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Friday, Jun 14, 2024

Turning Tough Challenges into Success

Joonsok Kim, said he couldn’t sleep at all the day it was announced that restaurants had to stop serving food indoors due to the coronavirus pandemic. The owner of Tofu House, a casual restaurant serving tofu soup and hot-stone Korean barbeque, said “it was a nightmare for me.”

These days, many of the hot-pots are served outdoors under white canopy tents and lit up by strings of light bulbs in the parking spots in front of Tofu House — a move that turned the nightmare into a spotlight on his business.

“So, I was thinking overnight and I woke up at 6:30 in the morning to go to Costco Business Center and pick up the chairs and tents,” Kim said. “When I set it up, the tent first in Convoy Street, I was thinking for myself, ‘Oh my god, am I crazy in this hot day in July? or what am I doing right now? Am I stupid? No one starts to tent, why only me?’”

Kim was one of the first restaurants to implement a pandemic, outdoor dining model and the fast setup worked in his favor. Former Mayor Kevin Faulconer applauded Tofu House as a model for other restaurants.

Like many other restaurants making it through the pandemic, Tofu House had a reduction in staff, however, last April Kim experienced a 10 percent increase in business from 2019, which he attributes to customers liking Tofu House and wanting to “come back as soon as they can.”

Not Giving Up
Originally from Seoul, Korea Kim came to San Diego at the age of 17 and stayed with his aunt and uncle in El Cajon. He attended Grossmont College and transferred to San Diego State University where he studied business management.

As a kid, Kim knew he wanted to own his own business and after earning his degree, he worked three jobs to save money and make that a reality. He recalled working from 5 a.m. to 3 a.m. delivering for a dry-cleaning business, vacuuming at a car wash and cleaning at a hotel kitchen.

In three years, he had enough money to start his business and with the help of three friends from South Korea who knew how to cook and needed work they started experimenting with recipes from his one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment in La Mesa.

“We were using the bathroom for washing all the vegetables and, you know, making our kimchi and a lot of a recipe, we need a bigger kitchen to exercise but we didn’t have enough space so we were using one of the bedrooms in my apartment,” Kim said.

He said they cleaned the bathtub very well where they made large jars of kimchi, and chuckled at the memory. Before Kim opened his restaurant, he tested the flavors of their food by serving about 600 to 1,000 people at their local Korean church.

Growing the Business
When he opened his first restaurant in 1998 at the age of 23, Kim said it was well-received because people liked the healthy tofu dishes. One of their most popular dishes is the boiled tofu chef’s special, a soup with a variety of seafood, mushrooms and kimchi served to customers in a pot that reaches over 500 degrees Fahrenheit.

One of Kim’s goals is to be the In-N-Out Burger of Korean cuisine. Inspired by In-N-Out’s business model, every year Kim is narrowing down the Tofu House menu until it reaches nine, stand-out dishes.

He added that this July, Tofu House will open its third location and first franchise a minute away from the SDSU campus with the hopes of introducing his Korean food worldwide.


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