Putting Korean Food on the Map

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Linda Lee put Korean food on the map with her first restaurant, Koba.  A few years later, and with another restaurant (Nizuni) under her belt, Lee has found new success with her ‘On The Bab’ concept.

On the bab Korean street food shop front

The casual dining restaurant, with outlets in Covent Garden and Old Street, offers a range of dishes ‘on the bab’, which is Korean for ‘served on rice’, as well as hearty noodle soups and hot spicy steamed buns.  It is London's first 'Anju’ restaurant, a popular Korean term for enjoying food together with alcoholic beverages.

Here, she explains what inspired her to bring Korean food to the UK and her journey along the way…

Who/what inspired you to set up On The Bab?

When I opened my first restaurant, Koba, I was very grateful for the fantastic reception the British public gave Korean food.

At Koba we present a table barbecue as a way for diners to cook their food, but this method is actually a special occasion meal rather than everyday Korean food.  I wanted to set up a new establishment that reflected the everyday food people in Korea eat and was a bit more informal - the menu has been developed based on what I grew up eating after school and work.

How do your locations influence your business? E.g. menu/community involvement/environment?

Location is extremely important.  Every place is different in terms of the community and environment so every restaurant needs to fit in smoothly.  This is why each branch has been designed specifically to suit that site.

For example, On The Bab Shoreditch and On The Bab Covent Garden operate under the On The Bab brand and have the same core concept, but the menu is slightly different as is the atmosphere.

What is your unique selling point? What makes your brand stand out in such a competitive market?

Our food!  Korean food has recently really picked up in London, probably because of the cultural exposure that Korea gets through Korean pop music.  In the past I think Korea has been a bit of a mystery to the UK and so I’m very glad that it’s more of a familiar country.  I think the intrigue people have for Korean food and culture is why On The Bab received a lot of interest when it first opened in 2013.

How do you react to the changing marketplace?

Being aware of the changing marketplace is very important and it is something I am always conscious of.  Instead of just looking for, or comparing, other Korean restaurants, I study all sorts of restaurant trends.  For example, I look out for the latest street food restaurants and stalls to really get a feel for the current trends and make sure I keep up.

What would you say is the biggest challenge facing foodservice businesses like yourselves today?

Human resources.  The big difficulty is finding the right kind of personnel and creating a balanced team. At the end of the day, we are providing a food “service” so the people providing the service are really important.

As a business, what are you doing to overcome this challenge?

It’s still a big challenge for me. I’ve been in this business a long time but I am still learning and studying how to create a great team.  I try and make a family-like environment for my staff so it filters down through to the way they operate.  I want them to rely on me like family and also rely on each other, not just as work colleagues but as friends and family do.

What is the biggest business mistake you’ve made and what key learning did you take from it to make your business better?

I made quite a lot of mistakes in the past - I was not very familiar with London and lacked knowledge about the market.  I lost out on a few good opportunities such as restaurant sites because I didn’t know enough about the city and British people’s tastes.  That’s why I feel it is so important to study current trends, what people like, which locations are good, and so on.  I think having a will to learn is really important.

What is the best piece of business advice you’ve ever been given?

I can’t recall a specific piece of business advice but I really respect the American restaurateur, Danny Meyer, and I have read his book several times.  Everything I learnt from his book is great advice and it’s like a textbook for me.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to other chefs/entrepreneurs looking to succeed in the industry?

I don’t know if I’m in a position to be giving advice because even now, I want to learn more from other chefs/entrepreneurs.

But, the one thing I have learnt was the importance of knowing everything about the operations of your restaurant, from the bottom up.  If you want to start a restaurant you need to know every aspect, from the work of the kitchen porters to the waiters, in order to understand their positions and the work they do.  Every experience will help you in succeeding.  Even now, when I first launch a restaurant, I do the kitchen and floor work with all my staff.

What’s the best thing about your job?

That I can meet all kinds of people. A variety of different people come to my restaurants and I enjoy chatting and finding out about them.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?

I haven’t ever thought about this!  It’s been so busy at the moment I haven’t had time to think what might happen in 10 years’ time.

What’s your signature dish?

Tofu braised in soy sauce. This is a traditional Korean home-made dish and something I want to present to the UK one day!

When you get the chance, where do you enjoy eating out?

I like to visit new restaurants that have opened but there are just so many that it has been difficult to keep up!

What’s the one piece of kitchen equipment you couldn’t live without?

Probably the cooker – Korean food needs fire!