Job creation biggest source of satisfaction for Roy Choi

Founder of Kogi truck, LocoL says 'desperation' fueled revolutionary mobile restaurant

Noting the intrinsic humanitarian nature of the foodservice industry, Roy Choi challenged MUFSO attendees to rethink the way they do business, to bring more high quality food to poor communities and to pay their employees better.

“It’s not like we’re totally balling all the time,” he said. “We live to feed people.”

Choi is the founder of the Kogi Korean BBQ Truck that helped start the food truck revolution and, more recently, of LocoL, a quick service restaurant seeking to bring better food to poor communities. He said that running restaurants isn’t the easiest way to make money, so there are other, more humanitarian and spiritual motivations that drive him, his colleagues and other restaurateurs.

In an on-stage interview with Nation’s Restaurant News senior editor Ron Ruggless, Choi said he started his food truck after he had been laid off from a promising career with Hilton Hotels, where he had worked for more than 10 years. After three months without a job, he was starting to feel desperate.

“Desperation does a lot to build courage,” he said. So in 2008, with two friends, he took the plunge and started serving Korean tacos out of a truck, using what was then a new type of marketing — social media — to tell potential customers via Twitter where he’d be parked. Choi said the bold flavors of his food caused something of a spiritual awakening among his customers.

“There was something I was seeing in their eyes every stop we went to. It was like they had never eaten food before,” he said.

NRN senior editor Ron Ruggless talks to Roy Choi about his new restaurant concept LocaL. Photo by Steph Grant

Soon upwards of 1,500 people would be waiting in their cars when the Kogi truck rolled up, and then they’d get out of their cars and start standing in line.

“It was a little bit like Night of the Living Dead, but they were alive,” he said. And so was the food truck revolution.

That’s not what Choi and his friends had in mind. “Ours was not a big dream,” he said. “Our idea was to go to clubs, meet some ladies and serve some tacos,” he said — just to sell the food they had in their truck, “and make a little shoe money.”

But they ended up transforming the notion of street food. He said street carts were already a fact of life in Los Angeles, where merchants sold tacos, pupusas, elote and other Latin-American foods. These so-called “roach coaches” garnered “all sorts of racist horrible jokes that you’re going to be on the toilet forever,” he said. “That whole thing shifted. Now we’re sitting here eight years later and that stuff seems like ancient history.”

Now gourmet food trucks are a way of life in cities across the country, and are often at the cutting edge of menu innovation.

Recently he teamed up with San Francisco fine dining chef David Patterson on a new project, LocoL, a quick service restaurant serving high quality food in the inner city Los Angeles community of Watts at a price point of $2-$4.

Choi told Ruggless that the most satisfying aspect of LocoL was that he was providing jobs to people in the community: “The fact that … lives are changing in front of me, that families’ self confidence is growing back again,” he said, and that his employees realize they can develop skills, be successful and enjoy the benefits that they see other communities enjoy.

Apart from paying his staff well, Choi also offers other benefits, like a monthly three-day spiritual workshop session. “That’s part of our business plan,” he said, underscoring the idea that businesses don’t have to be just about the bottom line. “I believe that anything can be done,” he said, adding that that attitude is part of a chef’s mentality.

“If I have to serve all of you guys in the next two hours and I only have an hour of prep, I’m going to find a way to do it,” he said.

Similarly, if you want to, you can find a way to bring better food through your supply chain, sell food at reasonable prices and pay your staff a decent wage. He said his strategy for doing that includes using “every scrap in the barrel,” and relying on his and his colleagues’ culinary talents to make inexpensive items taste great.

His approach also means that he makes less money than he might do otherwise, and that’s fine with him. “I believe in the inertia of goodwill in life. So, for me, I’m good with it. I’m happy when my team can live better,” he said.

Choi observed that he’d managed to change lives as a small-time restaurateur. “In this audience are the leaders that feed hundreds of thousands more people than I do,” he said. “If a small fry like me can shift that mentality and also be successful, then imagine what you can do.”

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

The MUFSO Premier sponsor is The Coca Cola Company

Presenting sponsors are: LoyaltyPlant, S&D Coffee, Thanx, The Coca-Cola Company

Keynotes/general sessions are presented by: Avocados from Mexico and Potatoes USA, La Tartine FoodService, Steritech

Pillar sponsors include: Boylan Bottling, GrubHub, JAVI A/V; McCain Foodservice; Smithfield-Farmland; Sweet Street Desserts; Texas Capital Bank; Tyson Foodservice; Univision; Ventura Foods; Whirley-DrinkWorks!

The Monday night awards reception and awards presentation are sponsored by: Avocados from Mexico

Coca Cola presents the Shake, Sparkle & Stir event, and Texas Pete® are sponsoring the MUFSO Kitchen Hero Cook Off, benefiting Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry Campaign

Hot Concepts Celebration is sponsored by Nestle Foodservice; TABASCO®; Young Guns Produce

MUFSO Breakfast sponsors are Community Coffee and Cholula

MUFSO Lunch sponsors are Cholula and Moore's Food Resources

MUFSO Room Key is sponsored by Arby’s Refreshment breaks are sponsored by Cholula, Royal Cup Coffee and Wrigley

VIP Dinner sponsored by GrubHub for Restaurants, HAVI, Slade Gorton and Whirley-DrinkWorks!

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