West to East to West
A Q&A with Suji Park, Entrepreneur & Restaurateur

Suji Park was the first to bring New York deli meats  and the concept of the American brunch to Korea. It became a huge success and expanded throughout Asia. Now she's bringing Korean food to middle America with a new restaurant in Omaha, NE as well as a line of sauces, ready-to-cook foods and frozen Korean meals.

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When did you know you wanted to be a restaurateur?

I didn’t. I like people and I love food. Food brings people together no matter their background and good food is appreciated by everyone across the world. I love the food business. With other businesses, it takes so much longer to see results. With a restaurant business, over a short period of time you can deliver the satisfaction and an excellent experience for people.”

And how did you get started?

When I came back to Korea from New York, I noticed that there were a lot of Koreans who studied abroad like myself and my brother, but there were no good American restaurants or American food cultures present in Korea except for fast food. That’s when I decided to bring American food culture to Korea.

Although you were already a successful restaurateur, you decided to go to the International Culinary Center because you felt you "needed more knowledge in basic culinary skills and restaurant management." Do you think such a degree is necessary to start and run a successful food business?  

Yes and no. For me, it was important to learn the techniques and chemistry in the back of the house so that I could maintain a level of oversight and “know the language.” Business can only grow as much as the leaders of the company grow. They have to be in sync.

I started with homemade style brunch and I knew that I had to learn more about the food culture, food trends and techniques in order to grow our business and to take it to the next level. I don’t believe in degrees, but what I learned from The International Culinary Center (ICC) - (formerly The French Culinary Institute - FCI) was more about networking, learning about what the industry trends are. It taught me I needed to get out and go see the restaurant scenes and what’s going on in NYC.  It inspired me a lot. At the end of the day, I hired a faculty member from FCC to help us start with the deli business.

The latest in your list of successful restaurants is Suji's Korean Grill in Omaha, NE with another to open in New York. You also have a line of refrigerated and frozen Korean entrees, meals and sauces available at Target and other stores around the country. What, if anything, do you think you will have to do to get less adventurous eaters to try Korean food?

It’s a lot about education. We do “Korean 101” with buyers and retailers so we can educate them first on Korean cuisine. We also take an educational approach with our packaging. For example, our Beef Bulgogi is named “Savory Beef” in order to hopefully receive that critical “second look” from the consumer/potential consumer who may not be familiar with Korean food. We then introduce the product to the customer through information on the what’s and why’s as part of the rest of the package. We give them recipe tips and a brief history of the particular product they’re holding. We spent a lot of time and effort with focus groups (especially in the Midwest). Our challenge is to educate less adventurous consumers. Being in the Midwest, it is helpful to understand more about American mainstream consumers and how they perceive Korean food.

With multiple restaurants in multiple countries, what has been the most challenging part of your career and how did you overcome it?

I still haven’t. I’m not a CEO. I’m a founder and am the CIO (Chief Inspirational Officer). Most of our company’s CEO’s are co-founders and have been CEOs in the restaurant and food industry for more than 20 years. I try to focus on what I’m good at – being creative, developing recipes and branding. My goal is to find the right people or the right position and to enable everyone to work together. It’s a challenge as a small company to have such an international team based in three countries. But challenges make business more fun and that’s why we’re successful – we’re overcoming these challenges. We’re a diverse group of people located all over the world.

What is your typical day like?

I get up with my eyes half open and start reading email from Asia. I think about where I am, what country, what city. Seventy percent of my time is spent traveling, both domestically and internationally. I’ve already reached diamond status for Delta for 2017. I try to get some exercise in (running or yoga) but it rarely happens. Usually a lot of meetings, telephone and conference calls. We work a lot on videoconferencing due to the different time zones.

These days I try and spend more time at our new restaurant (Suji’s Korean Grill) and converse with customers. For instance, I’ve talked with ninety-five percent of our customers who walked through our door in the last two days. I try and close my computer when I can’t look at my screen anymore. What time is that? It depends. Then I speak with my team in Korea, which is the start of their day. I end the day with a glass of wine, or two, and try and decompress and relax from the day. I might watch some TV or a movie to take my mind off of work for a bit, and then I go to sleep.

Who has inspired you the most in work and in life?

Dorothy Hamilton, head of ICC, is my mentor. She is the founder and CEO of ICC. She’s a big entrepreneur. She started the first French culinary school in America from the inspiration she got when she visited France. She’s a very inspirational person whose inspirations come to life. She is very worldly. In the early 1970’s she was in Thailand for the Peace Corps. She’s a world traveler and is always learning and looking for new inspirations. She was a chairperson for the James Beard Foundation. There isn’t an end of the road for her.

What advice would you give someone who wants to follow your career path?

Try to learn everyday from everything you see, everyone you meet, experiences you have. In the end, it will inspire you to find out what you really want to do and who you are.

The most important thing is that you need to realize who you are first before you decide what you want to do. And know what you are good or bad at. It’s a realization of yourself first. A person needs to build experiences over time and see if this career is one that fits you. You have to be in the career path that you enjoy and fits you and you can see a future in.

Don’t be too worried about changing your career if you realize that it’s not your path and you find one that might fit better. Try to enjoy the challenges and don’t sweat the small stuff. Career and life are all about problem solving.

 

 


JADE Magazine
SEPT+OCT 2016


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