Mike Karns might have seemed like a typical student waiting tables in Nacogdoches to earn a few bucks before he graduated from SFA in 1985. In actuality, he was gaining important information for his future role as founder, owner and CEO of the Dallas-based Firebird Restaurant Group, which comprises four award-winning brands: El Fenix, Meso Maya, Taqueria La Ventana, and Snuffer’s Restaurant and Bar.
After graduating from SFA with a degree in general business, Karns worked two jobs in order to finance his future goals.
“I worked at a bank during the day and at a restaurant at night,” he explained. “When I had saved some money, I took a straight-commission real estate position and did leasing work for strip shopping centers. I started doing tenant representation and brokered more than 400 transactions for new restaurant locations; it was the perfect opportunity to acquire experience on both sides of the business.”
Karns’ purchase of El Fenix in 2008, a family-owned company with 15 locations, coincided with one of the worst real estate market downturns in recent history. Refusing to let the economy alter his course, he closed on the property. “We had worked so hard to put this purchase together, when it finally went through, it felt a little like we had caught a whale with a fly rod,” he recalled. “Economic corrections of that magnitude are the greatest challenge in business.”
Karns describes the relaunch of El Fenix, which had been in existence through five generations and about 100 years, not so much as rebranding, but as restoring and repackaging a successful brand for the next generation of diners. Three years later, adjacent to the flagship El Fenix location near Klyde Warren Park and the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, he opened two additional restaurants – the Meso Maya restaurant, with a menu inspired by the bold flavors of interior Mexico, and Taqueria La Ventana, offering authentic hand-made gourmet tacos, along with burritos, salads and desserts.
“I know some people probably thought the new concepts would take business away from El Fenix, but the result was actually the opposite,” he said. “Business at El Fenix increased.”
In March 2014, Karns became the owner of Snuffer’s, a chain of seven Dallas restaurants that had been operating for three decades with a stalwart reputation for burgers and cheddar fries.
Regardless of the venue, Karns speaks from experience when he says food-service employees should approach their work with the spirit of an entrepreneur. “Every waiter establishes a tone for his or her section,” he said. “Star waiters have the opportunity to become managers. Managers can become owners. It really is an opportunity to change your future.”
Firebird Restaurant Group employs more than 2,000 people, and Karns instills in each employee the mindset of genuine, authentic engagement. For food service employees, Karns describes this warm and welcoming approach as the opposite of a robotic order-taker.
“One thing you learn fairly quickly is that life is not always fair,” he said. “Sometimes you provide excellent service, and you don’t always get what you deserve in return. The take away for a waiter is to continue being positive. In the big picture, it always works out if you are doing the right thing.”
Karns operates a commercial real estate firm and also owns Sunrise Mexican Foods, a restaurant supply company that produces the chips for which El Fenix is famous, along with tortillas and other food items for retail and food-service operations.
Firebird operates in 35 locations, and Karns is currently executing “Firebird 2020 Vision,” which details his plans to expand current and future brands to 140 restaurants. For Karns, whose hobbies brand him an auto enthusiast, pilot, motocross racer and snowboarder, this fast-paced growth is just his style.
“My goal is for Firebird Restaurant Group to be the number one restaurant-career opportunity in the nation,” he explained. “Early in my career, I was given great opportunities. I was young, and people who had many responsibilities put their trust in me. It’s nice now to be able to do that for other people.”