Undercover Boss David Kim Tries to Be Baja Fresh

Baja Fresh This could well be the first and only 'Undercover Boss' episode where a CEO tries to eat his way out of a predicament. David Kim, the man in charge at Baja Fresh, had such a hard time making an acceptable burrito that he tried to eat the evidence of his failure.

"I must have gained five pounds that day!" he laughs. "We take food very seriously here. I couldn't just throw it away." He thought his only other option was to eat his bungled burritos.

At least the ingredients were fresh -- that's what the company is known for. And when they say "fresh," they don't just mean cooked that day on the premises: There is not a freezer to be found in any of the 255 Baja Fresh Mexican dining establishments, and they make everything from scratch. "That's why our costs are higher," Kim acknowledged to AOL Jobs. "Our ingredients are also completely hormone free." He noted that their napkins, plates, etc. are all recycled, and can be recycled again. "That's very important to us," he said.

Also important to the company is the passion of its employees, which took on a whole new light for Kim as he performed his 'Undercover Boss' duties. That passion induced him to be one of the most generous Undercover Bosses yet.

Kim, a Korean immigrant, especially related to his employees, because most of the ones he worked with were immigrants as well, with touching stories. Kim's story involved working his way up from selling toys at a flea market to his current position at the head of one of the fastest growing chains in America. "We opened 40-50 stores in the past 18 months," creating hundreds of jobs, he said. "Every day we get so many requests from people wanting to know more about how they can open a franchise."


Not so lucky in Las Vegas

Baja FreshBut he wouldn't advise those franchisees to let an unskilled employee like him loose in the kitchen. Kim's first assignment was at a bustling restaurant in Las Vegas that never experienced the downturn the rest of the city did. Kim worked with Jose, a manager who pitched in on every task, like making salsa verde, washing peppers, cleaning, etc. Kim made such a mess of things he was assigned to washing and mopping in the kitchen, where the customers wouldn't see him. "I would never even think of hiring him," said Jose of Kim, when he thought he was competing against another contender for the job, as part of a reality series, which explained the cameras.

Still, Kim and Jose were able to form a special bond, both being immigrants. The manager shared that he came from Mexico and didn't know any English when he got to the US. He started at Baja Fresh as a cook for two years, and now is a general manager who takes every aspect of the business seriously, from making sure customers are satisfied to seeing that everything is sparkling clean. At night he said he was working on a degree in food and beverage management, and hoped to own a restaurant of his own some day.

Kim had it in his power to make that dream come true. After his big reveal as company CEO, he gave Jose one of the most valuable awards ever handed out on the show: Jose would receive a franchise of his own. Both men were moved to tears.


Say a little prayer

For his second assignment, Kim worked as a cashier in Cypress, Calif. He was extremely slow and caused a long line of customers to form. Anthony, the cashier he worked with was from the Philippines, and had moved to the states with his family just two years ago. Anthony shared that he is the oldest of six children and helps support his family, since their father left. The rest of Anthony's family was living in San Diego, but he couldn't find work there, so he moved to Orange County for this job. Far from feeling bitter or complaining, he said the challenge is making him a better person. When Kim found out they were both Christian, they prayed together.

They also prayed together at company headquarters, when Anthony found out who exactly Kim was. This time, it was a prayer of gratitude for the $15,000 Kim gave Anthony to help reunite his family. They have since used the money for the family to move up to Orange County with Anthony.


The notorious bungled burritos

For his third job, Kim worked with a manager in Mesa, Ariz. This is where the notorious burrito incident took place. Kim just assumed, since he'd eaten so many burritos in his life, that he'd be able to make one -- but how wrong he was! Kim was reassigned to latrine-cleaning duty.

AOL Jobs Asks
Undercover Boss David Kim
5 Quick Questions

1. What was your first job? Selling toys at a flea market

2. What inspires you? People's dreams

3. What is the most important trait needed to succeed? The ability to to train your thoughts to imagine, see and believe

4. What is your biggest challenge? Trying to stay humble and do the right things in life

5. What is the best career advice you ever received? Hold on to your integrity and never give up!

During a break, Rami, his supervising manager, shared that he'd also cleaned up the customer relations at that particular restaurant. They'd been so bad before that Kim had actually heard about them in his cubicle at company headquarters in Orange County, Calif. Kim is one of those rare executives who prefers not to isolate himself in a fancy office.

And he'll be outside his cubicle even more over the next year, because he offered to personally mentor Rami over the next year. In addition, Rami received $5,000 to help him continue his schooling, and a $5,000 golf trip to be taken with his father. Kim was especially sensitive to Rami's comments about his father, since Kim's own father had just been diagnosed with an incurable lung disease.


A special delivery in Boise

Finally, Kim traveled to Boise, Idaho, to work with Carrie, an operations manager. They checked produce quality, whipped up salsa and went on a delivery. Kim was not aware that they even made deliveries. Carrie shared some of her ideas, like creating a value menu, and Kim was very impressed with her initiative.

He rewarded that initiative with an offer for Carrie to travel and help the company implement her ideas, and a $7,500 scholarship fund for her young daughter.

Kim was very impressed by all his workers' attitudes, and believes they would be impossible anywhere else in the world. "I am so blessed to live in this country," he said. "Sure, we have our problems, but this really is the best place to be. This truly is the land of opportunity." Kim feels strongly about this, and is committed to giving back. He was thrilled to see that so many of his employees feel the same way.


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Lisa Johnson Mandell

Lisa Johnson Mandell

Editor

Lisa Johnson Mandell is an award-winning multi-media journalist and author of Career Comeback--Repackage Yourself to Get the Job You Want.  Her work has been translated into 20 different languages, and she is a frequent expert guest and commentator on news and talk shows. She has been featured in The Wall St. Journal, on the CBS Early Show, NBC Today, CNBC, Fox Business News, Dr. Phil, Oprah.com and many other media outlets.  Lisa discusses her AOL pieces each week and interviews vital guests on the web TV show, This Week in Careers. Learn more on LisaJohnsonMandell.com.

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Felix Dela Cruz

From what I've watched, I'm now a fan of Baja Fresh and will always patronize Baja Fresh, such a great show and I admire Kim for his honesty and graciousness. More power to you Kim and Baja Fresh. Kim, you're a very rare breed of CEO!!

October 21 2011 at 12:53 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
J Metz

This was a great episode to show why I should never go to Baja Fresh. http://bit.ly/leIZ35

June 29 2011 at 3:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Minority Majority

Reply to kdep317: 'Your kind' always use race as a default to lament unnecessarily on lack of job. Let's face it, if it is not the hard working minorities working here, would 'your kind' be willing to bend your backs to work the same hours, minimal pay, and harsh conditions they work in?

I am not sure how well educated you are, but if you are, why not devote your time to finding other entrepreneurial opportunities to start working. I am a minority who went to an Ivy League school with no affirmative actions implenmented. 'Our kind' in school, mingle perfectly well with 'your kind', and 'your kind' in our ivy league activities, never ever complained about what you complained about. It is always a specific 'your kind' who uses 'race' and 'lack of opportunity' as an excuse for your inability to cope with a changing world.

April 14 2011 at 5:27 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
kdep317

So let me get this straight, a Korean immigrant CEO gives a Mexican immigrant his own franchise; a Philipino immigrant $15,000; a Middle Eastern immigrant $10,000; while giving a non immigrant, non broken English speaking single mom $7,500? Baja Fresh as a company smells like rotten fish and I will never eat there again after seeing this America hating episode. It would be great to live in a world where I could "immigrate" to Korea and experience the same open arms of opportunity as Mr. David Kim has in America. It would be great to live in a world where I could "immigrate" to Mexico and experience the same open arms of opportunity as Mr. Jose Manzanerez has in America. It would be great to live in a world where I could "immigrate" to the Middle East and experience the same open arms of opportunity as Mr. Rami Mohammed Abuelhawa has in America. It would be great to live in a world where I could "immigrate" to the Philipines and experience the same open arms of opportunity as Mr. Anthony Abinuman has in America. But alas, I live in a world where my kind are not able to find work in their own country unless we either speak a foreign language, qualify for a company's affirmative action hiring credits or are born into a union. It would be great to live in a country that loves me back and doesn't spit in my face and persecute me for being a hard working, educated, law abiding, LEGAL citizen who speaks fluent English. In the very least, it would be great to have a country to "immigrate" to in this world that would move me ahead of their own citizens regardless of my inferior performance levels or apathy for the country and its culture. Oh but wait, my country is the only country that does that...

April 13 2011 at 11:07 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
4 replies to kdep317's comment
obijuanca

I've always referred to them as Baja-Not-So-Fresh when I discovered their "queso" comes from a powder mixed with water.

April 12 2011 at 9:27 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to obijuanca's comment
mlondeaux

obi - I've eaten their food, I find that very hard to believe.

April 13 2011 at 9:09 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Kenneth R

After watching the show, the other night I wish there were Baja Fresh restaurants in the Dallas Texas
Area. Mr.Kim is a great humanitarian and the type of business leaders we need in our world, not the
pigson Wall Street or the bastards running the Fortune 500 companies we have now !!! Go Mr. Kim,
and go Baja Fresh .

April 12 2011 at 8:27 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
donlarson24

David Kim, CEO of Baja Fresh epitomizes the type of CEO every employee in the USA wishes for.

April 12 2011 at 8:13 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
dl0007

Great story. A person is rated on performance on what he does and knows instead of who he knows. If the gentleman that was promoted and given a Franchise is normal, it had to be the happiest and proudest day of his life. I know it would be for me! Most people of Mexican decent have a work ethic second to none! C O N G R A T U L A T I O N S !

April 12 2011 at 6:24 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
lucajml

This man is my hero. Like most intelectuals they are the brains and And CEO's of their prospective companies. They are leaders and organizers. Having much more imporatnt skills then the physical running of the company. Almost all great leaders fall short of being great employees at the lower capacity level which they go undercover for. Their reason is to find weekness in their company not to excel at the mundane level jobs. Kim like I said is my Hero. He not only is a leader but he is a man that truly cares and forgives. The jerk he gave the franchise to didnt want to keep him , he wanted to fire him. Kim took alot of courage to forgive this nobody and hand him a franchise. He truly is a person of great admiration and loving soul. Very few of us can do and attain his level of compassion love and intellect. I felt that who ever wrote the column on AOL dint get it and didnt see it like 99 percent of Americans. He is my favorite undercover boss. God bless you Kim. Michael Torres from Rochester NY

April 12 2011 at 6:10 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
snoweagls

way to go mr. kim! the best inspiring undercover bosses, this season. we need more people like mr. kim helping the genuinely motivated folks in our country! has mr.kim set up a scholarship program for high school seniors?

April 12 2011 at 5:36 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

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