Q&A With Michael Phillips

Our team at Franchising USA had a chance to sit down with Michael Phillips, founder and president of Coconut’s Fish Cafe, one of the highest-rated restaurants in Maui.

We discussed everything about Michael’s career, from his start in the restaurant industry to his opening a Hawaiian taco café after retirement.

Our questions are in bold. Hope you enjoy reading.

What is your professional background?

My first job was at Pizza Hut. I was 13-years-old when I started out, and my job involved me waving at cars on the side of the road while wearing a ceramic pizza hat. From there, I got promoted to being the dishwasher. To this day, I tell my customers that I used to be a “professional dishwasher” because I was proud of the work I did; not to mention, I was really good at it! In the same respect, all of my employees at Coconut’s Fish Cafe are valued professionals and I feel just as proud of what they are accomplishing.

In addition, I learned a few specific lessons in the beginning of my career in the restaurant industry. I had two mentors who showed me the ins and outs of running a successful restaurant. Both have had a significant impact on my management style.

My first mentor cared and respected each and every employee on board and always made a point to show his appreciation.  He managed us through positive reinforcement and positive feedback. I knew one day I wanted be just like him. My second mentor was my manager and “The King of Employee Motivation.” Even though the restaurant’s owners were tough on him, he did everything in his power to make sure his employees felt supported. No matter how much the owners burdened him with their anxiety and worries, he never let us feel a thing.

After a well-deserved retirement, what inspired you to go back into the restaurant business?

I opened Coconut’s Fish Cafe so I could have access to a local fish sandwich shop that was close to my house and offered freshly made, great-tasting food. There weren’t many options around my neighborhood, unless I was willing to drive an hour. Even then, I had to pay more than $50 for a meal. As I began planning the creation of Coconut’s Fish Cafe with the intention of providing quality food at an affordable price point, I realized many people out there shared my sentiments and welcomed my idea. 

What was the inspiration behind the name Coconut’s Fish Cafe?

I have two kids – There is my daughter, Frances, and my cat Coconut, who I love like my own child. When I was thinking of a name for my restaurant, I knew it was only right to name it after Coconut. Now my cat is famous! 

When did you begin franchising Coconut’s Fish Cafe?  Why?

I didn’t think about franchising until people began inquiring about opening their own Coconut’s locations. Professionals, restaurant industry veterans and investors all expressed interest and told me they would jump at the opportunity to have their own Coconut’s Fish Cafe location. The compliments became a motivator for me. I began exploring whether I could franchise the concept. Thus, we signed a licensing agreement in Scottsdale, to test out if it was possible to successfully duplicate the concept…and it was! 

What are you most proud of accomplishing with Coconut’s Fish Cafe so far?

By far, the biggest blessing is the fact that my kids were able to come on board and join the family business. My daughter, Frances Oney, is the vice president of franchise operations, and my son-in-law, Dan Oney, is chief operating officer. They decided to take a chance on me and work with me in expanding Coconut’s, and I couldn’t be more appreciative. 

How do you make your customers’ experience at Coconut’s Fish Cafe special?

At Coconut’s, we ensure that our customers have a five-star dining every time they walk into our café. In order to accomplish this, we have four key areas that we focus on:

  • First, cleanliness is a hallmark of our brand experience. From the moment guests walk in, they should immediately notice the attention to detail in the restaurant. Under all circumstances, the restaurant is never cluttered or disorganized.
  • Second, we do not hire people to take orders; rather, we have a cashier ambassador, someone who presents the food options on the menu with vivid details and descriptions.
  • Third, we hire food ambassadors to deliver your food to the table.  Each food ambassador cares about what they are doing and they know exactly how to describe your dish to you, including what makes your dish special. You will never have a food ambassador who doesn’t present a brief speech on your dish when it’s delivered.
  • Lastly, and most importantly, our staff thanks each and every one of the customers who walk in and out of the door. Our employees will always let our customers know how much we appreciate their service. We encourage all staff to have real, genuine conversations with our customers.

What are the brand’s franchise expansion plans?

Our main goal is to build a franchise system with high quality owner and operator groups who understand and appreciate the Coconut’s brand experience.

As of now, we currently have two franchise development plans in place; one in Texas for eight units, and one in California for four units. We are also accepting franchise applications throughout the West Coast.

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