Lisa and I have been to Mexico numerous times over our lifetimes. We have a deep love of good Mexican food, but I'll be honest, the Mexican fast-food style found in the U.S. has never really hit a high note for either of us…. until the arrival of INVICTO located on Freedom Drive in Naperville, IL. You can't help but smile and get in a good mood the second you walk in the door! INVICTO is bright, colorful, and vibrant, and I haven't even gotten to the food part yet! INVICTO offers up authentic Mexican street food; tacos with meat and topping flavors that blow your mind, elotes, arabes (pork and bacon…need I say more?!), aqucate fritos (crispy avocado) and the most insanely amazing queso on the planet! These are just a few of the mouth-watering items on offer. My kids' favorite treat meal is now the estilo sonora hotdog (covered in bacon) with a Mexican chocolate shake! It's the fresh, tasty, satisfying food that I dream about!!
In addition to the food, one of the most intriguing and appealing things about eating at INVICTO is that for every meal purchased, a school meal is donated to a child living in poverty. This is made possible by the owner, David Sloan, who is also a co-founder of the U.S.-based division of an organization called One Feeds Two. One Feeds Two's tagline is "we're rethinking the meaning of good food." This restaurant has a purpose, and so Lisa and I had to learn more! We decided to knock on the door and sit down with David.
David is a fascinating character who summered in Paris, France, for most of his childhood and fell in love with shawarma at a Parisian Lebanese restaurant. This is where his dreams of wanting to bring fantastic authentic shawarma to the U.S. began. David's career path didn't start with food; he began in finance, where he and his partner grew their financial investment organization. Lucky for us all today, it is these honed skills that now allow David to take many amazing restaurants from single entities to scale. It was fate that brought David back to the food industry after 15 years when he was driving home one day and almost caused an accident when he saw the word 'shawarma' in the window of a small hole-in-the-wall spot in downtown Naperville. He took one bite of the mouth-watering shawarma and landed a partnership with an amazing chef, the late Sahar Sander, whose legacy, according to David, "lives on through his food." David and his partner invested and moved the restaurant to a new location. Naf Naf was born, and unsurprisingly, it was an instant hit! Naf Naf now has 40+ restaurants across the country and served as the catalyst to ignite David's true life's calling - to create and grow restaurant brands…. fast forward to TACOS and INVICTO! David told us, "I like creating something and then seeing people really enjoying the food. I get a high from, that. It's just great!"
David, who shared with us that he is, “addicted to growth, I know that about myself; I get bored when we are not growing!", moved on from Naf Naf and started a company called Venture Kitchen. "We are going to create brands and bring on brands that we like," Invicto was created, "the goal is to get these brands from where they are today to where private equity is interested in them."
At this point in the interview, we started to see David's eyes light up as he talked to us about how challenging the restaurant business is, “you have to almost really like to want to abuse yourself to be in the restaurant business…. I know I'm not normal,"but as David then went on to tell us, "if it's your passion, then you just take the punches and you keep going,"and boy has he!
What makes INVICTO, and David's other restaurants, different and unique is that the focus is on drawing people in, transporting them (to Mexico, in this case), and providing them a truly authentic experience. All the sensory elements are carefully managed; the bright space with fun palm tree/pineapple wall, the whipped cream and churro topped milkshakes - all perfect back-drops for today’s Instagram foodie-pic-posting fanatics (Reflection Institute sisters included)!
David is pulled in many different directions these days and despite his not having a typical workweek (or a day off!) between meetings, negotiations, construction, finance, etc., David told us that, “I cherish the time I get to spend in the kitchen, it’s the most fun part”. He loves being behind the counter whipping up a perfectly executed taco and then relishes the opportunity to peek out of the kitchen and wait for the “good nod”from the customer. Everyone can relate…that nod that you involuntarily make when you take a bite and think, "YESSSSS"!
We asked David what he loves the most about his work, and his answer told us all we needed to know about his success, "I'm always about people. One of the things I truly love about our business is that we can give opportunities to a lot of people who don't have a lot of opportunity in life. We can bring them into this industry and give them a very life-changing type of job". David went on to share that yes, there are some negative stories in the food industry when it comes minimum hourly wage and so on, but there are also countless inspiring stories. He shared an example of a dishwasher making his way up to a 6-figure marketing role.
Before we dive into the fun rapid-round of questions with David, I wanted to reconnect again to the One Feeds Two concept. This concept arose because David always wanted to do something charitable, but saw that there was a lack of access to charity in the restaurant industry, "there is nothing in our industry like One Feeds Two." David first heard of this organization while on a trip to London a few years ago. He introduced himself to the founder and continued to follow up (in his words, "relentlessly") until they became friends. From there, David created the U.S. division of One Feeds Two. All of the brands under the Venture Kitchen umbrella are required to be a part of One Feeds Two. This simple structure allows for every meal purchased to donate that school meal to a child. Brilliant! And the cost only translating to be 11c per meal. Side note: Can you imagine if restaurants the world over were doing something like this?! The school meals provided are critical to the communities and families that receive them. As David poignantly pointed out, "we are helping to break the chains of poverty through education." Truly a man on a mission that we, at the Reflection Institute, are happy to get behind.
Now on to our rapid-fire round of hot seat questions! Here's how things went with David:
RI: What profession other than yours would you like to try?
David: “Professional baseball player. I played in college and was actually drafted by the dodgers. I never made it but am living now through my son.”
RI: Who has been the most influential person in your life?
David: “My mother, I was raised by a single mother; we didn't have much growing up, but she always made our home great. She died from cancer when I was 21 and even her attitude at that time was pretty remarkable. She never complained and kept going and just said 'life is beautiful.'“
RI: If you could describe yourself as a food, what would it be and why?
David: “A French cheese?! Because firstly, I am French, and I guess I can look all mean and gross (we don't agree here, David!) but am really very sweet!”
RI: Where do you love to eat?
David: “I love to eat at any restaurant where that person has love; there is just nothing better.” (We agree - nailed it!!)
RI: Which do you like to eat more, the food you have cooked or the food others have cooked for you?
David: “I think I like to eat the food I cook. You spend all the time, and you get to reap the reward."
RI: What is your favorite ingredient?
David: “Love” (Can't argue with that!)
RI: What is your least favorite ingredient?
David: “Hate?! Really, I don't have one…I love all types of food. Growing up, my mom had me sucking on bone marrow!”
RI: Are there any funny stories that your family tells about you that comes to mind?
David: “Yes, there is a book! There are so many different funny experiences when you are growing a restaurant.” (At this point, we realized we might need another two hours with David, but alas, we had to let him get back to his busy and fascinating life!)
One of our favorite quotes from David during this interview was, "It's awesome to create an experience, create good food, and see people enjoy it." We certainly want to thank David for doing just that and for taking the time to meet with us and share his story. As I wrap-up here I am trying to decide if I should head to INVICTO once again for lunch…. yes, yes, I think I will!!!