Q&A with John Choi ’97: Challenges for 2020

Small business owners like John Choi ’97, owner of Seoul Garden Restaurant in Los Angeles, are getting creative and doing what they can to meet the continuing challenges that the pandemic brings. For example, he’s now offering shabu shabu kits with home delivery to Los Angeles, Orange and San Gabriel Counties.  John shared some of his experiences from the past year. 

Q: It is all over the news that restaurants are suffering now. Tell us about your journey through closures, changing regulations, and keeping your doors open.

A: In September of 2019, our restaurant had to abruptly close due to a broken water pipe.  About 6,000 gallons of water had flooded our building and about 90% of the interior (from floor to ceiling) had to be gutted out and redone. The construction took about 7 months to complete, but when we were finally ready to relaunch our business, that’s when our journey with COVID-19 began.  

Our restaurant mainly serves Shabu Shabu and it’s the type of food you cook tableside, kind of like Korean BBQ.  But with mandates from the city not allowing any dine-in customers, we literally hit a wall.  At that time, no outdoor dining was available either so we had to heavily modify our menu just to accommodate for takeout. 

Once outdoor dining was allowed, we had to scramble and invest thousands of dollars in creating a makeshift outdoor dining area that actually turned out to be a cool experience for us.  We added portable burners (like the ones used when you go camping) to each table so that our customers could eat Shabu Shabu.  Although it wasn’t ideal, the whole outdoor experience felt like a big neighborhood block party, and to see smiles on our customer’s faces was worth all the effort. 

As of the latest shut down order, our restaurant is currently closed, our takeout orders were just not enough to remain open.  However, we recently launched a new preset preorder Shabu Shabu kit that’s been working well for us so hopefully, this will help push us through the new year.  

Q: What has worked and what hasn’t as you have navigated 2020?

A: The outdoor patio was probably the best thing that happened to us this year.  It provided a huge lifeline so that we could actually operate and feed our customers the way our food was intended to be eaten.  What hasn’t worked for us in 2020 is 2020, everything about it!  

Q: How has the restaurant community come together to help each other over the last 9 months (if at all)?

A: I can’t speak for other restaurants but we have been actively trying to help promote other restaurants in Los Angeles on our social media.  At the end of the day, our industry needs help and although we are all fighting for the same customers, we need to work together in maintaining our industry.

Q: How have lessons you learned at Webb contributed to your success and resilience during this challenging year?

A: Principes non Homines and not giving up.  

Q: What are you most looking forward to in 2021?

A: Seeing my first child born.  My daughter is due in February and I can’t wait to meet her!

You can follow Seoul Garden Restaurant on Instagram at @seoulgardenla or visit their website seoulgardenla.com.

December 15, 2020

13:44 PM PST