Your restaurants range from high-end to grab ’n’ go. What lessons have you learned from having different approaches?
Operating restaurants in London always makes me nervous. It is a multi-cultural city where I have to consider every aspect that can attract a global market. Nizuni, my Japanese restaurant, operated for over six years - it was such a hard decision to close it permanently, but I had to. I had to expand and concentrate on Korean cuisine. KOBA, On The Bab and our new brand Mee Market now serve only Korean cuisine, but with different target customers.
Which was the easiest to launch?
KOBA, 13 years ago. I had a very limited understanding of London at the time, and just followed my instinct and hoped for the best. Mee Market, my new Korean deli and cafe, was the hardest to launch. Londoners have high expectations, and I had to deliver.
Which is your favourite area to operate in?
Shoreditch. The customers are young, and they are more open-minded to new cultures and trends. For example, I was really surprised to find that the UK had an interest in Korea’s ‘K-Culture’.
Why was On the Bab the one you chose to expand across multiple sites?
On The Bab is more casual and easily approachable, it gave me a good opportunity to discover and approach the public with different versions of Korean food, but under one brand. It now has four locations and they’re each really distinct - the menu at each site is 70% uniform and 30% designed for the area.
What is it about Korean food that is making it gain such popularity recently?
Londoners live hectic life styles, but they want to feel healthy. Rice bowl dishes have been introduced at Mee Market and they are as easily accessible as sandwiches and burgers, which the British market loves. They are served almost instantly like fast food, but are of restaurant quality. It gives the public a new alternative to fast food, which fits in with our hectic lifestyles. Our culture is so new, and it provides huge potential around every corner.
Which aspects of Korean cuisine do you think will translate well to a UK market (besides kimchi!)?
I think that traditional food like Korean BBQ, kimchi jjigae (a kimchi stew with onions, pork, and seafood) and soondubu jigae (a soft tofu stew) will become really popular in the UK. I want to approach them with a different style and add twists to the dishes to make them become more popular.
Who is your target customer for Mee Market?
Mee Market’s target customers are business people, workers and students who want to have a comforting rice bowl but in a short period of time. Or also, for people who want to grab a quick dinner before going home after work or study. I always aim to provide Korean cuisine that is accessible to British and European customers without being too exclusive or intimidating. It’s casual, but interesting.
Have you got any more plans for further expansion?
Yes, we have most certainly got a couple of things in the pipeline… I can’t say any more for now, though.