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
But 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.
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.
Related Stories from AARP