While toiling as a management consultant, John-Paul Lee hungered for a new profession that would bring energy and purpose to his life. Lee found his calling with Kosofresh, the New York City–based, build-your-own-rice-bowl concept he opened in September 2012.
Adopting the assembly-line service method popularized by Chipotle, Kosofresh lets guests customize Korean rice-bowl dishes by mixing white or brown rice with a diverse array of 14 toppings, including bean sprouts, carrots, and zucchini. Protein choices include bulgogi beef, soy garlic chicken, spicy pork, or tofu, and the dish is topped with either ko-soy sesame sauce or gochujang, a hot pepper paste.
Lee discusses his 18-month-old concept’s founding, evolution, and future prospects.
What was your goal with Kosofresh?
Korean food is so healthy, delicious, and versatile, but isn’t very accessible to the American masses, who are far more comfortable with Chinese and Thai food when it comes to Asian cuisine. We wanted to demystify Korean food while also giving the guest power and an interactive experience. We spread out all of our ingredients and identify them, so everything is visible. In this way, your eyes speak for you.
Did you find you needed to alter anything to appease the domestic palate?
Just because a product works abroad doesn’t mean it will work here as is. For instance, the fern bracken plant is a staple topping in Korea. When we ran our focus groups, though, nine out of 10 hated it. We realized we needed to alter the recipes, tone down certain flavors, and add some new elements, such as walnuts and roasted corn. For us, it’s about maintaining the authenticity of the product—right down to serving the bowl with two hands as is customary in Korea—but also making it attainable and accessible.
What major changes did you make to accommodate the positive customer response the restaurant generated?
When we realized the demand was greater than we had expected, we created a mobile operation. We can now go in and construct a makeshift build-your-own-rice-bowl bar to replicate our storefront in a client’s environment, such as a corporate cafeteria or a convention center. Interest in our mobile concept continues to build and excite.
Where do you see Kosofresh heading?
We recently completed a new commissary kitchen that tripled our size and will help develop our mobile business. That said, brick-and-mortar restaurants remain a given. We just opened a store at Stony Brook University on Long Island and are now raising capital and seeking the right operating partners to take the next steps in our growth.