Undercover Boss: Baja Fresh CEO Invests in the American Dream

Last Updated Apr 11, 2011 1:26 PM EDT

On CBS' Undercover Boss last night, Baja Fresh CEO David Kim stunned his board members by announcing that he was going to be taking one of the employees he met during his undercover tour under his wing, elevating the guy from a store general manager to Baja Fresh franchise owner. Kim proclaimed that he would not only be personally training the employee, Jose Manzanarez of Las Vegas, in how to run a business, but also helping him raise the money needed to open the store and giving him a $50,000 franchise agreement for free.

To which one of Baja Fresh's incredulous board members responded: "Is that really a good idea?"

Kim certainly thinks so. He talked to BNET about his experience on the show, how he was deeply inspired by how hard his employees work to make ends meet and why he wanted to help Jose realize the American Dream of owning his own business.

BNET: Why did you want to be on the show? Did you think it would teach you something about the company or was it an opportunity for some publicity?

Kim: Nothing at all with publicity. I was really shy about going out into the media but after talking to our staff, I realized that it would give me the chance to connect with our people and get to see and experience what they're doing. I was very blessed to be on the show because I've learned a lot. It's a very difficult time in America. There are a lot of people who are struggling. I started out wanting to inspire people but it got reversed and I actually got inspired by the people who work for our company.

BNET: How were you inspired?

Kim: I got to see the trueness of who the people who work for us. I got to listen to their difficulties and it made by appreciate how fortunate my life is compared to others. I saw a lot deep down inside these great people who make Baja Fresh who they are today. There was this one individual that I met that really got me. He's the kind of person that really defines what America is, what the American dream is. At the end of the show I decided to actually give him a franchise.

BNET: What does that mean, you gave him a franchise?

Kim: I'm going to help him raise the capital he needs. We gave him a franchise agreement that's worth over $50,000. I'm personally training him on how to run a business, three times a week. In about two months we'll start figuring out which area he wants to go into, Nevada or California.

BNET: What inspired you about his story?

Kim: He came to America from Mexico and has worked very hard, going through every step in the restaurant. He's actually learned every aspect of the business. And he was beyond good at it -- he was great. And I thought, if somebody could just help him, jump start his life. He has that desire and fire to make it in this country.

BNET: In what way were you able to relate to him?

Kim: I'm from South Korea. My father was a diplomat for the Korean government. We traveled all over the world since he was an ambassador for different countries. When he was forced to retire in the early 80s, he came to the U.S. and had to start all over again. I started in business when I was in 7th grade. I went to flea markets and sold toys in the parking lots. Did it for 6 or 7 years.

When I started a restaurant company, it wasn't easy. I had to build everything from nothing. The first franchise I bought was a Denny's and I did it with credit cards.

BNET: How did your disguise work out?

Kim: I had this goatee, and I don't think anybody knew it wasn't real. There was a lot of attention to detail before every shoot. I remember when I started working with Jose, he told me I had to shave it off. I couldn't tell him that I had just put it on. I said, oh I'll cut it off tomorrow.

BNET: What was the hardest thing you had to do working undercover?

Kim: Number one was that I didn't realize I'd gotten old. I used to be pretty good at this, cleaning dishes and toilets at my restaurants. It was nothing. I used to do it in my sleep. Now it wasn't as easy. So I really have a lot of appreciation for people that go out and do it every day.

The other hard thing was leaving. I really enjoyed going to the stores. I would do it again tomorrow.

BNET: What were the management lessons you got from the show?

Kim: I found out that there are so many great ideas out there from our staff. One of the things that came up is that we don't really do a great job of explaining to our customers what we are as a company and a brand. We really do make fresh products. One of our staff suggested that we do something in the media emphasizing that we don't have freezers. The products that we bring in are all fresh and we actually make everything from scratch. So it's how do we bring those kinds of messages to our customers in a broader and more effective way. Maybe over the years we haven't done a good enough job focusing on that message.