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The Man Behind Man vs Fries

An Interview With Bill Bonhorst

October 31, 2020 Hannah McIntosh
Man vs Fries Founder William Bonhorst

Bill Bonhorst, CEO & Founder of Man vs Fries, knows it sounds cliche, but he wants people to follow their dreams. “Look at Kanye West. He was a producer and everyone said ‘you can’t rap.’ But he had this delusional confidence that he would become the greatest rapper.” Bill himself, taking a note from Yeezy, merged confidence, his love for food, and his business acumen from his days as a tech consultant, and built Man vs Fries, the pop-up restaurant concept serving up decadent and immensely imaginative french fry creations. “Now, for the first time, I feel like I am fulfilling what I’m supposed to do.” We chatted with Bill, a self-proclaimed start-up junkie and foodie, to learn a bit more about his brand, his views on the Bay Area food scene, and his thoughts on the future of the restaurant industry. 

Bill Bonhorst |Illustration by Richard Fairhead

NBRHD: Give us a little background on who you are and the birth story of Man vs Fries:

BB: “My background is actually in technology and in consulting for startup companies. I did that for a long time in San Francisco, and then I had a friend come to me with an idea about building a Mexican restaurant that was similar to Chipotle but with a focus more on tacos. We launched the first location in this small 800 square foot location in the middle of nowhere, and then all of a sudden that location blew up and got small businesses of the year. So I did that for an entire year. Everyone told me “don’t get into the restaurant industry, there’s no way to make money, margins suck, you’re gonna get sued all the time.” But I was like, if I can use technology and figure out how to scale a restaurant like a tech company, there’s got to be a way that can actually work. If we could leverage a digital brand, not only can we help this underlying restaurant, which was the taco spot at the time, we can actually prove this vision of removing the brick and mortar aspect of a restaurant. We’d actually put it closer to where the people are, and that’s how Man vs Fries was created – as a digital restaurant within another restaurant.”

NBRHD: What’s your general philosophy around food?

BB: “I’m a foodie at heart. The reason why Man vs Fries was created was because I’ve never met a french fry I didn’t love. I love exploring culture through food. I love exploring neighborhoods through food. I love exploring everything through food – who a culture is, even on a microculture level, block by block. In San Francisco, you can get 50 different versions of a cuisine, so to me, it’s all about taking really interesting food concepts, meshing them together, and just trying them out. Doing extreme things. I think that people, brands, and food are at their best when they are the maximum version of themselves. If it’s food, I want it to be the maximum version. And I think that’s what, not only for virtual restaurants but for building these concepts, you can try them in a space where it’s okay to fail, it’s okay to explore. And I think that’s something missing in food in general nowadays. There’s a lot of conservative thinking in food, and I think we can explore the boundaries of pushing things further. So that is my philosophy on food and building different things – always be its maximum version if itself.”

Man vs Fries So Cal Burrito

NBRHD: How would you describe Man vs Fries in 3 words? 

BB: A french fry lover’s dream. For so long, the french fry has been the side piece in every relationship. It’s never been the main course. There has never been something like “here’s the brand, it’s french fries.” It’s always burgers and fries, wings and fries. I wanted to elevate and evolve the french fry into its maximum self. Let’s put that first and lead with that. And then, we can put something crazy things on the side of it. Man vs Fries is the maximum version of the french fry. It’s what french fries can ultimately be, and there was no place I could go get that. So I said ‘why can’t I bring that to people?’ I like french fries, I like crazy things on french fries, and I like french fries in everything – french fries in burritos, french fries in milkshakes, whatever it is.” 

Man vs Fries Asada Fries

NBRHD: What’s next for Man vs Fries?

BB: “There are layers to peel back on that. For me, it’s getting the brand, the food, and the experience into as many people’s hands as possible. I want as many people to try Man vs Fries as possible, to feel like they can live a little and go a little extra on the weekend, and splurge on this crazy concept. I believe that the menu is awesome, and I want as many people as possible to experience that. That’s the first layer – just getting it into as many neighborhoods and cities as possible because we’ve built something unique. It’s french fries first. It’s time for that to shine. And then two, it’s if possible, we want to show the industry that it’s okay to be a digital brand. If you are a small restaurant or a large multinational corporation, it’s okay to – especially in our day and age now with COVID-19 and with everything being online and digital – explore your own creativity and build a digital, virtual brand, similar to Man vs Fries. And then hopefully, you can scale that idea and bring it to different cities through Neighborhood Kitchens, for instance, among other avenues. For me, it’s really about educating the market that virtual brands are here to stay, and they are actually very helpful. So, number one is on building the quality of the brand and getting the french fries and the experience of a fried cheesecake, a fried oreo into as many people’s hands as possible. We have a lot of other menu items that we want to add as we grow, so there are going to be some really cool, exciting things coming down the pipeline. And number two is just educating the market.”

NBRHD: What do you think about the opinion that virtual brands are, in fact, real restaurants? 

BB: “There’s always evolution in every industry. To me it’s so clear, it’s apparent. I see how the market could look at this idea and say ‘if you’re making food out of a different kitchen, it’s not a real restaurant.’ But it is! It’s the evolution of what a restaurant could be to its maximum form. It’s breaking down the typical brick and mortar of a restaurant. So it’s cutting edge. And cutting edge things in the very beginning are often shut down because they push back at the norms of society, at the norms of multinational corporations that aren’t there yet. So you get a lot of push back in that aspect. But as these really high-quality brands change food tastes and push into the maximum version of themselves, the consumer experience becomes amazing. It’s essential and necessary to be nimble and agile and embrace technology, whether you are a brick and mortar with 100 locations, or a mom and pop with three locations or one location. I believe delivery is the future. And as you get closer and closer to delivering to consumers as the world changes, it’s only going to be more prolific. I’m very hopeful for the future as more brands break through the mold. Consumers these days – the Gen Zers and younger Millennials – they just want an experience, it doesn’t matter where it comes from. As long as the food is high quality and you’re proving something that is different, a niche in the market, it doesn’t matter where the food comes from. We’re scrolling through apps and whatever touches our mind, you now can tap and get delivery on demand in 20 minutes. I do think more and more brands will embrace virtual kitchens, and consumers as well if they are not already there yet.”

NBRHD: If you could rebrand the term “Ghost Kitchen” what would you call it?

BB: “Neighborhood kitchen! The problem that I have with ‘ghost kitchen’ is by definition, it’s as if something is hiding. When I worked as a consultant a few years ago with a multinational restaurant corporation, I was actually pitching them Man vs Fries, and they were blown away because they didn’t know this niche was even around. I was pitching this idea of digital restaurants with no capital expenditures and they were like ‘ghost kitchens’ and was like no, the only way to make this work is by embracing what you’re doing. Don’t hide behind a ghost kitchen. If you’re going to partner with a restaurant, it has to be upfront, open. You shouldn’t hide or be fearful of what you’re doing and ‘ghost kitchen’ says that to me. So for me, I’m not building a ghost kitchen, I am building a really interesting way to connect my community through a creative outlet to produce really awesome food. Because at the end of the day it’s on a neighborhood basis. It’s on a local basis. It’s really about being local and being connected to your local community. Really, that’s the only thing that matters at the end of the day.”

NBRHD: On that note, what’s your favorite thing about the Bay Area food scene these days?

BB: You can go block by block, and there are just different versions of the same food. You can experience so many different cultures in the Bay Area by just exploring different neighborhoods. San Francisco is only seven miles by seven miles. So you can walk, you know neighborhood by neighborhood, and you get a completely different experience, whether it’s an Italian whether it’s Thai whether it’s Vietnamese, whether it’s Mexican, whether it’s some fusion of all of those. It’s all here – from the trendiest to the most original, to the mom and pop that’s been here for 8 years. That’s a true foodies dream. That’s why I fell in love with San Francisco, because not only is it a city that believes in everybody, and believes in your dream regardless, but it’s the Mecca for anything that can happen, you can build anything here. Every dream can be fulfilled here. And through food, you see that in people getting creative, whether it’s crazy versions of boba tea or crazy versions of dessert, there’s just so much here to experience – different lives and different cultures through food. So that’s the main thing I love about San Francisco –it’s access to different cultural experiences.”

NBRHD: What was the last meal you had?

BB: “I make a lot of food at home, but the last meal I had out was from one of my favorite spots in San Francisco, Delarosa. It’s an amazing pizza restaurant, but they also have amazing salads and just different versions of Italian food. My other favorite restaurant in San Francisco, maybe more so than any other restaurant in San Francisco, is an Italian restaurant called The Italian Homemade Company. You walk in there and people are speaking Italian, they’re making the pasta in front of you, and everything is homemade. It’s just so good. It’s just an experience. Everything you get is homemade, authentic, you just know they put their love into it.”

Delivery from Man vs Fries

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