b.good for Goodness Sake

 

Boston entrepreneurs cook up a winning recipe of fresh food, a friendly uncle, and a dearly beloved El Camino

By Brendan Sullivan '06
Photography by Mary Schwalm '99
 

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Jon Olinto '98, left, and Tony Rosenfeld '97 work the grill at b.good, which they cofounded in Boston in 2004.
Photo by Mary Schwalm '99
For childhood friends Jon Olinto '98 and Anthony Ackil, business has always been about combinations. Their endeavors"from attempting to create cigar vending machines or massage parlors with upscale appeal"never included just one ingredient. Their latest recipe for success? Lean beef, a comically deadpan 70-year-old Korean War veteran, and a barely functioning El Camino with a red flame paint job.

A strange combination it may be, but it is one that has landed the entrepreneurs a thriving fast-food business in the Boston area: b.good. The second restaurant in the chain recently opened in Cambridge, Mass., and a third is slated to open in Brookline this spring. B.good aims to make fast food healthy, or at least healthier, by serving lean beef burgers, baked (not fried) French fries, and other home-style items whose nutrition facts are proudly displayed on the menu.

"It is kind of the anti-McDonald's," said Tony Rosenfeld '97, a co-owner who joined Olinto and Ackil as culinary advisor and head chef during the early development stages of b.good. "We serve real food, homemade by people instead of mass produced by machines. And instead of Ronald McDonald we have Uncle Faris," Rosenfeld said.

While the owners work "insane" hours, Uncle Faris (Faris Ackil, Anthony Ackil's 70-year-old uncle) serves as the company mascot, appearing on T-shirts, posters, and in online videos in which he shares everything from offbeat wisdom to memories of the Korean War. In one promotional video, he urges, "Always treat your body well by eating at b.good, as eating at other fast food establishments may cause gastric discomfort or even pregnancy." Uncle Faris's comedic appeal has landed him some local fame. He threw the first pitch at a Red Sox game last season"after chatting up catcher Jason Varitek in the dugout.

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Olinto and Rosenfeld at one of their two locations. A third restaurant was expected to open this spring.
Photo by Mary Schwalm '99
Faris is an appropriate symbol of the restaurant. The two founders grew up in his kitchen and say they used his loyalty as a model of their business-to-customer relationships. The restaurant shies away from conventional marketing, opting to interact more directly with its customers. Patrons have named several selections on the menu, including a couple of items named for TV characters. Where else can you order a "Cousin Oliver" from The Brady Bunch?

The owners also hold an annual spinach eating contest in which the winners score free burgers for life. Figuring the victors would come in no more than once a week for a free meal, the prize was thought to be fun and harmless. Olinto, a former management consultant, is not so sure anymore. "One winner, an offensive lineman at Harvard, vowed to eat a thousand burgers before graduating, so he comes in here almost every day for his free food," said Olinto.

Despite signing away the revenues from all those hamburgers (valued at more than $5,000), b.good has managed to thrive since its grand opening in Boston's Back Bay in 2004. The success is due in part to clever advertising, including e-mail newsletters, free T-shirts, and, of course, the company vehicle"a 1979 El Camino, bought for $1,650 off Craigslist and dubbed "El Tio." "We originally planned to put the fry machine in the back of the El Camino and drive around handing out fries, but it turned out not to be mechanically feasible," Olinto said.

The restaurant's combination of healthy food and healthy sense of humor has pushed it past the food industry's dreaded "first two years," a period from which only 10 percent of new restaurants emerge, Rosenfeld said. As its business slogan says, b.good promises "real.food.fast""a combination that has made the chain a success, real fast.