BCD Tofu House Korean Cuisine to the World PSA – 한국의 맛 세계로 북창동 순두부 홍보영상 www.bcdtofu.com
The New York Times
The BCD Tofu House chain of Korean restaurants started in Los Angeles, where it’s regarded as something like Denny’s with kimchi — dependable, tasty and, at the 24-hour branches, one of the city’s better 4 a.m. meals. At the first BCD Tofu House in New York City, one wall is decorated with branches rendered in gold leaf, and at night it glimmers in the flattering light. The menu is familiar, grilled meats and bibimbap, short rib stew and pajeon (seafood and scallion pancake). But the food is unusually bright and lively. Galbi, marinated short rib, is sliced thinly right through the bone, tender and flavorful even when charred. The hot seafood tofu soup isn’t just spicy, it’s brought to the table bubbling at a furious pace. — Oliver Schwaner-Albright
Today, tourists from South Korea arrive by the busload at BCD Tofu House and snap photos. Visiting dignitaries, sports stars and actors frequently dine at the restaurant. Even though the restaurant is open around the clock, there is almost always a wait.
Since the Vermont Avenue restaurant opened in 1996, Lee has expanded it into a transpacific chain with more than a dozen branches in Southern California, Seattle, Tokyo and South Korea. And she is far from being done.
“It’s not important whether there are 10 or 100 branches,” Lee said, speaking in Korean. “I consider myself a diplomat of sorts, making Korean food known to the world.”
The success of Lee’s restaurants has catapulted the 48-year-old chief executive into minor celebrity status in South Korea. People recognize her from numerous media reports and approach her on the streets of Seoul. The South Korean government invited her to speak at a convention for overseas Korean business owners. In 2006, the tale of her success was reenacted in a 12-part radio miniseries broadcast in South Korea.
Fellow immigrants look to Lee for a clue as to how she built up a business that brings in $19 million annually and employs more than 300 people. Many wonder how a common dish brimming with very Korean flavors — spicy and salty, and served scalding hot — succeeded in Los Angeles.
To those asking for the secret to her success, Lee smiles sheepishly and says there really isn’t much to it.
“To succeed in anything, you just have to be fanatically devoted to it,” Lee told a hall full of dark-suited businesspeople at the government-sponsored convention in 2006. “No matter what other people tell you, you shouldn’t look back.”
When she first arrived in Los Angeles with two of her three sons in 1989, Lee barely spoke English. She left behind her husband and 18-month-old son so that she and the other two sons, 5 and 7 at the time, could get an education.
Initially, the plan was to return to South Korea after a few years. She studied design at Santa Monica College and then moved on to the Gemology Institute of America. But when Lee finished her studies, the children had grown attached to life in the U.S. and didn’t want to move back.
Lee toyed with the idea of permanently settling here and wondered what she could do to earn a living. Having married young, she had limited work experience — a brief stint as an accountant and helping operate a restaurant owned by her husband, Tae Lee. But Lee was convinced that she could thrive as a businesswoman, she said.
She decided to take a gamble and open a restaurant. And entering the restaurant business was no small gamble. A quarter of all new restaurants close by the first year, and by the third year nearly half shut down, according to the California Restaurant Assn.