Kaboom Chicken is a new restaurant on the block generating a lot of hype. We'd never had Korean Fried Chicken in a fast food environment before so we had to check it out. It was very very good, and these guys are onto something special here. Richard Lee, one of the owners, was kind enough to sit down with us for a quick chat.
Sadi: So I just want to start by asking you how business is going these days.
Richard: It's going pretty good. We are new kids on the block. Riverside is a great area to set up. The main reason we focus on this area is because it is not a lot of Korean fried chicken. There is a lot of great restaurants here. Good bars. But there is not a lot of Korean friend chicken. We feel this is good for us and we feel it is good for the local residents. So Riverside.
S: How long have you guys been open here then?
R: This is our third month in. It is still brand new.
S: So this must be a lot of work.
R: Oh ya. Especially when you are starting up. Becuase your team is small so you are putting a lot of hours in. And hopefully if we can keep growing that team and reduce my hours and my business partner's hours down. It is a lot of work and the learning curve has been steep but we are learning pretty quickly.
Andrew: So why did you decide to get in the restaurant business? It's a very competitive, low-margins business.
R: So I used to be an IT developer. I was doing contract work and my partner was already getting sick of his job. He is an ex-bartender so he kind of related to the restaurant field but never at this type of level as an owner. And also the owners are a cook. So we decided this would be a challenge. We needed a new challenge to get us... I got a little bored with IT programming and for him, it's an like a...it's like an upgrade for him. More opportunities, more income. Potential to be big if you make it.
A: All right so can you describe when you and your business partner had this conversation.
R: He is actually my brother in law. So the story is uhh...maybe like 3 years ago. I go to New York City for vacation and they have a lot of great Korean fried chicken places and I fell in love with it. I never even tried Korean fried chicken when I went back to Korea a few times. My first initial time I tried it was in New York City and I loved it. So I said hey, for fun, let's try to replicate what we tried there. We were able to do some quick home meals. And so it was hey, I think we are onto something. So we started at the Taste of...one of those street festivals.
S: Like night markets or so?
R: Like 2 years ago we did...not night markets actually. Like Taste of Lawrence. Usually they are all happening in around summer and spring. And it was pretty good. And then last year was our big one we tried for 1 month at the financial court called Adelaide Place. So it was an upstairs terrace at York and King. It went really well there and then we decided, hey, we might be onto something. Let us try and find a location, like prime location, like Brick and Mortar. And we finally landed this three months after and you know, we always had all these recipes. We would put together all the stuff that would be tasty yummy. We are not gourmet chefs, we can admit that. We have no culinary experience or culinary background. But we are just home chefs that are good at making tasty stuff. Our idea is to create flavours but we want to fuse it with the Western palette and dishes. So these other places are like fried and more traditional Korean fried chicken. Ours is...it is Korean fried chicken but it is more fused with the Western world so you get French fries with it. It is less traditional Korean and it is a fun, modern spin of doing Asian fusion.
S: Interesting and very cool. So are you getting enough sleep?
R: So at first, when we were starting we are closing too late but now we are getting better at closing. Like we said, we need to grow. We will be hiring out so we can get more of a light balance.
A: Cool. So what would you say is the most popular dish you have here?
R: Well we have very unique dishes. Like we have a ramen burger. Very trendy. We also have from last summer, the egg waffle. So a sweet and sour combinaton. Those are the most unique dishes where people are seeking those adventurous type of meals. But honestly, our game plan was because Riverside was not familiar with Korean fried chicken, we just wanted to get them familiar. So obviously took out the more traditional dishes like 2 pieces, fries and slaw. Umm, we also have the chicken sandwich with fries. I think that is a good starting point. You don't want people, you want them to push them to anything overly complicated or adventurous. I think people just need to try the Korean fried chicken for the first time.
S: Is there anything that you do not have on your menu that you guys sort of like ever flirt with or think or maybne you wil put on the menu.
R: Um ya. We try to...it is hard to find time now but when we do find time, we always try to play around with new ideas. Through time, we will add new things. For example, in one of them is the Pork belly. Like these ones, we added these since we last opened. So these are four new items in three months. We are always playing around and we are all been doing quite well.
A: So the name of the restaurant is called Kaboom! Is there a reason called Kaboom!? Like is there a story behind the name?
R: The name is well, we just wanted something catchy. Obviously, people's attentions. And then you know, that will lead people to the flavour of our kitchen. Did you guys try our sweet chili sauce? A lot of people seem to like this sauce that we have.
S: Is that the orange one?
R: Ya. It's like the reddish--
S: Oh ya I described it as crack.
R: Oh ya so. We actually call it Korean crack sauce. A lot of people like it so much, like they don't know -- well it is a very unique sauce. It is our secret sauce.
A: I am curious, it sounds like you enjoy eating food and running your restaurant but if you are not at your restaurant, well what is it that you enjoy eating. What is your favorite food?
R: Oh ya so, well I am a foodie at heart. Umm I go to. I seek a lot, well I try to go to at least something new with me and my wife. We try to seek out good places. We go to the west side, Scarborough, well anywhere. Nowadays I do not have as much time as I used to.
S: Is there a recent meal that stands or a favorite place you guys keep going back to?
R: Well I don't think I have a favorite place. We are not the type. We like to hit up one place at a time. Ice cream might the kind of place we go back all the time. So you know, like Bang Bangs...and I believe they have another place too as well on Bloor. What is it?
A: I believe it is BakerBots?
R: Ya. Same owner and same ice cream but they have several different items. That is the only place I would go back. Like maybe I will try to go back to Thai. Like do you know the place on King Street? They have -- it's Thai food.
S: Oh yes, I think I know the place.
R: Ya so we are foodies at heart though time is not on my side anymore.
A: So you guys mention that you are a new restaurant and new in the business. So I am curious, do you keep up with or read reviews about your restaurants, and if so - what has been the general review?
R: Yes it is important. It is feedback right. I am more particularly interested in the criticisms. So like if someone had a poor experience and I want to try to understand if that is our fault or if it is the fact that someone does not like our stuff. Like I cannot help if people do not like our Korean crack sauce. So I get a few comments like that?
A: What why? Who are these people?
R: I don't know but people have different taste buds. The one thing I notice is that like Riverside, there is gentrification coming from here. There is a lot more money and a lot more new homes and new condos. So I think one comment I got is that everything was too expensive on our menu. But that is the process of gentrification. This is how things are going to be becoming. All these new places are going to open and things are going to cost a little bit more. At the end of the day, I think we are priced ok. But for some people, they expect the typical mom and pop shops to be below $10. However that cannot pay the rent and pay the staff and the food.
A: Yes that makes sense. So as you are starting out, the first three months were challenging. I am just curious, what have been some challenges you are encountering. Like what keeps you up at night in this business?
R: Nothing really keeps me up at night actually. I get enough sleep. It just, it just -- well the learning curve, our how-to -- well our ultimate goal is to make great quality dishes and to have the wait times to be minimal. We want to consider ourselves as quick fast eats. Like did you guys wait long tonight? It is a little bit busier than usual.
S: No not at all. In fact, we were surprised we were served so quickly in spite of how busy it was.
R: Ya so the fried chicken is not a quick game. We have a system there that will try to kick out food that is cooked at the proper temperature, be safe and still be very tasty.
S: So this is your first restaurant right?
R: So we were always on the streets. Like I said, one month is our longest duration in the financial core.
S: Was there anything that surprised you about owning a restaurant that you did not know before you were not sure about?
R: Just one thing is that for new restaurant owners that might be interesting to hear. BEWARE of all the sharks. So you know the story of how when you win the lottery, you get all these phone calls? Acquaintances, charities, this and this.
S: I think so.
R: So it is the same concept. You are not even winning the lottery. They know you are opening a business and they just want a piece of your business, a piece of you, a piece of the pie. So you have to be willing to say no to a lot of things because there are a lot of things that you do not need. For example, a simple point of sale system, there will be 5 businesses attacking you. "This is what you should get. You should get it from us." Or even sanitation, there will be 10 businesses that will want a piece of you. So it's like winning the lottery and you get harassed and they are very sharky.
A: Interesting. I did not know that. Would this be the piece of advice you give to someone looking to opening up a new restaurant?
R: For any newcomers to this business, you have to learn to say no.
A: As you were starting our your business, did anyone give you any advice?
R: Honestly, we have no mentors. We just went with common sense. Hopefully, our common sense is very solid. Ya so no mentors for us. The street festivals was the only thing we had to go on for experience. We started from the bottom in baby steps. We did not do any big jumps. We progressed quite nicely.
A: Sounds like you tested the market.
R: Ya ya. That was the idea. We did not go right into it. Hey, because we know that -- after that one month duration. It is really tiring. You can understand when you first starting out, you are going to be dead tired because you will have to put a lot of hours in, especailly if you are a family man like myself.
A: In spite of all these challenges, you are doing it three months in and you are still doing it. So what is the best part about this job?
R: It is the challenge. I got a bit bored and stale at my old job. And this is definitely very challenging. So this is something where there is always something to improve. Like our inventory system, integrating better technologies that let us know when to order things. Next step would be how to market ourselves other than social media. Do we use Yelp, Google? Do we use guys like you? Hopefully your websites get a lot of hits. That is very beneficial.
S: So we have been doing this for a year and a bit on the side and recently it has gotten more traffic.
R: Exactly so you guys know it is difficult to do what you do and what we do. If it is a full service, it is a different game that would be more difficult for us to do. We would have to hire more staff. You would have to be aware of more things like a liquor license. It is a good concept. Quick eats, no liquor license. No late hours. I think it is an easier way to do business and a new style.
A: Any grand ambitions that you have, even though it is only 3 months in? Thinking about 2 years from now? 5 years from now?
R: Well if we can open a second location, that would be great and then that can happen, we can build it where it could be easily monetizable. We have our menu. We have our look. It is some classic good, quick eats style. Maybe franchise would be our ultimnate goal.
S: I notice that you come from an IT developer background but you are also very good with customers. You have good customer service, actually your whole team. Just wondering, people from different backgrounds not from restaurant industry, well where do you get your customer service skills?
R: Well my partner is a bartender, so he had to be on point on that. Well we also interview smartly. So our cashier, she is a high school student but we got a good referral and we pick our team correctly and then we tell ourselves to always be polite. Any bad feedback can hurt you .We aim to be genuine about it.
A: And this is personal, and I imagine a hard one to asnwer for a foodie but if you had one last day on earth -- what is your last meal?
R: It would always be comfort food. So, I would go with my mom's galbijjim. So it is sort of a braised beef dish I make but with better quality meat. Because we are kicking these at $10, but ya. It is short ribs. Galbijjim. Ya that would be my last meal on earth.
S: I think that is everything. Thank you!
722 Queen Street East