Khanh Nguyen left a leadership role in software sales to start his own company in 2011 after mapping out the venture nearly four years prior. But when it came time to execute, the inspiration wasn’t there. “You can only do what you’re passionate about; you can’t force it,” Nguyen says. So, he changed course and began cooking. His passion and intuitive palate have since led him to launch two successful restaurant concepts, including Zalat Pizza, which has grown to 25 locations in the Dallas and Houston markets. He’s aiming to double the number of locations by the end of 2023 and, one day, take the company public.
Nguyen opened his first restaurant in 2012, a Vietnamese concept named after his hometown of DaLat. He kept the spot open late and cut his teeth in the industry, chatting with cooks, servers, and bartenders who came in to eat after their shifts, sharing lessons learned. “Many of the things we do is from learning from my service industry patrons,” Nguyen says.
In 2014, he took over the lease of what was previously a pizza place next door to DaLat. “I had never made a pizza before,” he says. His vision? To create the kind of pie someone staggering home after a fun night on the town in New York City would want. He spent six months perfecting the dough and another month getting lost in the sauce.
He focused on a thinner crust and quality ingredients, such as top-end cheeses and beef pepperoni. Once he felt he mastered the formula, he opened Zalat Pizza in 2015, targeting takeout and delivery customers. Soon after, he became an early tester for Uber Eats and decided to operate Zalat largely as a ghost kitchen.
Fueled by increased demand for takeout, the brand took off during the pandemic, expanding from seven to 18 locations across DFW and opening seven more in Houston in the past 11 months. Nguyen has two more spots under contract in Austin, which he hopes to open before the end of Q1 2023. “I’d say we’re probably at 30 to 40 percent [of our scalability],” he says.
Zalat also inked an agreement with Kroger (which recently announced a deal to acquire Albertsons), enabling the brand to potentially open new locations inside some of the chain’s 2,500 stores—a move that “has a lot of interesting potential,” Nguyen says. He is also looking to start a crowdfund, aims to have at least 45 Zalat locations by 2024, and, in the longer term, hopes to take the company public.