Operating a popular food truck-turned fast-casual restaurant, Seoul Taco founder David Choi has always valued the sense of community that a restaurant or food vendor can create as much as making great, authentic food.
Since launching his Korean-Mexican fusion truck in 2011, Choi has opened brick-and-mortar Seoul Taco locations in St. Louis, Chicago, Columbia, Mo., Champaign, Ill., and most recently Chesterfield, Mo. With a focus on neighborhoods with large student and young-professional populations, he hopes the affordable, fun menu of fusion tacos, burritos, nachos and gogi bowls will resonate.
Having the tie with young professionals and students alike, they’re looking for something fast and affordable, and we do both,” he says. “I know I’m not the first one to bring a Korean BBQ taco anywhere, but I really take pride in my recipes, and my family’s Korean barbecue, and I think we do it really well.”
Seoul Taco is Choi’s first foray into the restaurant business, but he’s always had a passion for food. Before rolling out the food truck, he worked a series of odd jobs—up to three at a time—at pizza shops and fast food restaurants, as a barista at Starbucks, car wash manager, and a valet attendant. All of which would lay the foundation for his entrepreneurial success.
Though he didn’t attend culinary school, Choi grew up in a home where food and cooking were at the epicenter. There, three generations of Korean-Americans would battle it out over whose Korean BBQ beef was superior. But Choi also learned a lot in that highly competitive kitchen.
“I incorporated certain elements I like from my grandma and flavor profiles from my mom into my marinades, but the interpretation you get at Seoul Taco is really my own,” Choi says, adding with a laugh: “We each think ours is the best though.”
In our interview, we learn the backstory behind his one-way ticket to D.C. with $18,000 to his name and eagerness to invest in his dream. Choi also recalls his greatest mistakes early on, the value of empowering staff, why staying true to form is critical, and the commitment required to make it on your own.
What prompted you to venture into food entrepreneurship?
In the beginning, it wasn’t even on the radar. I worked odd jobs, two and three at a time, and I was sick of working just to make ends meet. At that time, Korean tacos were starting to pop off and with knowing how to cook Korean food – something I learned from my mom and grandma – I had the idea of a food truck. So, I sold my car, cleared my accounts, and took the leap to start a food truck.
How did you get started after wanting a food truck?
After looking on Craigslist and eBay, I found trucks on the east coast and got a one-way ticket to Washington D.C. Nothing [panned out] in D.C., so I traveled to Philadelphia and found the perfect truck for $30,000, but all I had was $18,000. The guy wouldn’t [drop the price], so I left. About 30 minutes after leaving, the [seller] called and said his wife told him he’d be a dead man if the truck wasn’t gone [laughs]. I turned around and picked up the truck and drove it back to St. Louis. A few months of getting licenses and permits, and I was on the streets.
What was your initial plan of attack to begin getting customers?
It was a food truck festival called Food Truck Friday – a gathering of trucks sponsored by Sauce Magazine. I wasn’t sure how it would go, but I decided to go for it because at that point I was a hundred percent all-in. I kept my menu simple – tacos and quesadillas. Before the event, Sauce Magazine blasted us out on social media, so before we opened the window, there were about 40 people in line. They were intrigued about Korean Barbecue Tacos. And luckily people liked it, so everything took off from there.
What was the first year like as you were building the truck’s presence?
It was a big commitment of working 90-100 hours a week for a sustained amount of time with only one employee. I would reach out to different business owners – breweries, bars, nightclubs – where it’d be synergistic to have a food truck. We teamed up with some microbreweries that were booming in St. Louis, and it brought droves of people.
On Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, we would message friends and sort of guerrilla market with social media.
I recouped the initial investment within four months, but it took working a lot of hours – physical hours. I’d stay up all night prepping and cleaning the truck. Some nights, while at nightclubs, I wouldn’t be home until four or five in the morning, and then I’d be up around 11 to serve again. It was very tiring.
The biggest hurdle for me was feeling physically and mentally drained from the sheer hours of work, but it was all necessary for us to succeed.
How long until you felt like you were on solid ground, and perhaps able to bring on help?
After recouping the investment, I started hiring more employees, and that alleviated a lot. [However], at first you have to master the craft before hiring people. Otherwise, it will be really disorganized. All those hours of working, in the beginning, helped create a [system] for us.
When did you begin thinking of opening your first brick and mortar spot?
Honestly, we ran out of refrigerator space in my parent’s kitchen [laughs]. We needed a commissary to work out of and found a spot, but after signing the lease and opening, I decided to make it our first brick and mortar. It was a very minimal [financial] commitment because I used my network to find [and buy] equipment for pennies on the dollar. [Overall], all equipment and furnishings were around $30,000, which is unheard of.
What helped you operate two successful legs of the business, food truck and store?
First and foremost, you have to replicate what you do. Not just work-wise, but also from a leadership aspect. If you don’t do that, you’re not going to grow or be able to leave whatever position you’re at.
Also, you have to entrust the systems and leaders you put in place. Your leaders have to be empowered, so they take ownership.
In a short time you scaled to 5 places, what’s been the lesson(s) when looking back?
It’s almost humorous looking back at how much we stressed in the beginning from not knowing what to do. But when you’re trying to run a business, you have to go through that and learn those things.
Now, we’re in a good place with systems – they’re important. When you have more than one place, you need systems in place to sustain them. And then, having strong leadership. It’s something I’m focused now on – building even stronger leadership.
What’s been the strategy from a marketing, branding, or even advertising standpoint?
First, you can’t just replicate what other people are doing because that’s their brand and you have to respect that. People can see right through if you’re copying and pasting other people. It’s all about being authentic. That is one of the differentiating factors between us and other brands. Our brand is really cultivated from my personality, interests, and likes. People see that, and it’s authentic.
We don’t really have paid marketing – campaigns, editorial, etc. We are mostly socially or word of mouth driven. Sometimes we do print coupons or run a deal on social media, but it’s never been a part of our business. For me, it’s about staying true to the game and having a good product.
How do you manage the financials of the business at this point?
People don’t realize you need a strong financial base when you grow. Every entrepreneur or business owner already have so much on their plate that [financials] could easily get out of control.
When I transitioned from the food truck to brick and mortar, I sat with an accountant, and it was an eye-opener. There’s so much you need to be in compliance. I hired the accountant to do the bookkeeping because I knew I couldn’t really grow if that wasn’t organized.
What’s your final advice to our food entrepreneur audience?
If you believe in it, go for it full force. My mentality is you could always go back to doing whatever you did before. And you can’t be afraid a failure. Whether it’s a small or big failure, it’s not going to define who you are.
Entrepreneurial Chef Magazine
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