The team behind one of the city’s most popular Korean barbecue restaurants, a branch of Seoul-based chain Jongro BBQ, is carving out a new niche in the world of NYC dining. Group KFF Inc. — the initials stand for Korean Fine Foods — is on its way to becoming a premier importer of trendy Korean chains potentially ripe for U.S. expansion.
The company already holds 15 leases and operates 12 restaurants in New York, including non-chain hits like barbecue and wine bar Dons Bogam and Dons Bogam Black. In November, the group unveiled the first U.S. location of Korean spicy chicken chain Hong Chun Cheon, swiftly selling out of its signature dakgalbi with molten cheese on opening weekend.
Next up is the first U.S. location of Kodachaya, a Korean chain of Japanese-style izakayas. Then it’s on to the construction of a $6 million, three-story food hall just north of K-Town, devoted to Korean and Asian food chains including another branch of Jongro BBQ.
“They’re bold and brave in terms of introducing trends,” says Jim Munson, co-founder and CEO of Brooklyn Roasting Co., which is working with KFF on new projects. “And they’re superhuman operators.”
While KFF’s ascendance might appear sudden, its success could hardly be called overnight. The company’s growth is in part possible due to a steady rise in Korean food’s popularity in the U.S. It’s also a credit to the savvy of founder Kyung Rim Choi, who had a role in popularizing Korean cuisine in New York in the first place. Choi gave the city its first Korean food court in 2011, well before the current food-hall craze took hold.
But Kyung Rim Choi wasn’t always interested in chain restaurants.
A behind-the-scenes force who says he “prefers to keep a low profile,” KFF’s founder was born in Busan, South Korea, the country’s second-largest city. In 1983, he moved to the U.S. to work as an engineer for a yacht-building company. When he was unable to start his own boat-building business, the entrepreneur launched a series of one-hour photo development stores, at one point running eight of them. Choi moved to digitize his services, managing to outlast some of the competition — but eventually, he was forced to pivot again. He opened a branch of Korean bakery and cafe chain Koryodang in Flushing, located in one of his shuttered photo stores. It’s still serving Korean-style cakes and patbingsu (shaved ice) some 23 years later.
Over time, Choi’s focus migrated from Flushing to 32nd Street, where Korean food has flourished since the mid-’90s. In 2010, he signed a lease for what became Food Gallery 32, a Korean food court full of concepts like stew hot spot Hanok and Korean-Chinese stall Jin Jja Roo. Food Gallery 32 opened to positive reviews the following year. “It’s hard to duplicate the almost otherworldly experience of dining at a Korean food court without catching a plane to Seoul,” wrote Serious Eats, “but Food Gallery 32, the new food court in the middle of Manhattan’s Koreatown, is pretty otherworldly in its own right.” A year later, Choi sold the food hall to new operators, who still run it.
The bigger consolidation of Choi’s business began four years ago, when he founded Group KFF as a parent company to oversee all his businesses.
Now, Choi splits his time between NYC and Korea: 15 days there, 10 days here, and back again. KFF’s COO KyungRae Kim likens Choi to a trendy Korean Anthony Bourdain: On his travels, Choi is constantly sampling the latest foods — corn dogs, bingsu, fried chicken — or anything that might be primed to bring to New York. That could be a chain with a strong presence in Korea but no corollary in the states, or the choice might be based on an American trend. The rise in spicy chicken in the U.S, for example, encouraged KFF to bring Hong Chun Cheon to the city.
When Choi detects a possible fit, he buys the local franchise rights to a business and slots it into a space, such as KFF’s forthcoming food hall or one of his existing retail locations. Hong Chun Cheon, for instance, was previously one of KFF’s less-popular barbecue restaurants, called K-Town Barbecue. The space of a new multi-vendor restaurant at 33 West 32nd Street used to be a branch of Korean cosmetics store Nature Republic: Soon, it will hold a stall serving bubble tea, a popular Korean sushi chain restaurant called Maki Nori, and ChungChun Hot Dog, a purveyor of Korean-style corn dogs, battered with rice cakes rather than corn.
For big brands like Hong Chun Cheon, working with KFF is appealing because of the company’s strong existing foothold in New York. KFF pitches its local know-how and its experience on 32nd Street as key assets: The strip is a good place to advertise a brand, because it’s busy, trendy, and proximal to Times Square and its hordes of tourists.
“Everybody’s looking for a spot in K-Town,” claims Kim. “It’s the best market to test their brand.”
Depending on the success of one of these new chains, KFF might consider purchasing a brand’s “master franchise rights” — which would allow them to expand the chain even further. In that light, KFF’s new K-Food Gallery could be a valuable laboratory. Even if not every offering is a hit, KFF can invest in the pick of the litter.
These days, most of the company’s energy goes toward replicating chains, though original restaurant ideas like Don’s Bogam have done well, too — a new branch is bound for New Jersey’s American Dream mall. Franchises may lack the originality of outright new businesses, but they’re tested commodities with built-in appeal for many Koreans. And no matter how many hundreds of locations Hong Chun Cheon has in Korea, it’s novel to an American audience.
Large real estate companies own most buildings in K-Town, and have pushed out some independent, mom-and-pop operators with rent increases. Many first-wave Korean businesses on the corridor — restaurants like old-timer Kang Suh — have closed, and others, like stew favorite Gammeeok, have moved to less-desirable upstairs spaces for cheaper rents. Franchises have moved in to take their place: They’re safer bets with wider margins.
The situation in K-Town parallels the one in Korea itself. There, conglomerates manage vast portfolios of companies, from fast-casual restaurants to tech brands, and food franchises dominate the market.
“I love going to K-Town,” says Jae Lee, the chef-owner of new restaurant Nowon. But when it came to finding a place for his own business serving Korean-American food, the area was just too expensive. “I didn’t even think about it,” says Lee, who instead found a space in the East Village — in part to emphasize that Nowon is New York inspired rather than simply Korean.
Nowon is in good company: The independent Korean restaurant group Hand Hospitality, for instance, has ventured beyond 32nd Street, collaborating with chefs to open trendy restaurants like Atoboy in 2016 and, most recently, tasting-menu spot Jua in Flatiron.
K-Town’s growing rents are difficult for even KFF to contend with, says Choi. The real estate crunch has led some businesses — like Jongro BBQ, for instance — to occupy second-story spaces. Many landlords have stopped renewing leases on upper-story office spaces, and restaurants are moving in to fill those vacancies. At 22 West 32nd Street, the 16-story building where Jongro operates, nine floors are already restaurants, bars, and karaoke rooms.
But even as KFF bets big on Korean chains dominating K-Town and succeeding in New York, Choi has begun to play both sides. KFF is getting into the export business, shopping American companies around in Korea.
Munson, of Brooklyn Roasting Co., recently returned from a scouting trip to Seoul with Choi and Kim. ”We spent two days visiting the coolest coffee shops, from the new Blue Bottle locations to robotic coffee companies,” says Munson. “Every hour was packed… Choi doesn’t fuck around.”
Munson left the trip with a new appreciation for both Korea and Choi’s business acumen. Now, with KFF, Brooklyn Roasting Co. is in negotiations for real estate in order to open 10 stores in Korea in the next three years.
The cultural exchange could potentially take on another dimension, too. KFF and Brooklyn Roasting Co. might pursue an original Korean-inspired egg-sandwich business together in New York City, pairing it with Brooklyn Roasting Co.’s coffee.