“Korean food takes a lot of preparation,” says Hannah Chung, creator of Atlanta-based Simply Seoul.
What an understatement.
You listen as she describes the two days it takes to prepare the ingredients for kimchi and ready it for its five days of fermentation. Or the steps in making her bulgogi buns which start with local beef, frozen for four hours so it can be very thinly sliced, then marinated for two days. Or the marinade itself which is a puree of apples, onions and garlic. Or the buns themselves which take seven hours to make.
Walk through the door of her commercial kitchen in Decatur and you breathe in the garlicy, peppery smell of fresh kimchi. Chung is there breaking down wholesale cuts of beef round in preparation for making that bulgogi. Her “favorite” employee Gennaro Gillette is cubing the shitakes from Qihe Mushrooms in Newnan that are the key component of her mushroom buns. Five gallon buckets of kimchi are in the midst of their five-day fermentation. Vats of apple puree are ready to be turned into marinade.
You see that there’s certainly nothing “fast food” about the delicious offerings of Simply Seoul. Daikon radish kimchi, Napa cabbage kimchi, vegan mushroom buns, pork buns with spicy Korean barbecue sauce, as Chung says, “There’s an immense amount of manpower in every bite.”
“I believe in slow food. I was raised in slow food kitchens. My first kitchen was Bacchanalia. What a place to learn from the best. And the same with Miller Union. I worked at Porter Beer Bar they make their own pastas and bread. They make their own sauces from scratch. Simply Seoul was a way to do something close to my heart, take those classical methods and use them in my family’s recipes.”
That Chung has built a business from fermented vegetables is impressive. She describes herself as “not just another person making sauerkraut.”
She started Simply Seoul in 2013 selling her homemade kimchi at local farmers markets. These markets seemed like the right place to be, capitalizing what she thinks of as the connection between local farming and food preservation. Business quickly blossomed. “I thought I’d start out in a few farmers markets and figure it out as I went along. But we were successful quickly. We were in Whole Foods within 90 days.”
She says adding prepared buns to her farmers market booths was as much an accident as a business plan. “A $10 jar of kimchi can be an investment. I wanted something I could sell for under $5. I thought we’d try the buns for a few seasons and when we had better distribution for the kimchi, we’d drop the buns. But the buns been so popular. You can get a bun in less than 3 minutes and walk around the market enjoying it. That helped us earn a reputation for having clean, inexpensive, fast casual food.”
She also credits the buns for bringing her to the attention of Michael Phillips, president of Jamestown Properties. He bought some during a visit to the Peachtree Road Farmers Market and that was enough to get Jamestown to court her to open a store at Ponce City Market. “Now we have Simply Seoul Kitchen. There are only four items on our menu; the entire space is only 200 square feet.”
The kimchi is based on her family’s recipe. “Nick Rutherford of Porter Beer Bar let me start making kimchi and offering it as a special. I was able to figure kimchi out on a commercial scale because of him giving the space and the time and the resources. It certainly wasn’t perfect the first time around. When you scale up it’s just different. Recipes do not multiply on a linear trajectory. I don’t think I would be here without him. I wouldn’t have had the confidence to start this business without his platform and all my training in his and other restaurants.”
Indeed she owes so much she says half her wardrobe comes from Porter Beer Bar and she is wearing one of their t-shirts as she cuts up that beef.
Everything served at Simply Seoul Kitchen, or sold at under the Simply Seoul label at retail locations like Whole Foods or available at a farmers market booth is made from locally sourced ingredients where possible and made from scratch in her commercial kitchen. A Kickstarter campaign raised the money that made the kitchen possible.
Some days the kitchen staff is busy preparing either the daikon radish or Napa cabbage kimchi. “We have buyers from California and New York City. I like to think of my little jars going out into the country.”
Other days they’re working on the products for Simply Seoul Kitchen or preparing the food for the company’s catering and events clients. “We do a lot of catering for tech companies. Tech people like buns. It’s a thing.”
The regular kitchen crew works from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and then at 3 p.m., the “pastry team” arrives to work seven hours making the 2,000 buns they go through each week. No purchased buns would be good enough for Simply Seoul and Chung went through 100 trial recipes before she was satisfied with the result.
Chung sees more opportunity ahead – more wholesale distribution, more locations for the buns, more catering for more events. “I think of my business as being ready to move out of the infant stage. We’ve proven our concept.”
Given her success, does Chung have advice for other food entrepreneurs? “Starting and owning a small business is a personal journey. It’s so much more work than you think it’s going to be. You get pushed to your limit. You have to learn how to problem solve in the most efficient ways. And you learn that when things go wrong, it’s not the end of the world. I’ve found it always works out. Most important is, never cut corners.”
She takes that advice to heart. Not cutting corners is what her brand is based on. Homemade buns, hand cut mushrooms, scaled up recipe for grandmother’s kimchi. It’s what continues to drive her success.