abroad pals in the Netherlands no doubt were taking advantage of Amsterdam's more famous offerings, Brennan Foxman was busy studying restaurant business models. At the tender age of 22, the New Jersey native launched the Asian-inspired Wokworks at 1935 Chestnut St. It serves stir-fries of both the predesigned and build-your-own varieties, and he hopes it'll become the next Chipotle.

How did you develop the idea for Wokworks?

I was studying abroad in Amsterdam junior year and started seeing all of these places that used wok cooking as the basis for fast food. I saw how the high heat and fresh ingredients could be combined to make a healthy quick option and I totally fell in love with the concept. I came back to the States and spent the next year and a half going through the process of developing a business plan.

How hard was it to open a restaurant as a recent graduate?

I was turned down by more than 20 banks. I mean, restaurants have a very high failure rate, and I wasn't exactly surprised they didn't want to back me.

It was a real uphill battle, but at every obstacle I was more and more convinced that it was a good idea. Then I found a loan officer at Bank of America who was entrepreneurial enough to give me a shot.

Are you a lifelong foodie and was this the career you always imagined?

No. I mean, I like food - but I was planning to go to law school my whole life.

It was more that when this idea came along I knew I had to pursue it and I decided it was worth it to take a leap of faith. I knew myself, and I knew that I would work as hard as I had to to be successful.

Are there any advantages to being a young restaurateur?

Absolutely. I'm not jaded at this point, so I really look at every day as a learning experience.

When we first opened I worked with a general manager who had a certain philosophy about employees: that they were dispensable, that one leaves and you just find another and that this is the way the business works. I realized that it wasn't the way I wanted to run my business.

I took over operations and I started to empower my employees with more responsibility. I now have two managers who started as cashiers and now essentially run the store, which is a half-million dollar business. Being younger means I have a lot of energy and I'm motivated to make changes.

Who developed the recipes? 

We brought a chef in early on to create the menu, but since then we have listened to customer feedback and basically changed almost everything. We still meet weekly to discuss suggestions and figure out how we can keep improving the product.

What were some early business challenges? 

I was not prepared for the attention and the challenges of initially opening. My inexperience has certainly cost me money, but that was a necessary process to get where we are now, with hundreds of loyal customers.

How is your business model different from other fast-casual restaurants? 

With the wok, we are able to cook to order and do it fast at a high quality - the wok is faster than something like a Five Guys where you have to wait for your burger on the grill.

We use as much full-time labor as possible, which gives employees more security and a sense of being part of a team.

What are some of your favorite and most popular menu items?

The wings are my favorite. Our best-selling sauce is the Tropicalia, which is a mango-Sriracha blend. I have also been surprised that quinoa has been such a big seller - I'd say up to 40 percent of our wok bowls are served over quinoa. That says a lot about our customers and the way they look at food.

Where do you see the business going?

I am definitely looking for more opportunities to expand and grow the concept. We are well-positioned to be in a dense urban environment, serving consumers who have become more demanding about the quality of food they eat. I mostly think about places where people like me or people of my age will be. There's just unlimited potential for where we can go.