Everyone’s talking about how 2016 was such a bad year. I agree with that. In my personal/professional life, I didn’t have a great year as well. I’ve been silent about some of these stories because it’s taken me a long time to process them. I’ll go ahead and get them out now.
The BBQ Pub
This is one I’ve really been silent about. I’ve tried to take the high road and not dig up the dirt. But in the vacuum rumors have grown. It’s best to clear this up and tell you the true story.
Right after the New Year, a friend of mine–let’s call him KB–approached me about opening a BBQ pub in Mokdong. Well, that’s not wholly how it started. He already owned a Korean BBQ restaurant in the area. He wanted to open a new one, and he felt that he could jump on the American BBQ trend after I suggested he try out Linus BBQ on his birthday. He’s one of those friends that always bugs you when he needs something. Usually it was to help promote his Korean BBQ place, and I tried to help. I liked the place. But then he got this American BBQ idea stuck in his head. At first, he was bugging me to teach him how to do the BBQ. Then he asked me to be his partner in opening the BBQ pub.
This is the part I need to clear up. From the beginning he asked me to be a 50/50 partner in the venture. I was skeptical of the whole enterprise from the start. I didn’t like the location. KB talks a lot of pie in the sky. The difference between him and others who talk big is that he actually does what he says he’s going to do. So he has a track record of being a do-er. He’s a great pitch man as well, and I fell for the pitch. The only way I agreed to go along is if I had a 50% partnership in the net profits and I had full control over the concept and menu. I told him I’d put together an agreement for us to sign, and he was cool with it.
We set about to transforming this former hagwon into a pub in chilly January and February. We spent a lot of time together, way more than I ever had. And I got to see glimpses of who he really was. We went on BBQ pilgrimages, and his driving was so reckless that I threw up when I got home. He speeds through parking garages and cuts people off in traffic. He didn’t really have much respect for rules or laws when they inconvenienced him. For some reason, he couldn’t get a restaurant license for two places, so he used his wife’s name on the pub’s business license. Things started grating between us when we went to Costco together. He intentionally doesn’t let the receipt checker check his receipt when leaving. And he’ll start a fight if they try to stop him. It can be a silly rule, but I prefer to choose my battles wisely. After all the corruption and bad laws out there, Costco checking my receipt isn’t where I feel the need to take my stand.
Rather than get new equipment, the entire kitchen was equipped with used appliances. Only the smokers were new. Other restaurant owners I knew warned us against that, and they were right. There were so many problems with that kitchen. Everything broke down at one time. The fryers needed constant temperature checks. The dishwasher would frequently break down. The hot water–once it was broken, we didn’t have hot water for the rest of the time I was there. The drain in the center of the kitchen always got clogged, and we’d actually have to cook while standing in five centimeters of water. The outside cooler broke down, and we had to toss out all the meat in there. People complained about our consistency, but it was a miracle we got anything out of that kitchen.
Because of the limited kitchen size and the fact that a maximum of two people would cook, I insisted on keeping the menu small and focused. That was a big source of conflict. My wife also felt dread when KB told her that he didn’t really care about American southern cuisine. He just wanted to catch the BBQ trend. In hindsight, these were flashing warning signs. But I felt I was already too deep in my commitment there to walk out.
We hired a great staff. Well, except for this Russian server, which KB and his wife wanted to hire because they felt she was pretty. Didn’t matter that she spoke no English and could barely speak Korean. She was blonde and exotic looking to them. She also ended up being the first person we fired because she was such a bad server and spoke rudely to the customers. The rest of our team were top notch. I was very proud of what we put together and achieved.
After a lot of testing, we opened for business in early March. Yes, we transformed a hagwon into a pub in two months. And those were very cold days. A lot of work. During our first month, I got better at working with our little smokers. We specialized in pulled pork and smoked fried chicken. The surprise hit was Brunswick Stew. I initially made it as a daily special to get rid of the pulled pork we had made when we were experimenting. It fit the Korean palate’s craving for spicy soup. One Korean blogger called it “American Yukgejang.”
We had our detractors as well. Some no-name blogger who wrote snobby negative reviews of wherever he went trashed us in his review. For some reason, he followed me to my next venture in order to trash that as well, even though it wasn’t in his usual blogging neighborhood. You could tell from the writing that this guy had some personal beef with me. I don’t know. It was weird and creepy.
Suppliers. The only food supplier we had was for our meat. Everything else was from Costco, a local supermarket, sometimes E-Mart. I even went to plant shops to get herbs for the cocktails. Even though I wasn’t supposed to be the financial partner, I had put a good bit of my own money for equipment and supplies. I bugged KB about us getting real suppliers for the produce and other items, but he didn’t know how to find them. He didn’t like me getting fresh produce, saying I should only get vegetables from the clearance bin. Of course, this added to our conflicts. I preferred getting supplies from the grocery store near my apartment and the farmers’ co-op in Gimpo because the produce was so much better.
I ended up working long hours six days a week. I’d leave the house around 9 a.m. and not return until 2 a.m. On my feet most of the time.
Soon after we opened, KB wanted to have a hwesik–the famous work dinner that Korean offices do. The thing is, we were a bar. It just doesn’t work that way. After we closed at midnight, KB insisted we all go to his other restaurant and eat Korean BBQ and some raw oysters. Those oyster got everyone but two of us sick. I showed up on Saturday, and everyone had called in sick. I opened an hour late because I had to run the entire place by myself until someone could come in. My cook came in the next day, and he was bad off. But we were so short staffed. UGH! Bad decision on my part letting him work because I think that’s what caused our food poisoning outbreak that week. I threw everything out–again, to KB’s dismay.
I thought I would get support from KB, but it wasn’t so. The plan was to target women and couples in our marketing because they tended to drive the trends and spend money in places like this. I figured out quickly that KB just wanted to use the place as a hangout for his ajosshi friends. They would party multiple nights a week. They would hardly order any food. They drank the cheapest beer. And they acted like fucking children. It was if they had never emotionally matured past college age. They’d play loud drinking games, do push-ups in the middle of the dining room, and drive out all the customers who were paying real money. At least three times a week, I’d show up to open the pub and find it trashed by KB’s friends. One time a bunch of ajosshi friends of his insisted we open early so they could drink. The hour before a restaurant’s opening is its busiest time. It’s a panicked rush. We can’t be distracted by early customers because–WE’RE NOT READY! But he let them in. They caused a ruckus. One fucker even spat on our floor.
KB was more concerned about impressing these assholes than running the business. He was obsessed with his status in the neighborhood and wanted to ingratiate himself with the local “leaders.” Towards the end of my time there, his alcoholism got more of the best of him. He’d spend every night there getting drunk. Some nights he’d be snuggling and kissing on some random woman–in a pub that was technically owned by his wife. Then he’d be out of commission because of his hangovers.
Our conflicts were getting more and more heated. His ajosshi friends kept trashing the place, and KB said that he didn’t like foreigners going to the pub. He feared they scared away the Korean customers. He started exhibiting a racist streak. I kept bringing up signing our partnership agreement, and he kept making excuses. I worked on getting media to write about us and such. He actually paid a company to get Korean bloggers in to write fake reviews. As a blogger who is adamantly against this tainting of our industry, I felt sick to my stomach. I told him my feelings, and his response was, “Everyone cheats. You have to cheat to get ahead. That’s the Korean way.”
When he said that, I was snapped out of my hypnosis. I saw him for what he truly was. A scammer. A cheater. A social climber.
I made it my priority to get our partnership agreement signed. At our next staff meeting, I bugged him about signing the agreement. I was getting more adamant. He said he would do it. At the end of the meeting, he said in passing that he must approve all menu items before we put them on the menu. Now, he had been encroaching on my section of the business, and the one agreement that was sacred was that I was in control of the menu. I couldn’t believe what I had heard.
Earlier that week, we had a Fried Green Tomato special. By that day, the tomatoes were red, so I was figuring out a way to use them. I created a tomato salad to add as a special. That evening, I had to leave to lead a Dark Side of Seoul tour. In the middle of my tour, I received a Kakao message from him that he sent out to everyone. He was furious that we had a tomato salad on the menu without his approval.
I finished the tour and headed back to the restaurant. On my way out of the subway station, I ran into my cook. He said he wasn’t going to “deal anymore with that asshole” and quit. I walked in and took over the kitchen until closing. KB then came in and called a meeting. We had it out about him controlling the menu and the kitchen, the part that I was in charge of. I got onto him about his overdrinking, how he used the business as his personal party house, and how he was driving away the customers. I looked him in the eye and calmly yet firmly said, “Am I your partner or your employee.”
“You’re my employee.”
I got up. “Good luck with your business.”
And that was basically it. He changed the name. He threatened me with all these lawsuits and for taking my recipes with me. Yes, he was claiming that my grandmother’s recipes were his property. At my next venture, I was able to bring along my talented management team. One of them was stuck there for another month, and I heard through him and the others–who were all miserable–that he just continued to drink and run his business into the ground. I really don’t know how it’s turned out since then.
He did go on social media to trash me. I’ve heard he continued to trash talk me to other foreigners that went to the pub after I left. Some attorneys said I could have gone after him for slander and libel, but it wasn’t worth the time and effort.
Despite all of this, I still feel some guilt. I know one of my weaknesses is that I’m not a good judge of character. I think the best of most people. My admins on Restaurant Buzz Seoul say that I’m way too patient and nice with some of the assholes in that group. This experience has left me jaded. Traumatized. I still have dreams about KB, and I mourn that we lost our friendship. I know that he was not a good person, but I’m friends with a lot of assholes.
OK Burger on the Cheonggyecheon
I drove home. I woke my wife and told her what happened. She actually was relieved. She saw what the place was doing to my health. I took a month to figure out my options. After a few days, I announced on Facebook my departure from the pub. In less than a week I had ten offers and proposals for other projects. I wanted to take my time, though. Chef Susumu Yonaguni contacted me and asked if I could meet him. We met at his restaurant, O Kitchen 3. I love that place. I love Susumu. He’s well respected in the restaurant community. He asked if I’d be interested in taking over one of his restaurants, particularly his second OK Burger in Jongno, on the Cheonggyecheon Stream. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to jump back into the industry, but a chance to learn from Susumu I couldn’t pass up.
I got one of my managers from the pub to join me in the venture. The intent was for us to take it over and to bring my barbecue there. Integrate it into their concept somehow. OKBC had a heavy lunch crowd but was dead at night. My wife, daughter, and I scoped it out on Children’s Day in the evening, and we noted right away some of the problems, particularly with service. In my talks with Susumu and his wife and business partner Jamie, they made it clear that they weren’t going to put any more money into the restaurant design. I also didn’t have much of a marketing budget. I ended up using my own money for that.
My manager John and I started work there. Immediately I felt it was too soon. I still felt a pit in my stomach from my experience with the pub. I had lost my confidence, and the kitchen wasn’t an exciting place for me. I had PTSD from the pub.
Nonetheless, we observed and broke down what we felt could improve the restaurant. For one thing, the menu was bloated and confusing. Much of the items weren’t even available. Other items were barely ordered, and their ingredients had to be tossed out. I looked at the records and figured out which were the top selling items and which were the duds. We took an axe to that menu. Only three of the original burgers remained out of nine. All the special platters and sides were out, except for the fries and onion rings. The cheese sticks and fried shrimp remained until we ran out.
The cheese sticks themselves were a strong indicator of the restaurant’s underlying weakness. These weren’t your usual mozzarella sticks rolled in breadcrumbs. They consisted of three different cheeses that were melted, chilled, and cut before being rolled in egg and breadcrumbs. It was a labor intensive process using expensive cheeses. And an order only cost W2,000. There was no margin, practically. In fact, considering labor and all the parts going into making them, I think they had a negative margin. We lost money each time we sold an order.
Our first big thing to fix was labor. When we started, half the staff used that as their opportunity to quit. The entire kitchen turned in their notices within a day. We somehow convinced the head cook to stay on and got the other full-timer to stay for a month while we found replacements and learned everything. The thing was, we didn’t have much of a budget to attract anyone to work in the kitchen. So John and I were stuck in the kitchen most of the time.
The main menu, even though we had cut it down by 75%, still had a lot of labor intensive prep. For a while, the sister restaurant in Yeouido took over the tasks of making the brioche buns and grinding the meat (which was a two-day process). I personally liked the lunch rush. I took the cold station and the pass. This meant I assembled the burgers and the plates and inspected them before they went out. It was like playing Diner Dash. I got such a high off of it. But the other parts of the kitchen work I didn’t like so much. Prep work was repetitive. Each of the original dishes required so much prep from scratch. It was like fine dining for a burger joint. Yet the prices weren’t fine dining prices.
I’m sounding negative here. That’s not the case, though. SPOILER ALERT–This was a good experience, and it ended well.
We were equipped with the best professional kitchen I’ve ever worked in. I learned new techniques in running a kitchen. We were so busy with prep each day that I barely had time to add my own menu items. But the stuff I did add we had perfected from the BBQ pub. The barbecued chicken, by our final month there, was amazing. I don’t like eating my own food after I’ve been working on it all day, but some nights after closing, if we had an extra chicken around, I found myself sucking the bones. We really got the barbecued chicken and the pork just right. And consistent. I was particularly proud of two things, our Jerk Chicken Burger and our Soju Onion Rings. I love Jamaican food, and I jumped at the opportunity to make Seoul’s first actual smoked Jerk Chicken. I figured out a way to mimic the pimiento wood smoke. When it was Jerk smoking day, oh it was nice. Smelled like a college dorm… heh heh. The onion rings was a practical solution to the money we were wasting on the beer batter we were frying the rings with. Not only were we using beer batter, we were using the expensive craft beer. Another money losing item. Soju is much cheaper than craft beer in Korea. And soju’s neutral flavor and alcohol content made the rings light and crispy. It totally worked.
I was able to get my other manager from the pub to join us. Both our managers are some of the best in the business. I was so lucky. Our floor staff was taught how to give better service, and we got positive feedback about that. The sales themselves were moving back up. I still have the financial charts I made.
The restaurant suffered from bad ju-ju. For one thing, the location. It was a beautiful location, right next to a bustling block of chicken hofs and bars. Yet there was a psychological barrier. We were the next block over, and few partiers wanted to cross that street. To the east of us were the old machine shops that used to dominate the Jongno area of Seoul and still dominate down to Jongno 5-ga. The foot traffic in that area were not in our demographic. We also were on the second floor and were hard to spot. We were popular with office workers at lunch, but they had a hard time making the transition to seeing us as a night spot. We were testing a night time delivery service to the local office buildings, and it was getting some success. Yet we had some disadvantages compared to the Yeouido location. Yeouido has more affluent office workers, businessmen, lawyers, and politicians. There is also not much competition for nightlife there. In Jongno, we had to compete with that whole block of flashy bars. The crowd that ate lunch there went for our cheapest burger, the OK Burger (which is really good) and a soda. John sat down and made all the calculations and discovered that we were basically only making W2,000 off of each OK Burger sold. He went to the Yeouido location to learn some new techniques in making the buns. He investigated a bit and found that Yeouido sold mostly the Blue Cheese Burgers and the more expensive ones with wider margins. The economy was also heavily hurting the Seoul restaurant industry. It had one of its worst years in 2016.
In short, even with the rising traffic, we had to face the reality that we’d have to have Costco levels of traffic in order to make a profit. Our projections suggested we could do that after a year. But I had a long talk with Jamie. I could tell she wanted to close the place. I myself was tired, and I really missed my daughter. I barely got to see her that entire year. It made me cry that when she went to school in the morning she’d say, “Goodbye, Daddy. See you tomorrow.”
That’s how little we saw of each other. I didn’t want another year of that. So I messaged Jamie and said, “Let’s pull the plug.”
She was relieved. We all were. I made sure our cooks went to good jobs afterward. John joined my tours as one of our guides, and he’s now running the recently revived Yaletown–keeping alive some of our inventions at OKBC.
We all parted and closed OKBC on good terms. Susumu was highly critical of my food at the beginning. I worked hard, and it got to the point that he said I was actually a good cook. I made some of the best chicken he had ever tasted. I learned a lot from him and Jamie. I will always value that experience. We had a final evening of dining and wining at O Kitchen 3. I’m sad to say that O Kitchen 3 and O Kitchen 5 have closed their doors at the end of 2016. I have a feeling the Park Geun-hye protests didn’t help. OK3 is right next to Gwanghwamun, and when there are protests, the types of people looking for fine dining avoid that area.
One good thing that came out of this year is that after four years of struggling, my tour business really broke through. We were doing amazing business. My plan after OKBC was to go back to teaching English at the Goyang City community centers, which I concluded was a pretty sweet job, and do my tours. We’d recover. We closed OKBC in September, and my peak month for tours was October. I was getting ready for the rush.
On October 1st, I had a humongous Dark Side of Seoul Tour booked. I went to Daiso with my daughter to get supplies for the tour. I started feeling dizzy. I saw tracers, and I knew something bad was happening. I had a seizure and slammed down hard on the display shelves, fracturing my back. It was traumatic for my daughter. I talked more about the experience, with CCTV video, here.
I made myself get back on my feet quickly. I had lost so much money this year, pouring it into two restaurants and receiving the lowest salary I’ve ever had in Korea. I had to make it up. But I was in a back brace. I walked like an old man and couldn’t stay on my feet long before it felt like a knife was being jammed into my spine. Before the seizure, I did just fine on five to six hours of sleep. After the seizure, I was sleeping ten hours straight every night. The brain meds made my head feel staticky. Like my brain was packed in cotton. The whole ordeal was so painful. The hospital was such a depressing experience. If anything came out of this, my daughter and I bonded more strongly. In fact, it’s really intense. She’s protective of me now and sometimes cries and hyperventilates when I’m not home.
My teaching job–at first I was going to work five days a week, but it ended up being only two. The injury put me out for a while. And the session ended in early December. But it was fun. One of my classes won the Goyang English Contest. I hope to start it again when it reboots in April.
These days, my back is healed, but it still is stiff and hurts sometimes. I can’t do anything strenuous, like running, for a few months still. I’ll be on brain meds at least until the end of January.
I’m still processing this whole shitty year. I learned a lot. I proved to myself I can cook, but I also learned why I left the industry in the ’90s. I hate being in the kitchen. I’m being approached to do some restaurant consulting work. You may see my food again, but I won’t be doing 14-hour days and 84-hour weeks anymore. I’m sad I lost a friend, but I’m happy that I made new ones, particularly my managers, Susumu, Jamie, and my restaurant customers. On the surface, it looks like I failed two restaurants. But really, I was screwed out of one, and I just helped keep one alive that was barely on life support for a few more months.
I’m ending 2016 more changed than I’ve ever been in one year.