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Start Your Business Success Stories

Finding My Entrepreneurial Fuel: How I Started a Food Truck Chain

Finding My Entrepreneurial Fuel: How I Started a Food Truck Chain Chi'Lantro founder Jae Kim / Credit: Chi'Lantro

I was born in Seoul, South Korea, and moved to the United States when I was 12 years old. From day one, I had to fight through an uphill battle of learning English, social status, racism, communication barrier and overcoming my own insecurities. I felt like I was at the mercy of my circumstances and up against the odds at all times. 

I've always had the fuel inside of me to run my own business, but it was suppressed by those insecurities I developed at a very young age. I knew I had more to offer for myself, but I was too scared to take action. This continued throughout my teenage years and early 20s, until I forced myself to be more vocal and go after my passions, even though I was completely out of my comfort zone. 

When I was 21 years old, I started my first business – a coffee shop. I was inexperienced, had no idea how to run a coffee business and no clue what I truly wanted. I ran the business uninspired, with money as my only motivation. When I wasn't successful, my victim mentality carried over: I blamed it on exterior circumstances.

After running the shop for three years, I closed the business when I came to the realization that working every day wasn't enough. At the end of the day, I was acting as an employee. Without the passion or a vision for the business, I wasn't in it for the right reasons and wasn't fulfilling my role of an owner. Looking back, this setback turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life.

Failing at my first business served as a huge wake-up to me in discovering my passions, what I truly wanted in life and how to break out of my victim mentality. I had no culinary background, but always loved the food industry. When I immigrated to the U.S., I found that Mexican food spiciness was similar to Korean food, and I fell in love with these two flavors.

In February 2010, I started a Korean BBQ-inspired food truck company, Chi'Lantro. I maxed out my credit cards and drained my savings account to keep the business afloat for six months because no one would bet on me to successfully start a restaurant. I was too inexperienced, so I had to bet on myself and see where it would go.

For months, I was the food truck driver, cook, dishwasher, server, mechanic, accountant, marketer — I had to do it all. Faced again with all my failures and insecurities, I would get so angry at myself that I started training myself to say I will do everything in my power and will have no regrets, even if I fail at the end of the day.

The first day, we did $7 in sales and only $14 the next. Every day, I kept my head down and worked 16 to 20 hour days. I served late night crowds of Austin downtown until 4 a.m. and woke up at 7 a.m. to serve lunch the next day. I'd sleep on the floor of my apartment to make myself uncomfortable so I could wake up on time for work and take naps in the driver seat of my food truck. I look back and think, "How was I able to do that? I was crazy." I had one thing in my mind: "No regrets," and that turned into a vision for me. 

The real turning point in the business was truly by accident. I used to park my food truck downtown at 2 a.m. to serve the late night crowd, but nobody knew who we were. They didn't know what kimchi was, so I was throwing out kimchi and fries at the end of each night and it was an expensive waste. One night, we were so slow I piled every ingredient I had on the food truck into one dish and made Kimchi Fries -- hot French fries with homemade caramelized kimchi, Korean BBQ, topped with fresh cilantro and onion, sesame seeds and drizzled with Magic Sauce -- and charged highest price to people who didn't know what to get. They became a hit and are now our signature dish. Next thing we knew, it became a hit and we blew up during South by Southwest event. We served over 100,000 lbs of fries last year.     

Today, I have a vision to inspire the way people eat, think about, and experience Korean BBQ. We have a mission to provide great customer experience at Chi'Lantro. We have five restaurants and four food trucks, and my vision is to grow our restaurants to 60 stores doing $100 million dollars in sales.

About the author: Jae Kim is the founder of Chi'Lantro, a Korean barbecue food truck chain. He appeared on ABC's "Shark Tank" in 2016.

Edited for length and clarity by Nicole Taylor. Have a great entrepreneurial story to tell? Contact Nicole at ntaylor@purch.com with your pitch.