When Jae Kim launched the Korean barbecue truck Chi’Lantro BBQ in Austin, Texas, in February 2010, he figured serving Korean-Mexican fusion tacos and burritos to the city’s late-night crowd would be enough to build a buzz and lead him to his dream of opening a restaurant. But there was one piece missing, and it came to Kim one fateful night as he lamented disposing of an unused batch of kimchi. He heaped the kimchi on french fries and piled it with other ingredients, and the Original Kimchi Fries were born.
Armed with the massively popular Kimchi Fries and a growing national acclaim, Kim scaled Chi’Lantro as a brick-and-mortar concept and got an extra boost from a “Shark Tank” appearance in 2016. The brand just celebrated its 10th anniversary, and is preparing to launch a franchise program for growth outside Austin.
In a recent “Fast Forward” interview, Kim shared six tips for how he made Chi’Lantro a smash success over the last decade.
1. Dream big—but start small
While he originally wanted to be an architect, Kim says he eventually realized design wasn’t something he would thrive at. Opening his own restaurant, however, seemed like a more realistic opportunity.
He first opened a coffee shop, but it failed—it was across the street from a Starbucks. But Kim didn’t let the failure keep him down. With $30,000 in savings and a maxed-out credit card, he got a food truck and hired a cook. He figured he could make it at least three months on the money he had on hand.
Kim says dreaming big is a necessity for anyone looking to get into the restaurant industry. But starting small with just a food truck also afforded him a less-risky way to launch the Chi’Lantro brand.
“I’ve always had a dream of running a restaurant,” he says. “I never had the money to do it. Never had the proper experience. But a food truck was just the perfect outlet for me at that time to start and see where it went.”
2. Grind every day
Most anyone in the industry will tell you how hard it is to open a restaurant. And a food truck may be even harder. Kim says he would sometimes sleep on the truck just so he could make it to 3 or 4 a.m. serving Austin’s late-night crowds. Then he would have to wake up the next day and do it all over again.
“There’s just no time to look up. I just need to cook, serve our customers, clean the truck, tweet, and do that every single day, and make sure that our customers are getting provided with the best that I can offer,” he says. “There’s no point of looking up. You’ve got to perfect what you’re doing today and believe in it.”
He adds that a no-regrets attitude in those days pushed him to give the business his all. “I would rather fail and just tell myself, ‘You know what? I tried my best. I worked so hard,’” he says.
3. Play to the scene
Austin is known as one of the nation’s cultural hubs, home to a robust creative community, a solid start-up scene, and both a college (University of Texas) and the state capital.
It’s also home to South by Southwest (SXSW), one of the country’s premier innovation conferences and music festivals that attracts thousands of visitors to Austin every March. The event proved a great launching pad for Chi’Lantro in its early days, as Kim says he was able to harness the early popularity of social media, an especially strong tool with the tech influencers who attended SXSW.
By parking the truck in downtown Austin and getting in front of those influencers, Chi’Lantro became a name on the lips of many SXSW attendees—so much so that the brand now has a truck stationed right outside the Austin Convention Center for every SXSW.
“Everything was just on the street level at that time,” he says of Chi’Lantro’s marketing in its early years. “I remember having bands playing in front of our food truck, which attracted crowds, and people were tweeting and checking in [on FourSquare]. It was really fun experience. We took advantage of the whole scene, and we were getting written up so much [in national press] because everyone’s here.”
4. Create your own buzz
Of course, SXSW is only one week out of every year. Chi’Lantro couldn’t always bank on that event to drive attention and customers to what eventually grew to become a fleet of five food trucks.
On slow nights, Kim found a creative way to draw guests. He would tell his cooks to throw food on the grill, even if no one had place an order. The smell, he figured, would invite people toward the truck to see what was cooking.
It was one of these nights that Kim developed the Original Kimchi Fries. He says nobody was ordering kimchi because they weren’t very familiar with it, which meant he was throwing a lot of it away. So he decided to throw some of it on the grill and see what happened.
“I caramelized the kimchi, and there were two things that we weren’t telling, fries and kimchi, because people just thought we were a taco and burrito place,” he says. “So one night I put everything together on the bed of fries. I put caramelized kimchi, Korean barbecue, cilantro, onion, sauces, and sesame seeds on top, and I would serve it to the drunk person that didn’t know what they wanted to get.”
It was an epiphany moment for the brand. Those drunk customers returned again and again, and it build a buzz for Chi’Lantro that would drive its ongoing success.
5. Adapt your business to the format
While food trucks helped get Chi’Lantro off the ground, Kim knew he wanted to pivot to brick-and-mortar restaurants, which he saw as more lucrative. But that meant that he needed to evolve the brand to more of a brick-and-mortar business.
“When I went to restaurants, I knew that we need to become more a daily cuisine,” Kim says. “I want people to come like twice a week and feel good about eating at our place. So we introduced rice bowls and salad bowls.
He adds that brick-and-mortar restaurants have to think more about the demographic in the immediate vicinity. For example, if there’s a yoga brand across the street, the restaurant should be positioned to capture the same customer who goes to the studio.
“Do we want that customer? Yes,” he says. “So we have to introduce something that they like, but still stay within our concept.”
Chi’Lantro now has six brick-and-mortar restaurants and a food truck.
6. Continue to learn
An appearance on “Shark Tank” in 2016 helped Chi’Lantro gain national attention, and it also scored the business an investment from shark Barbara Corcoran (one that Kim eventually walked away from; “Just my heart saying no,” he says).
Kim says appearing on “Shark Tank” especially helped him understand the financial world of restaurants much better. He started to dig more into wider world of the restaurant business and the resources available to him, and he committed to learning from other brands’ mistakes.
“I had so much to learn,” he says. “I was seeing a lot of success in our industry, as well as a lot of failures in our industry. A lot of concepts that raise a lot of money and they fail. And I really wanted to understand why they were failing.”
That education continues today as Kim prepares to launch a franchise program for Chi’Lantro.
“I can’t give what I don’t know to franchisees; I’m equally as responsible for their success,” Kim says. “We are in a position to offer that our brand has been around for 10 years, and it tells a lot about how we are, how we operate the business, and who we are as a company culture. And I think that people will buy into that.”