David grew up in Saint Paul, moving from Highland Park to Mendota Heights while still in grade school. He was active in USY and Temple of Aaron growing up, and his maternal grandparents, Jerry and Kate Baer were members of Mount Zion for many years. Together with a childhood friend and business partner, David’s father Henry began the Embers chain of restaurants in 1956, with their first store on Lake Street in Minneapolis.
David received his business degree from the Carlson School at the University of Minnesota, went on to law school at Stanford, and from there to private practice at the firm of Winthrop & Weinstine. He eventually left the practice of law to go back into the family business, leading eventually to his founding Augeo Marketing, a company that focuses on loyalty engagement for businesses, non-profits and educational institutions.
He lives in the Mac Groveland neighborhood with his wife Cristiana and daughters and Annie and Lizzie, 14 and 12.
As we have come to appreciate his many skills and interests, David has been tapped for an array of roles within the congregation. He currently serves on our Board of Directors, he heads up our annual campaign, and his team at Augeo provided the creative force behind Mount Zion’s current “I Am Mount Zion” campaign.
What was it like growing up in Mendota Heights?
I lived on Overlook Road in Mendota Heights and we had a lot of Jewish families on our street. We had the Goldberger family, the brothers Howard and Bob. Next door to me were Marilyn and Dick Smith. Marilyn and I are currently very active at the JCC, co-chairing with others the JCC capital campaign, Steve Rubin included. We had the Bernicks on our street, who have since moved to Arizona. That would be my good friend Jeff Bernick who I grew up with. Rabbi Raskas’ daughter lived on the street, and son-in-law Steve Kafitz. Bob Weinstine, from Winthrop & Weinstine. Judge Dick Spicer. The Stillmans. The Pitzeles. Don and Rhoda Maines. And the Rutmans were across the street. And there were others, all on that block.
So it was a very Jewish street.
Were you involved with Embers growing up?
I grew up in and around the business. As children my Dad used to take us to the office on weekend mornings to “help” around the office. He would throw paper clips and loose staples on the carpet the night before, for us to pick up. Since I was 14 years old, I worked in the restaurants, through college. I was doing more bussing and waiting, versus cooking, although I did a little bit of that as well. After law school, I never planned to go back into the restaurants from the corporate side, but I did in the late 90s. It’s one of the reasons I left the practice– to help the family business.
Embers opened in 1956 and ended up becoming one of the foremost chains in the upper Midwest in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. Embers has an extraordinary tradition. They were first to do a lot of things. Most of what they did was original recipe oriented, including our famous pancakes. We always used fresh ingredients and great quality products throughout the history of Embers. We still own the license to the name, but the restaurant owners make their own operating and marketing decisions today.
My Dad and his partner for all practical purposes stopped growing the restaurant chain in the 80s, and by the 1990s the restaurants started to decline, particularly as the market started to move away from 24 hour operations and true family diners. The restaurants were older and started to suffer a bit, even though the food was still great and the recipes were awesome.
When I took over as President in the late 90s, we had about 2500 employees, and we were losing a lot of money every month. So to avoid losing the business, we had to come up with some pretty creative strategies. You know how sometimes intelligence drives innovation? That wasn’t the case with us. We were in crisis mode for several years, and it was this constant state of crisis that drove innovation for us. We cut costs as best we could, and ended up re-franchising many restaurants so that managers and others could actually become their own owners. And that is what has survived today.
Editor’s note: you can still find Embers ads on YouTube, including one from 1985 touting the 24 hour jumbo breakfast, for just a $1.99. “Oh, and you don’t even need a coupon.”
So do you cook now?
I do a little bit, but my wife loves to cook, and fortunately, she’s very good at it. I do a little bit of grilling.
And a lot of the breakfasts.
How did you move from President of Embers to starting Augeo?
Around 2000, as we needed to find a way to drive more growth in the business, we started a buying program for independent restaurants, the goal being to help them compete more effectively against the national chains. We then transitioned that platform into what they call a ‘loyalty solution’ for companies like US Foods and Pepsi.
That is how we got started. We then began working with large retail businesses and others, which really validated the inventive way we thought about loyalty. Since 2007 or so we have grown on a compounded basis by almost 50% per year, and are now one of the largest loyalty marketing firms in North America. We have offices here, Chicago, Boston (Dover, NH), NYC and Long Island, and Phoenix, and have a great team of people that flat out care about the work we do.
Obviously, I love what I do. We drive engagement and loyalty between very large organizations and their employees or their customers. We serve many industries, including in recent years the financial services sector, where our focal point is regional banks and credit unions. We run loyalty programs for over 900 financial institutions across the country. We are also an industry leader in the employee incentive and recognition area.
What was the origin of the name Augeo?
The original name of our company was Foodstreet Plus because we started in the restaurant industry. But as we were expanding outside the restaurant business we needed to change our name. We were invited to a discussion with Kinko’s just around the time they were being acquired by FedEx, to see if we might be interested in designing their engagement program. And so we had about 3 weeks to prepare, including to come up with a new name, print business cards, do letterhead, and so forth. We had to quickly brainstorm, and we put a bunch of names up on a board in the conference room, but they were all trademarked already.
Given my law background and our need for a name at that moment in time, we looked at Latin derivations. Augeo is Latin for augment – we augment relationships between distinctive companies and their customers.
I should also share that one of the more fascinating engagement issues we’ve addressed recently happens to be one of the foremost, and for that matter controversial, engagement issues in America today — how to inspire young, healthy, uninsured Americans to buy health insurance.
We were invited to discussions at the White House around how to get famous athletes to support “Obamacare”. Very controversial, very political. After much discussion we created an approach that kind of rose above the fray, that engaged the non-politicians, including business people and athletes of both political parties. Look, if we can encourage and inspire young healthy Americans to buy health insurance, regardless of what your views may be about Obamacare, we are all better off.
So we created and deployed a platform called “gameplan4me” (it can be found at www.gameplan4me.com) where we – with the help of leaders in the sports industry – encouraged famous athletes on a pro bono basis to talk about their personal game plans.
What brought you to Mount Zion?
I’ve had connections, friends and family here, over the years. My wife and I are oriented around raising our children in a home and an environment in which we are both comfortable. So as we learned more about Mount Zion, and experienced the community, it became clear to us that we belonged here. Ultimately, it’s a great fit for who we are, for our family – how we think about religion both spiritually and culturally.
And just as my identity comes from my Jewish heritage, my wife has a strong cultural identity to her Italian heritage. From that perspective, we have similar shared values, and Mount Zion is a very good fit.
Do you have any secret skills or talents?
I don’t really, but I have memorized a number of poems over the years that inspire me. During a period of my life that was difficult – we all have difficult periods of our lives – my Dad gave me this poem about commitment and drive and belief in oneself. And it goes something like this (excerpts below).
If you think you are beaten, you are
If you think you dare not, you don’t,
If you like to win, but you think you can’t
It is almost a cinch you won’t.
Life’s battles don’t always go
To the stronger or faster man,
But soon or late the man who wins
Is the fellow who thinks he can.