Jae Kim dove into his first food business with 21 years of life experience and a degree in marketing from Cal State. “My first business was a coffee shop, which failed, but that’s where I fell in love with the food industry,” he says. “I’m not a chef, but I love being around the food business.”
Growing up in Southern California in a Korean family, Kim was surrounded and inspired by the flavors of Korea and Mexico. He decided his next venture should be a fusion of the two dynamic cuisines.
With a food truck scene just getting off the ground, Kim decided Austin would be his destination. With $60,000 of his own money, he wrote up a business plan for his vision in December of 2009 and opened up Chi’Lantro two months later. “It was more like, ‘I should do this because, if I don’t, somebody else will probably enter the market,’” he remembers. And, sure enough, two Korean fusion trucks opened just months after him (though neither is still open today).
“It’s fortunate to be the first one because you get a lot of press,” says Kim. “You’re taking the first risk, but I could’ve been the second or third one if I took more time. I felt the urgency and I didn’t sleep. I just kept on working on it and then I just went out and did it.” He laughs heartily and admits, “It was dumb but it looks smarter now!”
Without the budget to buy a truck, Kim opted to lease a 1990 Ford food truck to start and budgeted $10,000 a month for his first six months. “I lived— and my company operated— on a very tight, tight budget,” he says. “And at times we were losing money because we didn’t know the ups and downs of the food trailer business. We lost a lot of money on certain months and we didn’t know if we were going to survive. But, luckily, every time we weren’t sure, something would pop up and get me going.”
Kim started off using home cookware, tweaking the menu and teaching himself how to convert measurements, scaling up recipes to produce larger quantities. He then brought in a cook, Julia, who worked side-by-side with him seven days a week in the beginning. “I started hiring good people around me,” says Kim. “That helped me to grow, so that was fantastic.” Five years later, Chi’Lantro is five trucks and a brick and mortar strong.
Read more food trailer to brick-and-mortar stories from this multi-part series:
Writing: Veronica Meewes – @wellfedlife
Photography: Chris Perez – @citygrammag
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