Mon, Nov 7, 2011
There’s always a line at the Kimchi Taco Truck. Whether it’s parked under the High Line, next to the vintage furnishings at the Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market or among the other gourmet food trucks at Grand Army Plaza’s Food Truck Rallies, patient customers are greeted with “thanks for waiting” when they finally reach the front of the line. Phillip Lee, the owner and founder of the truck, wants to keep his customers happy and satisfied. He’s betting they’ll be waiting for his kimchi when he opens up a restaurant later this month.
“I think everyone who goes into this business wants their own place eventually. If you go to work at a bank you don’t want to buy a bank, but there’s definitely an entrepreneurial spirit in the food truck business,” Lee said.
The idea for the restaurant, Kimchi Grill, wasn’t just a case of the entrepreneurial spirit getting the best of him. Lee had the lease to the restaurant space before the first person lined up for a kimchi dish from the truck. The truck was a way for Lee to test out the recipes, build excitement, a beta test for the restaurant launch.
Other local businesses have made the leap from truck to brick-and-mortar shop like Van Leeuwen, the artisanal ice cream makers and Mexicue, the creators of popular dishes that combine Mexican and barbeque flavors. Van Leeuwen now has three permanent locations and Mexicue has two. David Weber, the president of the Food Truck Alliance and co-owner of Rickshaw Dumpling Bars, went the other way, from restaurants to trucks.
“Trucks are a good way to get your brand in front of customers,” said Ron Ruggless who writes about restaurants, food trucks and more at Nation’s Restaurant News. Trucks are increasingly a good way to test the waters. A recent study preformed by National Restaurant Association indicated that 59 percent of customers would likely visit a food truck if one of their favorite restaurants decided to open one.
When comparing restaurants to trucks, Ruggless said, “The benefits being seating and climate, to name a few. The downside is not being able to go to where the people are.”
Lee thinks it’s all about location too. Parking location. If you can’t park you can’t serve your customers. Finding a place to park was his main gripe about operating a food truck. With the truck, he was dealing with the DMV. Now it’s the DOB (Department of Buildings). But there’s always the DOH (the Department of Health), he said. Trucks and restaurant “both have headaches. Just different headaches,” Lee said. Yet opening a restaurant has been easier, so far. He had plenty of experience to bring to the operation. He studied at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration and spent almost nine years working in hospitality, management and as a general manager at various BR Guest restaurants.
The Kimchi Grill will be a small restaurant on Washington Avenue in Prospect Heights, with a counter in the back for orders. There will be seating for 17, but for now, before the restaurant opens, the space is used to store bottle after bottle of Sriracha sauce and huge bins of kimchi and as a bit more space to prepare the trucks food.
Lee will be keeping things simple and consistent, at least at first, by having the same dishes (and prices) as the truck, with occasional specials. That means he’ll be keeping the truck’s signature style of adding kimchi and Korean flavors to cheesesteaks, nachos, rice balls and, of course, tacos. Lee, and the truck’s co-founder and his former partner chef Youngsun Lee, created the Kimchi Taco Trucks’ version of kimchi, the fermented vegetable dish. Theirs is a red kimchi. They drew from their Korean backgrounds and their love for street food.
The Kimchi Grill will be in good company in their new permanent location, with plenty of new bars and restaurants and a good sense of community, said Jennifer Wanous, who will be working with Lee at the new restaurant. Wanous and Mike Calderon, another employee, both live in the areaand Lee will be looking to them for feedback on how to appeal to the neighborhood. When Lee said he thinks lunch will be the busiest shift for the grill, Calderon interjected that he thought happy hour would be hopping. “A bar across the street are already asking for the menu” to give to customers so they can order in at the bar, Calderon said. Besides the bar owner, other locals have popped in when they see the truck outside to ask when the restaurant will open.
Kimchi isn’t always an easy sell, but Lee thinks the people who settle in this up-and-coming area are adventurous and that will translate into the food they like as well. Lee has been surprised by New Yorkers tastes before. When he started serving up kimchi he said he thought New York City palettes were dumbed down, but it turned out New Yorkers asked for the spicy kimchi amped up.
The Kimchi Grill will be located at 766 Washington St., near Sterling Place.