In the land of tacos and plenty, Jae Kim found a game-changer in fusing ubiquitous Tex-Mex with Korean-inspired flavors. And it all started with the Original Kimchi Fries.
With his savings invested in a fledgling food truck and his credit cards maxed out to keep the business afloat, Kim says, the early days of Chi’Lantro BBQ were challenging. On the first day, the truck brought in $7. On the second day, it doubled to $14.
Those initial woes faded as Chi’Lantro began serving the late-night crowds of Austin. Soon it was attracting South by Southwest festival-goers, who Kim says introduced it to the world.
“People thought I was a late-night taco truck, so they were just ordering tacos and burritos, and I was throwing away kimchi,” he says. “So one night I put everything that I had in the truck on the bed of fries; I wanted to hide the kimchi for the drunk people, and next thing we know, people start talking about it on Twitter.”
That buzz built brand exposure, both through customer testimonials and national media outlets reporting at South by Southwest. “The rest was up to us to keep up with the growth and demand, and we really focused on our people and the quality of the food,” Kim says. “I wanted to keep my food truck the cleanest food truck in Austin.”
Chi’Lantro grew to a fleet of five food trucks as demand increased, and in 2014, the concept opened its first brick-and-mortar location through a small-business loan. The company then scaled back its food truck operations—including an expansion to Houston—and focused on restaurant growth. Now the concept numbers five locations in Austin (plus the one truck) with plans to open one more restaurant later this year and one in 2018. There’s also an entire catering department for everything from music festivals to weddings.
FOUNDER: Jae Kim
HEADQUARTERS: Austin, Texas
YEAR STARTED: 2010
ANNUAL SALES: $9 million
TOTAL UNITS: 6
FRANCHISE UNITS: 0
But Chi’Lantro shows no signs of slowing down. In a 2016 episode of “Shark Tank,” businesswoman and television personality Barbara Corcoran invested $600,000 in exchange for 20 percent equity in the brand, which Kim says proved the concept is ready for the next level. “It validated Korean quick-service restaurants that don’t exist today in terms of big chain restaurants,” he adds.
Along with the ever-popular Original Kimchi Fries, which constitute about 100,000 pounds of fries per year, the menu takes inspiration from Korean barbecue and combines it with regional Tex-Mex cuisine. Guests can share items like guacamole or grilled corn with Korean pepper and topped with “magic sauce,” or they can nosh on Korean fried chicken wings before diving into entrées that not only include a rice bowl with a choice of protein, but also tacos, burritos, and burgers.
The bowl starts with a lime-buttered rice or brown rice base and is topped with grilled corn, garden vegetables, kimchi, a fried egg, and house-made salsa. After choosing a protein—spicy pork, spicy chicken, soy-glazed chicken, tofu, or ribeye—guests have the option to add other items like avocado, queso, bacon, or a fried egg. Main dishes like the bowl, as well as the Original Kimchi Fries, run about $8, while starters are under $7.
The restaurant creates everything from scratch, and the meat is marinated for 24 hours in soy sauce and gochujang, a Korean red chili paste that has become an on-trend condiment at many fusion concepts.
“Because of the [kimchi fries], we were able to introduce and inspire the way people eat Korean barbecue and kimchi, not in the traditional way, but something that is very approachable and at fast-casual prices,” Kim says. “People are very positive and receptive of what we’re doing, and they want to explore. We’re just giving people exactly what they like in a different form.”
The customer experience can vary across locations; Kim says some restaurants are primarily lunch traffic, others attract the dinner crowd, and some are 50/50. When new customers first encounter Chi’Lantro, some initial education is required, and Kim says it has been a challenging yet fun aspect of the business.
“People don’t always want to go out and be adventurous when it comes to cuisine. They like what they like, especially with quick service and fast casual,” Kim says. “They just want to go to a place they’re used to. But I think what we’re doing here is exposing customers to being a little bit adventurous and finding out that Korean barbecue is something they had no idea about.”
With such popularity inevitably comes more growth, but Chi’Lantro is taking a measured approach to expansion. Kim says the brand wants to equip itself for growth by focusing on its people and providing the necessary tools and resources for employees to be promoted from within.
“The growth part will take care of itself once we have the system for our people aligned and can equip them to be successful,” he says. “We’re very thoughtful in how we want to grow, and it’s not just building revenue in opening up restaurants, but it’s investing in our people so we can grow faster in the future.”