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September 6, 2023

Building buzz: Ignite engagement with unforgettable experiences

with Troy Hooper
CEO of Hot Palette America — US parent company of Pepper Lunch

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In this episode of The Local Marketing Lab podcast, Troy Hooper, CEO of Pepper Lunch USA, explores the marketing strategies that have propelled Pepper Lunch to success. He shares valuable insights on how building buzz can be accomplished through unforgettable customer experiences.

Troy describes how customers often capture photos and videos of their unique dining experiences at Pepper Lunch, showcasing the visually appealing and interactive nature of the brand. He also emphasizes the importance of user-generated content and discusses their plans to build an internal video team for short-form videos targeting the college-age demographic through platforms like TikTok.

Overall, this episode provides multi-location businesses with valuable insights into how Pepper Lunch is building buzz by creating an experiential brand, raising brand awareness, and engaging with their audience. Troy Hooper’s expertise for building a strong brand voice shines through, making this episode a must-listen for those looking to adopt innovative marketing strategies and create an experiential brand.

Key Takeaways

In this episode, you will be able to:

  • Learn about Troy Hooper’s path to success, highlighting his passion for the restaurant industry.
  • Understand the strategy and vision behind Pepper Lunch’s focused expansion into North America, ensuring its seat in an uptrend growth trajectory.
  • Attain valuable knowledge from triumphant Asian brands that influenced the strategic branding and messaging of Pepper Lunch for a US audience.
  • Unravel the allure of Pepper Lunch’s DIY Teppanyaki model, building buzz by creating an unforgettable brand experience as the primary value proposition.
  • Delve into the multi-channel marketing strategies of Pepper Lunch, incorporating direct email, social media, and user-generated content to foster audience engagement and a “building buzz” mindset.

We definitely have to have presence, we have to have awareness, and we have to tell our story.

Building buzz: Variety of plates from Pepper Lunch


Other shout-outs


Troy Hooper
That is a strategy that everybody must do. It’s free content, and there’s nothing more powerful than a…

Justin Ulrich
What’s up everyone, and welcome to the Local Marketing Lab, where you get real-world insights from industry pros to help you drive local revenue and local for growth. This podcast is brought to you by Evocalize – digital marketing tools powered by local data that automatically work where and when your locations need it most. Learn more at evocalize.com.

Welcome, everybody, and thank you for joining the local marketing lab today. We’ve got an awesome guest with us. Super exciting. He grew up in the hospitality space, went to culinary school over at Johnson and Wales, and really found his passion for the restaurant industry on the corporate side and helping restaurants thrive. He’s now the CEO of Hot Palate America. Please welcome Troy Hooper. Troy, how’s it going?

Troy Hooper
Awesome, man. Great to be with you. Thanks for having me.

Justin Ulrich
You bet. I’ve been seeing a lot about you. Like, you’re showing up everywhere you are all over social media. You’re on podcasts with Jason Berkowitz, seen you on Zach Oates show, Sean Walcheff, Eric Cacciatore, everywhere. So what is with the buzz? What’s going on in your look?

Troy Hooper
You know, when I get excited about something, I get pretty loud about it. Right? And great opportunities for high growth, high-quality brands aren’t every day in our industry. Right? We work on a lot of brands over the years and had the great privilege of being a part of that process many times over. But when I find something I’m excited and passionate about, I’m going to get pretty loud about it. And that’s one side of it. 

The other side is when you mentioned some of those podcasts, some of those I’ve done a couple of times over the last couple of years, really just with the purpose of giving back or engaging with my community. Right. This industry is very small, very big. Right. There’s some sort of bigger personalities and names and more recognizable people out there, but ultimately there’s a number of us that are just really keen to give back and give those nuggets and help those independent and small emerging brands and new small hospitality groups, multi-unit franchise groups starting out. 

Had a call this morning with one man, really excited. They went from owning two or three restaurants to, like, in the pipeline for 20 now. And so I just like to be a part of the community. It keeps my mind fresh. It keeps the conversation going. You discover what people are working on and what they’re thinking about and what direction they’re going, and that really helps inform what we want to do or what we might recommend to our partners and our clients to do as well. So I think it’s just really important to be connected.

Justin Ulrich
A lot of the reasons why we’re doing this podcast today is just to, like you said, help those out who are looking for tips and from industry experts can actually hear real world examples of how they help solve certain issues. I noticed that you guys have where you’re currently at, you’ve got 500 locations worldwide, is that correct?

Troy Hooper
Yeah, we have 508 stores sitting right now. We’ve opened five stores a month every month this year. That trajectory is on target to continue. There’s no end in sight for that. We’re in 15 countries today. Our North American expansion is on fire. We have five stores in continental US. And one in Guam and one in Vancouver for our North American collection. 

But our five stores in the US have been open up to five and a half years as a proof of concept across three states and five markets. And so we’ve basically been taking that information, that knowledge, that experience and understanding where and how this brand can express itself and be available. 

And we officially started talking about Pepper Lunch in late April at the Multi-Unit Franchise Conference. We started selling franchises the first week of July. And I’m really excited. There’s a lot of buzz, there’s a lot of very high-quality multi-unit franchise groups that are at the table that are serious about being our partners, bringing this concept to many new markets across the country. We’re just really plugging away at it at the end of the we’re. We’re really excited about what this can be in the United States and Canada and beyond while we continue to expand in the other markets around the world that we already exist in.

Justin Ulrich
Very cool. Yeah. Just looking at the expansion like you’re talking about within the US. That’s one of the reasons I was so excited to have you on the like. You have a lot of key learnings from other places in the world, but kind of just starting off fresh within the US and this market here. What are some things that you’ve seen that you’ve done locally that have proven to work as you kind of not only get a brand new brand out there in the open, but also you’re targeting these new markets where there’s already incumbent players?

Troy Hooper
Yeah, I’ve definitely done a lot of watching over the last couple of years, particularly and coincidentally before Pepper Lunch came to the table and noticed what the Asian brands are doing, asian and Halal guys before them curry up now sort of in between. 

So I’ve been very interested in the ethnic cuisine import of legacy brands from elsewhere to the United States and seeing how those guys set the bar and how did they go about. So, you know, doing a lot of watching and listening and paying attention over the last couple of years has really helped sort of inform what we think is going to work from a messaging and image standpoint. 

But this brand has a ton of story. There’s a lot about it, particularly both on both the customer experiential fast-casual idea, the DIY Teppanyaki model that we have that’s very interesting, exciting and multisensory, easy to get people interested. It’s very visual. There’s a lot of things to talk about there, but on the B2B side where we’re looking for and engaging with multi-unit franchise partners as an operation. 

If you’ve run other restaurants and you look at Pepper Lunch when we start talking about and this is the outbound communication that you’re asking about when we start talking about the differentiated value propositions of low labor model, very few people, three to five humans needed to run a store. No skilled labor. You don’t need a prep cook or an experienced line cook or chef of any kind. 

Because of our system being very simplistic, very low barrier in regards to equipment, we have a very simplistic equipment package. You don’t need a lot of extra equipment, ovens and other ancillary equipment that a lot of restaurants need. So our upfront investment is very reasonable. We have a multitude of these kinds of things that are very interesting to operators to understand what the complexities of other businesses are. 

And then they look at us and they see experiential fast casual raving fans for guests, exploding genre of food being Asian cuisine in America, the demographic of our customer mostly being under 30 to 35. And then they look at the quality of our ingredients and the price point we offer that and it’s fast casual kiosk and counter service. You can get in and out in 24 minutes as compared to a lot of other options on the market. 

Even within Asian cuisine, we’re very different and so there’s just a lot of story to tell and so we’re trying to be diverse when we tell that story. We’re trying to go to all the different avenues to tell that story. Trades, Direct, email, social media, LinkedIn and we’re trying to be diverse with our language and to share all the aspects of this brand out loud rather than some single sound bites or one or two or three things to talk about that a lot of brands are sort of relegated to. We have a lot of things on the table and available to us and so we’re really just trying to spread that across all channels possible to communicate it.

Justin Ulrich
Yeah, when you talk about the experiential piece, it is a really cool concept. I want to try it to I went with a friend one time to a restaurant down in Florida. Actually, I was in Orlando for a conference and I can’t remember for the life of me the name of the place, but you walked in, I was greeted by a robot. And then you sit down at a table and you’re cooking the food in the pot right in front of you. It was a ton of fun. We sat there for like 3 hours and it didn’t get old because we were just kept getting new food and it was just a totally different experience. 

And like you say, the value that you’re able to provide with that additional experience in addition to just the cost of the food. I mean there’s so much more to it. So I’m excited to see where this concept goes.

Troy Hooper
Well, you won’t be long before you get one I hope, because obviously your market is a hot market for us to be serious about. And we’ve got people in Tampa and Jacksonville, phoenix and Dallas, and Vegas of course looking to expand and California, of course looking to expand. So we’ve got some great conversations even in the Northeast and New York and Boston, folks really, really interested in what we’re doing. 

So I think you’re going to have a chance to have pepper lunch sooner than later in most of these major markets. But if you happen to travel, LA, and Vegas and Houston are major places to get to. So love to host you and have you and invite everybody to try pepper lunch. It’s just a really cool, great experience.

Justin Ulrich
Yeah, for sure. If I go to one of those places, I’ll call you and you can host me personally.

Troy Hooper
You’re my friend. You know somebody on the inside.

Justin Ulrich
That’s right. Hey, so you mentioned a lot of different social channels that you’re targeting. Is there one in particular that you think seems more interesting specifically to how it aligns to your experiential approach?

Troy Hooper
Yeah, I’ll tell you, we’ve really just been outbound marketing since the beginning of July. We did some trade stuff and we did sponsor at multi-unit franchise conference to introduce ourselves to the industry in April. But right now just kind of go in the hierarchy of success or what’s, really bringing the most to the table. 

Direct email for us has brought the most people to the table that are qualified and or in the business that we’re looking to work with as franchise partners. LinkedIn has been a good channel for us and we’ve had a lot of discovery on Google Ads. So we’ve got a budget for Google Search and we’re optimizing that on a daily basis. And Google Search has brought the highest volume, not necessarily exactly the folks we’re most keen to work with as far as the qualifications go, but to be honest with you, a lot of one to three unit potential franchise partners have come from the Google Search campaign. 

Our highest level of awareness has come from the trade publications. We’ve had a fair amount of earned media, free and earned meaning free media or organic journalism. And we’ve done a couple of paid articles where we’ve taken a whole page and told our story and shown some pictures. That has brought a lot of awareness. 

So when you talk about being everywhere, seeing me everywhere, or seeing this bright yellow and red everywhere, the trades have been great for getting that. That’s the National Restaurant News and Fast Casual and QSR magazines and those types of publications that we’ve been engaging with both on organic and interviews and certainly on paid advertising. That’s where I hear sort of the most buzz from when I go to conferences or expos or on different shows. Most people mention those as like, seeing us there a lot. But the business of our franchise offering is really coming from email, LinkedIn and a little bit from the Google campaign as well.

Justin Ulrich
And what about your customer facing marketing efforts? Are there specific channels that are sticking out, like Facebook versus TikTok versus email, whatever it may be?

Troy Hooper
Yeah. So officially we don’t yet spend a budget on consumer yet in the United States. That is definitely coming. As far as a strategy and a tactic, however, we definitely have to have presence, we have to have awareness, and we have to tell our story. 

Fortunately, our first US franchisee who has five stores across three states, has had a longtime presence on social, mostly Instagram, and so they’ve been active and have a good base of followers there. And so we really piggybacked off that and created a brand page for all of the channels. And we are mixing the story there. The story is our food, the story is getting together. And the experience story is also mixed in with some B2B. 

There is some franchise messaging in there, there is some messaging about the executive team and things like that. So it’s a pretty well balanced on the brands page. When I say not putting a budget, we’re not putting an ad budget, we’re not spending money to drive awareness to a particular store. But our franchisee does that already for his stores, and our additional franchisees going forward will do that as well. 

We will start once we have a co op marketing budget from our franchise group. We’ll certainly have an organization set up and be ready to do that. But we’re having some fun. We’re really playing on Instagram and Facebook right now, a little bit on the old Twitter X and on Threads as well. And so we’re being playful and we’re testing and throwing things out there and seeing what people like. We’re just not making a concerted ad spend there yet.

Although in September we are going to do some B2B ad spend to get in front of some audiences. Again, kind of that LinkedIn strategy, but on those platforms we just haven’t really leveraged that yet. And to your point of TikTok, I am actively looking for I have a couple of candidates we’re interviewing soon. We want to build an internal short form video team. Basically, I want to be able to have a brand personality and a brand voice that we can put out there on TikTok shorts, reels, clapper, lemonade, you name it, we want to be out there. And particularly what’s driving that, besides my awareness of TikTok and its value is Snapchat. 

We became aware that Snapchat, if you don’t know or people listening, aren’t really certain about the value of Snapchat. It really is the college age. It is really 18 to 24. But we had a local news event here where a tech reporter on a local news station in Los Angeles did a demonstration live on the news with Snapchat’s new AI recommendation engine. And this was not scripted. This was not paid, this was not sponsored. We didn’t know they were doing it. 

And the anchor on TV asked Snapchat, where should I go for lunch? And Snapchat recommended Pepper lunch closest to their store. So the issue there is we didn’t really think about Snapchat. Yes, we know our consumers are fairly run young, but Snapchat picked us up because so many of our guests use Snapchat, go to Pepper Lunch.   So Snapchat knew that people were mentioning Pepper Lunch and going to Pepper Lunch stores on the platform. And so that really caught our attention. And so we are looking to build an internal team that can manage that.

Justin Ulrich
That’s awesome. Yeah. I don’t hear too many folks talk about Snapchat. It’s a good story. We do hear an awful lot about TikTok and other channels, but very interesting targeting that specific demographic. I mean, it makes total sense.

Troy Hooper
Well, I’m going to say this, and I’m sure this comes up on your show a lot, but it’s amazing that so many people, especially in business, especially in the restaurant business, don’t realize TikTok is the largest search engine in the world. It surpassed Google months ago. So now it used to be Google and YouTube. Now it’s TikTok, Google, and YouTube. So those are three platforms that you have to be present, your information has to be accurate. You have to be maximizing and optimizing your strategies to show up in those places 100%.

Justin Ulrich
You have to be able to, like you said, not only communicate across all these different channels, but also what is the mode of communication? Are you going to post organic? Are you going to be doing paid? There’s a lot of different things to consider when you’re segmenting your audience and pushing out content. Very cool stuff. 

I was thinking about Rev had a podcast. Basically it was during one of their Digital Marketing Summit episodes, and he was talking about TikTok and how it’s really geared towards like their algorithms are geared towards long form content, two, three minute videos. And it really is placing a lot of weight on those. 

What’s cool about that is when you have that married up with an experiential concept like yours, where you can actually sit down and show the whole process of cooking up your food and stuff right in front of you, it feels like there’s an awesome opportunity to be able to engage in that channel.

Troy Hooper
Yeah, definitely. But we want to do it right, and so I just really feel that having an in house team is going to make a difference there. Certainly we want to leverage influencers as well. We actually are talking to a handful of influencers now to work with them that are specific in the food space and really specific in TikTok and mentioning 

Rev, one of my favorite guys, believe it or not, on our Instagram channel. Our number one viewed reel today is Rev’s video of his experience at Pepper Lunch. And Rev is a great friend, and look, we didn’t pay him, and we just invited him and a group of folks on a food crawl. We were just one of about five or seven stops on a food crawl in Las Vegas during a conference. And Rev took a great video and took a lot of great videos, and he was very generous to let us have those videos and we use them. But, man, he posted and overnight got about 12,000 views on his channel or 20,000 views on his channel to 12,000 on ours. You brought up a really important point. 

Right now, we are very aggressively tracking down user generated content. So my social media manager watches the hashtags and mentions and ads for Pepper Lunch all over the Internet every day, and she reaches out. We only repost things when we have express permission to do so. So she reaches out whenever there’s a great Pepper Lunch video by one of our guests or an influencer or anybody like that, and she asks for permission. 

If we get permission, we repost it with some comments or a thank you or things like that. That is a strategy that everybody must do. It’s free content, and there’s nothing more powerful than a referral. And so if somebody else is talking about your brand on the Internet and you can ask them to co op that and utilize that and amplify that, there’s no more powerful recommendation than free content created by somebody else who loves your brand. And that’s as organic as it gets, right? It feels different. And so I’m always very excited to see that. 

And boy, oh, boy, when you talk about experiential and you’ll see when you go, I’ve never seen somebody go to a Pepper Lunch for the first time that didn’t pull out their phone. When you sit in a Pepper Lunch for 30 minutes, every table, somebody’s filming photoing, they’re filming themselves taking the bite. It’s just a very visual, audible, flavorful experience, and so people are really keen to capture that. So there’s just a ton of content about our brand out there, and we’re really excited to be able to take advantage and share that where we can.

Justin Ulrich
Yeah, I’m excited. You’ll have to let me know when you guys because you’re opening one up. Could you mention it, the area?

Troy Hooper
Not yet. We’re closed. We’re close. But those markets I mentioned are sort of our top tier markets where we have conversations going on. Some places like Vegas and Phoenix. We have a line. We actually have people in line in ABC who got here first. Hey, look, it’s first come, first serve at Pepper Lunch right now.

Justin Ulrich

That’s right. That’s an awesome problem to hey, you know, Troy, I reach out a little early to find out some quick nuggets about you, and you let me know some very interesting things. So you were a former super yacht captain?

Troy Hooper
Yeah. I have a secret life that is starting to get out there. People have asked me these random questions. Tell us something nobody knows about you. Troy. And, well, I’ve done some fun and interesting things in my life, and I’ve had some duplicate careers. I started in the yachting industry while still working in the hospitality industry, but yachting is still connected to hospitality. 

But I grew up on boats, and I had the good fortune of becoming a captain at 22 years old. I paralleled a career, and then I did take some time. I took about five years while working in the islands. I did some hospitality consulting and some management work, but I did spend some seasons, multiple seasons. But I’ve been driving boats for myself or for other people for about half my life now. And, yeah, it’s just something a lot of people don’t know about me.

Justin Ulrich
That is so cool. The other nugget you hit me with yes. Not only are you a third generation Miami hurricane, but you are the highest level scuba instructor possible.

Troy Hooper
Yeah. So in the SSI system and then know well qualified in the paddy system, those are just certification organizations. But I’ve been diving since I was nine years old. Goes along with Miami, goes along with the boats. Growing up on and in the water, I got really lucky. My best friend growing up was Jamaican, and so I actually got to spend a lot of time in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas. 

They all had, you know, you just run back and forth. So I grew up diving, and it’s just always been a passion of mine. And I owned a business, co owned a business for a number of years in that space. We had a large dive travel, adventure travel business, and a retail store and training center. 

And so it’s just been a part of my life forever. And when it is, when you take it seriously, you kind of continue to do your learning. It’s a lifelong learning, sport and hobby. Right. And as a profession, it’s definitely a lifelong learning. And I’ve done every kind of diving just about possible that most people wouldn’t want to do a lot of commercial and blackwater diving and salvage diving and stuff. But, yeah, I have all those cards. I have a big stack of cards in a Ziploc bag that say, I do this, that, and the other thing.

Justin Ulrich
Super cool. Well, as part of that, we took all that information and I dropped it into an AI tool and threw together this image right here. So we’ve got kind of a split personality shot of Troy and the business side of things, as well as on the scuba side. And if you look really closely.

Troy Hooper
You got your I see my Miami Hurricanes in there. That’s funny. We’re just not on a yacht. This needs to be a pepper lunch on a yacht. But hey, I love the James Bond, Jason Statham sort of manly look there. I think my wife’s going to get a kick out of it.

Justin Ulrich
When I put in the prompts, I used the terms “strong male”, just so you know. 

Troy Hooper
I’m a big teddy bear, by the way. I’m a big guy, but I’m a big teddy bear.

Justin Ulrich
Well, very. Hey, you know, Troy, before we jump off, I just want to give you an opportunity to give somebody know in the industry a shout out, someone who’s doing something cool from a marketing or local marketing perspective, and I’ll hand it.

Troy Hooper
Over to, you know, back to the TikTok piece of know. I have an entire channel, by the way, if you don’t know know, I have, I think, five different TikTok IDs under one channel, just like you can do on Instagram. And I have one that is just specific. It’s just an anonymous name account, and it’s specific to just follow restaurants on TikTok. I want to know what other brands are doing. And major brands, like most people follow Wendy’s on Twitter because they’re really funny and controversial sometimes. 

But I really like to follow emerging new brands. What are the young guys and gals doing? How are they expressing themselves? How are they developing brand voice and image? Right? 

And so I picked CupBop. And it’s so hard to say, but C-U-P-B-O-P CupBop. It’s a QSR Korean bowl concept. So it’s like the Korean barbecue chipotle. Really interesting. But, man, their channel is hilarious. They are loud and vibrant and exciting and funny and just super playful, really just putting it all out there. So I just think as a brand that I think others should follow. 

And by the way, a competitor, right? We’re both in Asian QSR fast casual, and they’re a growing franchise system, and we’ll probably be next door to them in some plazas from time to time. But I just think they’re doing a great, great job in their marketing efforts. And by the way, they do it in person. Saw them at the multi-unit franchise conference in April, and that whole team, I walked up, I was like, I’m just a fan. You guys are awesome. And all the guys from the videos and the girls on their team, they were all in the booth. So it was like being in a live TikTok right there on the show floor. But CupBop, if you get a chance, follow them, if nothing else, for the entertainment.

Justin Ulrich
Super cool. Yeah, I’ll definitely check those guys out. Thanks for the shout out there. And Troy, I guess if anyone wants to follow you, how do they follow you?

Troy Hooper
Easiest is to find me on LinkedIn, probably JTroyhooper on LinkedIn. Or if you just follow Pepper Lunch. You’ll see me interacting, you can cross connect with me, but I’m basically Troy Hooper everywhere, as well as Pepper Lunch. Restaurants everywhere. Pepperlunchrestaurants.com and on social media and LinkedIn.

Justin Ulrich
Very cool if you get a chance. If you’re in Vegas, Houston, or what was the other location?

Troy Hooper
Southern California. Yeah, Southern California, LA. 

Justin Ulrich
Check out Pepper Lunch if you get a chance. It sounds like a fantastic opportunity or experience. Can’t wait to check it out. Troy super excited, and it’s just been an awesome time having you on the show. Thanks for joining us.

Troy Hooper
Thanks, Justin. Good times together and look forward to watching you have your first Pepper Lunch soon.

Justin Ulrich
Sounds good. We’ll see it all right. And for you listening, thanks for joining us. 

As always, thanks for joining us in the local marketing lab. This podcast was sponsored by Evocalize. To learn more about how Evocalize can help you grow your business, visit evocalize.com

If you learned something from today’s episode, don’t forget to subscribe on your favorite podcast platform and follow us on LinkedIn and Facebook at evocalize. That’s Evocalize and on X at Evocalize. 

And remember, keep innovating and testing new things. You’ll never know what connects with your customers best unless you try. Until next time. Thanks for listening.

Troy Hooper

CEO of Hot Palette America — US parent company of Pepper Lunch

Meet Troy Hooper

Meet Troy Hooper, the new CEO of Hot Palette America, the North America division of Pepper Lunch. With a background in culinary arts from Johnson and Wales University, Troy unearthed his zest for the corporate restaurant world early in his career. With a finger on the pulse of modern marketing strategies like email marketing, social media, and user-generated content, Troy ensures Pepper Lunch’s brand maintains its forward-thinking appeal.

Fun fact: Troy is also a Master Dive instructor and a 100 ton USCG Captain.

Host of the Local Marketing Lab podcast, Justin Ulrich - Headshot

Justin Ulrich

VP of Marketing at Evocalize

Meet the host

Justin is a seasoned marketing leader known for his creative expertise and innovative go-to-market strategies. With vast experience spanning both B2B and B2C landscapes, Justin has made his mark across a spectrum of industries including software, POS, restaurant, real estate, franchise, home services, telecom, and more.

Justin’s career is steeped in transformative strategies and impactful initiatives. With specialties ranging from channel marketing and brand management to demand generation, his strategic vision and execution have consistently translated into tangible results.

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