Episode 7 of Decision Dialogues brings Mike Merida, chef and owner of Rockin’ Roots, to the show to speak with Mark Willoughby and Jennifer Faherty. Mike is a longtime Michelin star chef who also has training in accounting, and he discusses his journey from working in restaurants around the world, from Japan, to England, to Spain and others, to appearing on the Beat Bobby Flay show, to using his expertise to consult with new restauranteurs around the New York City area. Rockin’ Roots is a plant-based cafe/restaurant, obviously a big divergence from a Michelin starred establishment, so Mike talks about how his decisions paved the way for him to be able to comfortably settle into this new and exciting venture, and how he’s personally benefited since taking the leap.
Thanks for joining us on Decision Dialogues. We’re thrilled to have you along. My name is Mark Willoughby, and I’m a Principal, Wealth Manager and the Chief Operating Officer of Modera Wealth Management, LLC. Today, my colleague Jennifer Faherty, who is Chief Client Experience Officer at Modera, and I will be chatting with Mike Merida, who’s the chef and owner at Rockin’ Roots in Hillsdale, New Jersey. Welcome, everyone to the show, and I’ll hand it over to Jennifer.
Thank you, Mark. And thank you, Mike! Welcome to the show. We’re so thrilled to have you here, and I know you have a really interesting career journey. So I’d love to start us off there. If you could tell us, how did you become a chef and owner of a restaurant?
Sure. So I’m the owner as you said of Rockin’ Roots. We’re a mostly plant-based cafe / restaurant in Hillsdale, New Jersey. The journey to come here from working in a fine dining Michelin background was a lot of twists and turns. Coming from the big kitchens from Europe, in Japan—it was always an afterthought, you know, cooking for vegetarians, vegans, or people who just wanted to eat healthier, I decided, you know, I wanted to take a different approach. By wife being a vegetarian, myself now being more of a pescetarian, I thought it would be a good way to really reach out to the community and showcase what we could do with vegetables and plant-based type items to make people feel more familiar, and feel that they could have something that’s really worthwhile, and make them feel that they’re eating something that’s just not to eat, you know? This way, they can get more protein, and they’re gonna feel healthier about it. So that’s where I’m at with this place.
That’s great. And it’s definitely on trend, and I’m definitely going to be one of your first customers.
So it sounds like you have a really mission-driven kind of passion for this particular restaurant. Has that always been the case, in terms of your journey as a chef?
No. It actually happened about three years ago, I went through a terrible trauma, you know—flash forward, I was repaired and saved by a surgeon who happened to be also a vegetarian. We got along very well, my wife being a vegetarian. Things just started to align for me, and I felt like this was my path—that I should not cook fois gras and things like that anymore, and really start focusing on, you know, what matters. And you know, a trend is one thing, and we want to make sure it’s not a fad, and it’s a really growing area, in our industry. Everyone is trying to get out there and make products as quick as they can, because they know this is the new way of the future and how people are eating.
So once these type of things happened, you know, it all fell in line to me. My daughter was going to this place that was a fashion camp. I saw the storefront and I said this would be a perfect place for me to set foot in the community and really, you know, set pace of what we’re looking to do here. I’m very happy about it, and especially, you know, working in the old Michelin star restaurants, it was always when a vegan came in, “Ugh, we got to cook for a vegan, oh God.” And you never heard a vegan person at a restaurant saying, “Ugh, there’s carnivores here, we got to cook for a carnivore.”
You know, now restaurants like John George, very famous places, understand that it is a trend and it is going forward. He’s changed his menu 20% to really adhere to those guidelines on what people are looking for and that clientele. I could only see it growing more exponentially over time, and, you know, I’m happy that, you know, we’re at the forefront of it and really trying to get out there and spread the word.
You know, that’s there’s so much I want to talk about in just that, that segment there. So it’s interesting, you know, the podcast is called Decision Dialogues. And we as planners, really navigate a lot of these decisions with our clients. And when you’re talking about this, it sounds like you had both a mix of kind of a personal passion or reason for going into this particular area of the food industry and restaurant business. But it seems to also align with the trend. So there was maybe a financial aspect to it as well? Is that correct? Or was it—
—Sure. I would say you know, also having an accounting background. I understand that this type of establishment will have a better gross profit margin than, you know, a typical fine dining restaurant per se, or just a full-functioning restaurant. This is the first establishment that I’ve been in where there’s zero waste. You know, I’m really happy to say that that’s something we could be proud of. Most restaurants do have spoilage, they have waste—I couldn’t believe that that was part of what was happening here.
And, you know, I was hoping that more places like this will be able to evolve that could also continue that trend. Unfortunately, there are a lot of places that aren’t chef-run, and it’s just really about, you know, getting their product out. And it’s more sugar based. It’s not natural, it’s not seasonal. We take pride in trying to deal with our local farmers. We have seasonality with our menus. You’re not seeing raspberries in January here. Now it’s citrus season, so we have blood orange, we have lemon, we have lime items.
So besides that, you know, we just want to make sure that from a profitability point, you know, everything is aligned well. Like I said, the margins are much different than a restaurant, the labor is different, the rent structure, your overhead. So you know, this product that we developed is really sound, and I think it’s going to be something you know, for us that we’re going to look to open up more in the future.
You’ve given me enough to go in about fifty different directions here Mike. But one thing I was curious about—it sounds like there’s been travel in your background—
—and it sounds like you’ve worked with some big restaurants, big name restaurants. Is this the first time you’ve owned your own restaurant?
It is not. I was partners with a TV celebrity in Manhattan. We had a restaurant together. You know, I got my fix there and try to understand the whole business concept, and then it really wasn’t the model that I wanted. And since then, I’ve opened up other restaurants for people as a consultant. Most recently was Montclair Social Club in Montclair. It was a live music venue with you know, fine dining food. Nice establishment, but unfortunately, you know, was hit by the pandemic and is now closed.
My place here is a culmination of my life experiences traveling around the world. As you mentioned, you know, I worked in Japan, France, England, Spain—all very well known restaurants, you know, all three star Michelin based—not that we serving three star Michelin here, but we like to give that type of hospitality.
So that period of time working in different countries, different establishments—has kind of been a preparation for the last few years for you going into consulting and launching your own restaurant.
That’s correct, yes.
I’m going to hand back to Jennifer, but I’d love to hear about the thinking in the decisions you had to make in preparation for that transition.
Sure. So as far as the transition, I started at the restaurant we had, Montclair Social Club, I used it also as my test hub. And it was a very diverse clientele. very eclectic, people were coming and living from Manhattan. So we understand that they had to, you know, find a sense of what they were looking for in food. And there was a calling, you know, for more vegan / vegetarian options, we wanted to get away from the tradition of steamed vegetable, green vegetable, grilled vegetable platters, and such that you would see in any wedding venue, or, you know, typical restaurants—a pasta dish, you know? Things that are all really not so healthy for you, you know, especially with everything, it’s all modified, you know, wheat, and, you know, edamame beans, soy, and sugar.
So we tried to come up with a new plan of how we wanted to feed everyone and give them you know, what they deserve. They should have excellence just like you know, anyone else that was having anything other than vegetarian meals. It was overwhelmingly the positive reactions, emails saying “Thank you for creating things that were adventurous for us to try,” “Not our typical type of meal that we would get anywhere else in town.” So I knew from there that that is a trend—so this was, you know, three years ago—and I knew that this is a trend, not a fad, And we really wanted to push that envelope and start working harder and what we were doing.
And then it was a restaurant that I had visited in Manhattan—it was called Nix. It was a very awesome experience eating at a vegetarian / vegan restaurant, which was the only Michelin starred one in New York City. I was also able to see what they were doing, and they were also on the same trend. It was awesome to see it, you know, in New York City’s setpoint. And now to bring it out in the suburbs for me, tells me I’m on the right track.
Wow, you had such an interesting career, you know, again, from Michelin star restaurants all over the world, and then now having your own place in this specific area of vegan and healthy food. So kind of looking back and making all those pivots: What has been, you know, some of the hardest decisions you’ve had to make, and what have been some of the easiest ones?
For my establishment. I would say, you know, in the beginning, it was hard to open up a place and just say you’re plant-based. It scares a lot of people away sometimes that don’t understand what that means. But you know, everything is part of education. Me being on the Bobby Flay Show is definitely something that, you know, showed people that vegetables can be great—and it was really good enough to win, you know? And so I think education to my clientele was a big part of it, getting out there in the public, showing people what we do, and it’s just not, you know, smoothies, or it’s just not a salad. I think that was, you know, a difficult portion to do over the time.
The easy part now is now that everyone’s got to try it and see me in a lot of, you know, magazines or different periodicals. They see me about, so they say, “Well, something must be going on there, let’s go try it out.” And then once they come in, it’s the experience. It’s not just about the food. Unfortunately, nowadays, you know, it’s 50/50. It’s hospitality of service, and also of the food. Food will bring people in, service brings them back.
And I always relate to everyone that you got to treat everybody like Norm from Cheers. If you haven’t seen it: when he walks in, everyone knows his name, his chair is warm, his beer is ready for him by Sammy. We try to give that same hospitality, and it’s really important to try to remember everyone’s names a little like, you know, it’s all that nice social aspect that keeps everyone coming back.
Oh, absolutely. You are, we’re definitely on the same page. I’m a head of the client experience at our firm. I completely agree. That’s great.
I can jump in here. I’m originally an accountant for my sins as well, Mike.
Oh, nice. Okay.
So I look at you and you’re this curious combination of accounting financial guy, with food. Did you have to think long and hard about departing the sort of “working for other people situation” to getting ready to launch on your own as an entrepreneur?
We did, you know. Obviously, I counted beans, so why not literally do it in my own establishment?
But yeah, being an entrepreneur, it’s very tricky. It’s risky, especially in this climate, and especially in the restaurant climate. But I felt that, you know, after my research—took me about a year of research of what I wanted to do, and to position myself in the area that I wanted to be in, I felt that this type of establishment was really going to be successful.
And being an accountant helps a lot, you know, knowing the numbers, knowing your, you know, they said, your gross profit and net profit, you know, everything that goes in place. This type of a business, I think, really set forth, for me something that’s going to be profitable, and something that’s gonna be fun for the community. When I came here, I was all in. We’ve been here about a year and a half now, and we opened up during the worst time it can be: two months into it, you know, we went right into COVID. But we stayed strong, and I think we’re doing better than we ever have now.
Before you decided to go out on your own, you know, it’s a big decision, right? And you’d obviously put some money aside to get you through the initial. How difficult was that decision? Or did you feel good that you planned it out, and that you had enough time to get this thing up and running?
Well, I think, for me, it’s I’m very good at the planning stages, and as far as the finances, what I have, you know, as far as experiences, opening up other restaurants for people, I understand how to get things done quicker, I understand how to get things managed-wise, so that it comes in under budget, or hopefully at budget, you know. So when we look at what I’ve developed here at this place, you know, most people come in, if they’re contractors, or other people looking to be business partners with me in their next venture, they think it probably costs, you know, five, six times the amount that it actually costs me to develop the place.
So understanding values of what you’re putting into an establishment is really important. I think that’s where a lot of restauranteurs go wrong, and they want to buy all top notch and they want to buy everything they can to make the place look beautiful, and not worrying about, you know, what it’s going to be on the bottom line. And I said that could all come later on, you know? Because if the place fails, it’s only worth ten cents on the dollar out there in the market.
So it’s really important to buy wise and to plan it correctly. And fortunately, that’s been a strength of mine.
Good thing you can count beans—counting beans on both sides.
Sounds like your accounting background certainly helped you a lot throughout your career, then I’m curious, how did you actually make the decision from accounting to being a chef?
Well, I actually became an accountant later on, because in the field, I said to myself, you know, “If I’m gonna have a family,” I thought about wanting to be off on weekends and doing projects and going away with them. And then unfortunately, then when tax season always came around, it was like, “Well, that’s not gonna happen.” Either way, you’re still putting in the time. But, you know, accounting was nice, but I feel in the restaurant world, you’re able to be more artistic. At least for me, it’s an edible art. You know, I enjoy what I’m doing. You know, I like working with my hands. It keeps me going. It’s a form of exercise for me as well. Granted not all the headaches that come along with it sometimes, but everything else seems to fall in place. So it was a very easy decision.
Did you get any good advice before you started your journey as a chef and owner of a restaurant?
I did. You know, when I was at the firm, though, they wanted me there to help them to open up new gaps for the whole hospitality industry. And especially when it came for people really not understanding what they were doing. That’s where my consulting portion came in, so I started consulting, you know, more so for restaurants prior and, you know, making them successful.
I’ve had a couple here in New Jersey, New York City, Long Island, and you know, proud to say they’re all successful, they’re all doing well. They had great reviews from the local papers, and also, profitability has been key for them. And I think for me, seeing everything that I’ve done there, I knew I would be able to do this on my own and get the same effect.
So on the consulting Mike, did you start doing that while you were still working at another restaurant?
I took some time off just to do consulting, and then while I was at the restaurants, I would also get calls and do it for other people.
Okay. So it’s good preparation to launch on your own.
Absolutely great preparation, you know, working on their money, but you know, make it as though it was mine, and really working the numbers for them and making it profitable.
So I’m going to pivot a little bit because you kind of just slipped in that you were on the Bobby Flay Show! But I’d love to talk a little bit about that experience, and how that came about. And what was the impact afterwards?
Sure. So one way that it came about it first—so I was at Montclair Social Club, my daughters had really pushed me wanting me to get on one of the TV shows. They said, “Come on, Dad, we want you to do it. Can you do it? Can you get on?” I said “Alright, let me see what I can do.”
So I contacted Bobby Flay and the show, and next thing I know, the producers, you know, they called me back, and they were very interested in me going on. And I said, well, “Isn’t this great?” After two months, we kind of got everything narrowed down about what we wanted to do, the dates, and get everything coordinated well.
And it was funny, because then I think, after we already had the date booked, then two weeks later, someone from the show called me at the restaurant and said, “Wow, we’ve been seeing you, you know, and all the local stuff out there, wondering if you might consider wanting to compete against Bobby Flay.” I said, “Wow, does he want a rematch already? I didn’t go yet!”
Nevertheless, we went on the show, it was a great experience, and the impact from it after we won was awesome. The local papers here did a lot of coverage on us being the first chef in Bergen County to beat him. You know, it was really exciting. And we wanted to make sure that when we watched the show, you know, if I was a judge, a lot of times I could tell whose dish is whose just by knowing the ingredients, you know. If there’s gonna be Calabrian Chilean something or salsa, it’s Bobby’s dish. So I said, “I have to create something, if I go against him, that’s similar to his cuisine to show who’s going to be the better cook that day.” So I threw the judges off, we came up with a Spanish-type dish, and it worked in my favor. You know, it was nice to hear Martha Stewart say that I won—unanimously as I could add to that.
Wow, that’s great.
Some people don’t know this, but I happen to be such a fan of that show. I do watch it, actually. And I really like it. So congratulations.
Thank you, thank you.
Many people also might not know that it’s hard to beat Bobby Flay. Very few, I don’t know what the percentage is.
Very hard. One day, I’ll tell you the inside track of what happened.
Okay. All right. Good to know!
But the impact of the show was, it was an awesome day to see. The next day, there were lines out the door, people coming from all different areas, from New York coming to meet me, and I almost felt like a little TV star for a second.
And then two weeks later, COVID hit.
It was just before the lockdown.
That’s correct. And we were getting ready to open up store number two, and then we had to pull everything back, and unfortunately, you know, when it happened, we weren’t able to keep riding the wave of the show.
Wow. You had to really do a 180 at that point, right?
Yeah. So we’re hoping that maybe one day Bobby wants a rematch and it’ll, you know, progress again.
So you talked about being a chef, an owner of establishments, working for some other people, what do you prefer? Having your own place and kind of taking on all that responsibility, or are there some aspects of kind of working for someone else that that you prefer?
Well, I think it’s more controlled, the establishment that I have now. The places I worked before, you know, sometimes I’d have 30, you know, 40 people to manage and, you know, things like that, it’s just a lot more moving parts, especially in the country club settings. When I was there, there’s a lot going on in different areas, especially if you’re in a 60,000 square foot, you know, clubhouse.
So being here, it’s more controllable, you know, again, with the no waste, you know, everything staying fresh, being home, seeing my children, I couldn’t ask for anything more for that, you know? In regular restaurants, it was more difficult, but this has allowed me to, you know, really have that type of life right now. Spending time my wife and the kids are just, I can’t, you know, ask for anything more for that.
I’ve asked this of previous guests—I don’t know exactly how long you spent working in the restaurant industry before you branched out on your own. But do you think you could do what you’re doing now without having gone through working for other restaurants?
I could, but probably not be as successful. If I didn’t have that experience behind me on both the finance end and the culinary portion, I don’t think I would have been as successful as I can now. You know, that just goes for many of the restaurants. When I’ve consulted for one, they were doctors, they had no idea what was going into the restaurant business, they just wanted to have a place to call their own. So you know, you see a lot of that in the industry, and a lot of places go belly up, you know, real quick because they just don’t have that experience behind them.
You know, when something fails in the kitchen, something breaks down, you know, you need to know what you got to do. If someone calls out sick, you know, you need to know, well, “How am I going to get that person, you know, replaced?” At least for that day. So, you know, getting all that experience behind me has surely helped. If I didn’t have that I, again, I wouldn’t be as successful as I would be today.
So it sounds like broadly, you wouldn’t have done anything differently. But is there anything that you look back on, and you say, “Maybe I could have missed that one or done something differently?”
Yeah, there was a time when I came back from working in Spain and England—these two restaurants in particular were voted number one on a top 50 world list, you know, for the restaurants by the San Pellegrino. Learning what they call molecular gastronomy, which was, to me, was more of a fad than a trend.
But when I came back to New York, no one was really doing it yet, so I really had the opportunity, if I want to stay and go into Manhattan, really showcase this new form of cooking—I could have done it and wouldn’t have brought me as big notoriety in the industry? Could have, you know, but that was a chance I wasn’t willing to take at the time, and I decided to stay at a country club than it was at. You know, for me, I think everything aligned better that way, and there was one gentleman that did do it in the city, and then he went into some big famous things.
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
You know what, I think now, having a new second chance on life, it’s like breathing fresh air every day, getting to see the sunrise, mostly, you know, it’s something I didn’t have, you know, prior. So I think those things were, you know, really important now.
I feel healthier, especially knowing that I’m able to, you know, feed the community and give them things that they haven’t had before. That’s gonna make them feel better in educating them, you know, and you know, why plant protein, you get more protein from that than you would from any flesh protein. And people didn’t understand that. “How could that be? How could that be?” When you’re exercising in the gym, it’s always “Eatin’ egg whites, eat your chicken,” and now it’s like, it’s totally different. You know, science has really driven us and taught us a lot over the years, especially in this industry. And you’ll see so much more plant-based going forward.
You hinted you’re on the cusp of setting up a second restaurant. What’s the vision, Mike? I mean, when we get back to normal, what success for you going forward?
Well, the success I was going for would be for a chef-planted type of restaurant format, where I can have chefs that are out there that want to do something different and be one of their own bosses and, you know, have their own place, almost like a franchise, but not in that same format. But have each chef have something where they’re going to be able to own their place. And they could come every day and really feel humble about, you know, working where they are.
So I think that’s the future for me. I think hopefully soon, you know, probably the short future in six months, we’re looking to hopefully have another store once this pandemic is put behind us.
I read an article once by the writer, Elizabeth Gilbert, who made a distinction between a job, a hobby, and a calling. And it sounds like this has really turned into a calling for you. So we wish you much success with it. We’re excited for you. We always like to end our interviews with a final question. What was the last non-financial related decision you had to make today?
Let’s see. The last one.
This is usually the toughest question we ask, Mike.
Yeah! Well, I guess one would be about marketing. You know, do I want to stay up in the North Eastern Market or move down to the South Eastern Market only because of weather. Carolinas seem to be coming up in our conversations. Not that it involves finance, but that’s probably something that’s been on our minds lately.
Thanks very much to Jennifer Faherty and to our guest, Mike Merida, for letting us listen in on their conversation. We appreciate your time and perspectives. And thank you for tuning in. We hope you’ll join us next time on Decision Dialogues for more stories from successful business owners. So long for now.
Mike Merida is the owner and chef at Rockin’ Roots in Hillsdale, New Jersey, a plant-based café, coffee and juice bar. Mike’s goal at Rockin’ Roots is to prepare super nutritious food that tastes great, while using environmentally friendly packaging, appealing to people’s tastes by connecting them with real food and sourcing ingredients from local farms and sustainable sources.
Mike is an acclaimed, award winning chef and member of the community. He has developed some of New Jersey’s current top restaurants and draws on his culinary experience from cooking in some of the world’s best restaurants including The Fat Duck (UK), El Bulli (Spain), Ryu Gin (Japan), and Le Bernadin (New York). Working as a restaurant consultant, he showed his talent as an experienced, results-oriented professional—a team player committed to improving overall business processes and building a cohesive business environment.
Mike earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Accounting and Finance at the Anisfield School of Business, Ramapo College of New Jersey. He earned his A.O.S. in Culinary Arts at the Culinary Institute of America.
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