Roy Choi and the Kogi BBQ Trucks

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Roy Choi and the Kogi BBQ Trucks

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A few years ago, food trucks were known as “roach coaches” and were generally found in industrial parks and constructions sites at lunchtime, or some of the grittier neighborhoods late at night. Roy Choi, a former hotel chef, accidentally started a revolution when he brought Korean BBQ tacos to the masses via his Kogi trucks in 2008 (Kogi means “meat” in Korean). There are now hundreds of food trucks around Los Angeles and around the country, serving limited menus of gourmet items at reasonable prices.  

Being True to Himself

Choi was born in Seoul, Korea, but grew up in L.A. He explained to Carson Daly in a TV interview about the kind of pressure Korean immigrants often put on their children to succeed. Even though his parents owned restaurants, as the next generation and an American, Roy was supposed to do “better.” So he went to law school for a year, but it wasn’t for him. He dropped out, not knowing what he wanted to do, and went through what he calls a “dark period.” He was 25 and he says “I hit rock bottom. I was almost disowned by my family.”

His salvation came in the form of Emeril Lagasse. Inspired by the TV show “Essence of Emeril,” Choi enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America and ended up working as a chef at some topnotch restaurants and hotels: Le Bernardin in New York City, the Beverly Hilton and Rock Sugar Pan Asian Kitchen in Los Angeles. All was good until the Great Recession hit, which caused another unplanned shift in direction. Choi was laid off, like so many people, in 2007. He had family to support by this time and was living off his savings.              

Korean-Mexican Flavor Fusion
His friend Mark Manguera suggested they put Korean BBQ in a taco and sell it from a truck. They had a loaned truck which they got to use free for two months, and with $3,000 they founded Kogi, along with Mark’s wife Caroline Shin. They developed a new kind of taco, with Korean-spiced beef used the way carne asada would be used in a tortilla, but with a combination of Asian and Mexican seasonings, creating a fusion of flavors. Choi says, “that opened up everything that I am as a Korean that grew up in a Latino neighborhood.”

They parked their truck outside a trendy nightclub in West Hollywood and, although people did not know at first what to make of the four Asians selling these odd tacos out of a truck in the middle of the night, they knew it was good.  Choi, whose language is as colorful as his tattoos are plentiful, says he had only been looking for a hobby.  “The problem was, the taco was [expletive] delicious.” The flavors of Choi’s food have been called “big [and] gutsy,” and Zagats refers to the “unbelievably complex tastes.”

Follow Me on Twitter
Kogi’s popularity took off, its fame spreading through word of mouth, and a phenomena was born, due largely to social media that enabled its fans to find it.  Because of the mobile nature of the venue as the truck roamed the city, the whole enterprise was dependent on the fans being able to locate the trucks. Newsweek dubbed it “the first viral eatery.”  

“Without Twitter, it wouldn’t be anything,” Choi admits.

The operation grossed $2 million its first year and now there are five Kogi trucks throughout Los Angeles and Orange County. Part of what excites Choi is the way the food, and the way it is served, brings people together. He said, “I’m going to keep creating environments that continue to be more accessible, to invite more conversations and share food, and continue to highlight foods from countries and cultures that I really believe in.”

Imitators and Backlash

But, as with all successful ventures, there were soon imitators, some good, some mediocre. Over the past three years, specialty food trucks have flooded the streets of Southern California, and the phenomena has spread to other cities as well, selling everything from crab sandwiches to curry-smothered French fries to Argentine empanadas to desserts.  Corporate interests are encroaching on what was once an underground experience; Jack in the Box even has a “Munchie Mobile” trying to capitalize on the trend.   

There’s also been something of a media backlash, and Kogi and food trucks in general have been criticized for their trendiness when that was never Choi’s intention.  “We never started these trucks claiming to be anything more than we were.” To him, they were just a way to expose Korean and Latino street food to a wider audience, and  his only ambition is to preserve “the spirit of Kogi.” He just wants to keep his autonomy, so he can continue to do what he believes in. “What is guerrilla, urban, underground, doesn’t answer to anybody.”

In 2009 Choi and his partners opened a fixed location for Kogi food within the bar at Alibi in Culver City. Since then they have also opened three other permanent restaurants.  Chego specializes in rice bowls, A-Frame has a sort of pan-global picnic food menu and communal tables, and the Caribbean influenced Sunny Spot. In 2010 Food & Wine named Choi “Best New Chef.” But rather than having grandiose ideas about large-scale expansion, he continues to insist, “I’m just trying to feed people. The demand for great food is out there.”  

Suzanne Ridgway gave up life in the cubicle six years ago to embark on a freelance adventure. She loves learning and writing about entrepreneurs of all stripes and has fun redistributing the wealth as a grant writing consultant for nonprofits.

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My Kogi Story

A few years ago I was on deadline working late at my Mid-Wilshire office. I had my Twitter feed open when a tweet from Kogi popped up. “The first person to come to our truck with a can opener gets a free meal.” They were parked just a few blocks away. I located a can opener in our office kitchen and ran down the street, breathlessly handing the device to a grateful Roy Choi. My reward, a plate of tacos, was divine. 

— Catherine Rhodes, Editor

This article is from WorkingWorld.com