Truck-to-Table: Korilla BBQ
As the obedient son of traditional Korean parents, Edward Song pursued a career path in finance. The 23-year-old Columbia University graduate (now 30) found himself at a crossroads with a Bachelor’s Degree in economics and math at the height of the Great Recession in October 2008. Months later, Song’s dormant desire for culinary arts was revitalized after he stumbled upon a posting for an intensive four-month cooking program on Craigslist that was held by the Restaurant Opportunities Center and Kingsborough Community College.
Designed to help immigrants enter the restaurant industry rather than being pigeonholed to dishwasher or porter positions, the culinary program prepared all participants with basic cooking and baking skills. With a new notch on his belt, Song’s ambitions pushed him to do something more and because of his self-admitted limited kitchen expertise, he enlisted his high school buddies, Paul Lee and Stephan Park, to help him execute his vision of a build-your-own-dish Korean restaurant. After reading a 2009 New York Times article on Roy Choi’s Kogi BBQ truck empire in Los Angeles, Song jumped aboard the Korean taco bandwagon to make the food more accessible to mainstream palettes in New York City instead of his idea of an original kimbap operation.
Self-proclaimed as New York’s first Korean BBQ taco truck, Korilla first opened up for lunch at 55th Street and Lexington Avenue in October 2010. Within the past five years, several of New York City’s favorite mobile eateries have opened up brick-and-mortar restaurants including Schnitzel & Things, Souvlaki GR and Wafels & Dinges. Three years after its debut, Korilla opened up its first storefront location in the East Village.
Why did you decide to start off Korilla BBQ as a food truck rather than a storefront restaurant?
Back in 2009 and 2010, it was still deep in the recession. There was still a lot of open spaces for rent but nobody would give me $500,000 to open up this business nor would they give me a lease. I looked and tried for maybe about two years and it was only until I visited a friend out in Jersey City who went to school with me. He was doing a food truck out in Jersey City so I thought that’s interesting. And from that, I thought maybe we should do a food truck together or I should do a food truck.
To this day, starting a food truck is not easy because there’s really no way of getting a mobile vending permit legally or reasonably because there’s this huge waiting list. They set a quote on how many permits they would issue. Through networking and putting our ears to the ground and foot to the petal, we were able to find a good partner and secure a permit.
What are the secrets behind your marketing success?
Everyone is a foodie nowadays so it’s imperative to be on top of your game on multiple different levels. For example, the food has to be great. The quality has to be there. There can’t be any shortcuts with that so locally sourcing as much as possible using non-GMO products and hormone free products, trying to make everything from scratch which we do on an everyday basis. Secondly, your branding has to be on point because at the end of the day, people will try you out not necessarily about eating your food but by seeing you on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.
The branding is more about social media marketing PR. I think that has to be on point. You got to know how to sell it at the end of the day. It’s not like we’re selling pizzas and burgers. That stuff sells itself. We’re selling Korean food that most people back in 2010 weren’t very aware of. The third thing is we really need to be on top of our game in terms of our staffing is concerned. We try very hard to carefully select our staff members.
In 2014, The New York Post described Korilla BBQ as the “Korean Chipotle.” Do you agree with this title? Why did you decide to combine Korean and Mexican flavors rather than a traditional Korean menu?
I have zero issues with that. It’s a stepping stone. On the way up, there are times when you’re going to have to be under somebody. You just can’t go straight to the top. It takes steps. We’re seeing those steps now, learning as we go, honing our craft here and there and hopefully not making too many mistakes.
For me, we really kind of fell into this Korean Mexican thing by accident. It was just a matter of finding a good wrapper or a good vehicle to hold the Korean ingredients and from there we expanded on the concept of burritos, tacos, [and] rice bowls.
Both Esther [Choi] and I [are] very aware of the way that people make decisions when it comes to dining. I think Esther is very on the ball with trends. At the same time, not necessarily chasing trends but using the trends for the benefit of Korean cuisine and culture. And the same thing with me. When you’re presenting something new to somebody, you have to think it out. You got to ease people into it little by little.
I think social media is becoming more and more an important part of the food business. We use social media as a tool to benefit Korilla by understanding that people eat with their eyes first. For us, it’s important to have a certain aesthetic about our food. That’s very natural for us because we put in so much work and so much effort and time and money into making our food every single day. You look at Chipotle’s Instagram account. What are they going to put? It’s always repetitive stuff like the burrito, the taco. How many times are you going to put up pictures of pico de gallo? For us, it’s ever-changing.
What were the largest struggles among your four years on NYC’s food truck scene?
Getting into accidents, people hitting the truck, somebody putting gasoline in a diesel engine, people putting diesel gas in a gasoline generator, the truck propane blowing up in our face. Third degree burns all the time. That was almost like an initiation into the Korilla crew.
Any and every mechanical issue went wrong. We swapped out our engine three times already at this point per truck. In the early days, we’ve had issues with other mobile vendors. It’s more of a hazing thing. We quickly passed that phase and established our place. Our trucks were booted many times because of the parking tickets.
How many tickets did you receive from the NYPD?
It would be too painful for me to calculate. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s north of $20,000. Usually, an expired muni meter ticket. Usually our service time is from 11:30 to 2:30 or 3. The muni meter tickets — you have to buy it every two hours so we buy at 11:29. That’s good to 1:29 but around 1:29, we’re slammed and no one has the time to go out to buy another muni meter.
Has the NYPD become more strict on food trucks?
At one point, we had four trucks in 2011. There was this big reaction against food trucks in 2011/2012. It really reached a boiling point around 2013 for us. We had so many forces going against the mobile industry whether it would be the police, the Department of Health, a brick and mortar restaurant owner. Everyone but our customers weren’t on our side. it was a very difficult climate definitely. There’s this old early 20th century law that you can’t vend merchandise from a metered spot. In New York City, any viable spot is a metered spot.
It’s not that big of a hot issue anymore. I think it might be because the explosion in the food truck industry is sort of waning now. Probably 2013 is when the cops really started cracking down. The worst thing a cop can do is really shut us down mid service. What happens is when a cop says you have to get out of here for some arbitrary reason, it ruins your entire day. Let’s say they come and bust you up at 12/12:30 and you try to find another parking spot, you’re not going to be able to get anywhere near close to the numbers that you’re supposed to be doing if you had an interrupted service. They did this to a lot of trucks so many times.
They put so much work and effort into going out every single day only to have the cops basically say “hey, you might not be able to feed your kids.” I saw a lot of older colleagues that couldn’t handle it and a lot of them ended up leaving the industry. Most of the people now are still somewhat young. They still have the energy. And they don’t have to support a family.
When the Korilla BBQ food truck launched in October 2010 in New York City, did you anticipate opening up a brick-and-mortar location one day?
That was always the goal. In 2008/2009 food trucks weren’t cool. Roy Choi wasn’t doing anything at that time. Food trucks if anything had a bad rep. You don’t buy food off a food truck. For me, I always thought that Korilla would be in a brick-and-mortar setting. I refused to think it would be on a food truck and by some miracle, I decided the food truck actually [was] a very practical solution to [my] problems. No one [was] going to give me a half million dollars — especially to somebody that has zero experience in the kitchen that doesn’t know how to cook.
If you ask any food truck owner what the next step is, [it’s] to open up a brick and mortar [location]. A smart food operator knows this is a stepping stone [and] that the food trucks are a great marketing tool to build awareness about their brand and who they are. That’s what smart food truck operators have in mind at all times. The problem is the economics of a restaurant is slightly different than a truck. It’s so much different that it’s almost a different business. Whereas a truck, there is no rent. The only rent is the parking tickets.
How was the transition from truck to a storefront restaurant?
I went into this with the fullest confidence in the world. We assumed that we would do the same level of business as we did on the trucks but it’s slightly different. I was so used to choosing my location and moving around. It took awhile to understand. It was more of thinking about it from a perspective of what I can change versus what I couldn’t change. With the truck, I could change a lot of things. I could go to a different location. I could choose not to open up that day. With this, I have to open up every single day. I have to bring in customers here. I have to get people excited about Korilla now that we’re no longer just a food truck.
Do you have any plans in expanding the restaurant to other cities?
We would love to see Korilla go international. When I was younger, I was crazy ambitious. I wanted to do a Korilla in Japan and Korea. In order for us to grow responsibly, we have to grow the right way.
Why did you decide to open up a brick-and-mortar location in the East Village instead of Koreatown?
First of all, the rental market in New York in Koreatown is insane. It’s because the rent is so high. A lot of people don’t have the understanding how difficult it is to survive with a high rent. For a first-time restaurant, I needed to find the right investor. I really didn’t want to risk it that much. I wanted it to start slower and iron out all our kinks. Our next location [we can] go to a prime time area and crush it. As your first store, I wouldn’t recommend that. Your product will suffer and your team will quickly deteriorate from the stress.
Why is it important to bring Korean food to the masses?
Because it is my cultural identity. The best way to break down barriers is through the food. The dining table is the original social networking. Back in the day, people talked about stories social-wise while eating. We all appreciate good food.