Noko in Nashville is changing the restaurant industry from the inside out.
Words by Laura Drummond
Photos by Allison Leboutillier
With its Asian-inspired, wood-fired cuisine, Noko is one of the hottest restaurants in East Nashville, and its leaders—Jon Murray, Wilson Brannock, and Dung “Junior” Vo—are trailblazers in the restaurant industry.
Noko’s menu combines influences from executive chef Vo’s childhood in Vietnam and his decade of experience working in Japanese cooking. Staples include tuna crispy rice, salmon carpaccio, crab fried rice, Szechuan green beans, crispy potatoes, and Caesar salad with kimchi dressing. “Seventy percent of the menu is kissed by fire in some capacity, whether it’s torched, grilled on the woodfire grill, or smoked on our smoker,” says managing partner Brannock.
The restaurateurs met in Atlanta years ago while all working for the Indigo Road Hospitality Group. The three moved up the ranks of the company, which took them out of Atlanta and into restaurants in Nashville and Charleston. “We weren’t always working side by side, but we were always working together in some capacity,” says founder Murray.
During the early days of the pandemic, when restaurants closed their doors and the future was uncertain, the plan to launch Noko was born. A few friends in the industry would assemble in someone’s backyard, cooking on the grill and communing from a distance. The temporary break from the grind gave them a new determination. “We were in this space of wanting to be creative,” says Murray.
With forty years of combined experience in the industry throughout the South, the partners were torn at first about where to establish Noko. “When we walked into this space, we immediately knew that this is where we were supposed to be,” says Murray. Noko opened in March of this year to much success, standing out as a restaurant with unique dishes and impeccable service.
But Noko is more than just a restaurant. “It is a medium to affect change in our business. We want to change hospitality internally forever,” says Murray. That means not just providing top-tier care for the restaurant’s guests but also providing a high-level of care for their staff members. “While we always want to take care of our guests, we want to take care of our people,” says Murray.
Murray, Brannock, and Vo set out to intentionally create a business that could provide employee benefits often missing in the restaurant industry. “The excuse has been for years that the restaurant business is a nickel and dime business. That excuse doesn’t work for the three of us anymore,” says Murray. For them, it’s personal. “We’ve been employees. We’ve been the people on the front line. We’ve been the people sacrificing nights, weekends, time with friends and family, and holidays to make sure that we took care of people,” says Murray.
About 5 percent of Noko’s revenue goes back to employees through the employee betterment program, which offers a number of benefits focused on the health and wellness of the staff. “A lot of people look at employees as a cost. We believe our employees are an asset,” says Murray. “It’s a substantial amount of money that it costs us every month, but it’s money well spent, in our opinion.” LLeadership plans to introduce even more benefits in the next year or two, as the restaurant becomes more established.
One focus of the employee betterment program is paid time off and travel. “We believe there’s so much more to life than just working,” says Murray. Employees are not expected to work more than four days per week. They receive ten paid holidays, and they’re paid to take their birthday off. They receive one to four weeks of paid time off, depending on their position and how long they’ve worked there. In addition, there’s a travel fund to help employees cover the cost of a vacation. “There’s so much to learn outside of where we live,” says Murray.
Other benefits include monthly stipends to help cover the cost of employees’ health, dental, and vision insurance; access to online therapy at no cost; and a free gym membership. “We want our employees to be successful inside of Noko, but if they’re going to be successful inside, they need to be successful outside of here,” says Murray.
For the folks behind Noko, it’s not just about caring for those inside their doors; they also prioritize involvement in their community. In addition to participating in volunteer efforts, they donate 1 percent of net profits to Nashville Children’s Alliance, a local nonprofit that provides healing and support for children who have been abused or exposed to violence.
Noko’s core values, which are listed on the menu and website, are the driving forces behind the restaurant’s atmosphere. The values include positivity, gratitude, sustainability, fun, honesty, forgiveness, humility, and wonder. The leadership team hopes that by sharing their values and information about their employee betterment program, more business owners will make their own adjustments to care for their employees. “We don’t have all the answers,” says Brannock. “But we’ve got to live up to our values day to day.”