From Kimchi Fries to Shark Tank: The Chi'lantro BBQ Success Story

From Kimchi Fries to Shark Tank: The Chi'lantro BBQ Success Story

by Kylie Ora Lobell, November 2016

In 2010, Jae Kim had $30,000 in savings, a maxed out credit card, and a dream to open a business. With his own start-up capital, he bought a food truck and established Chi'lantro, a Korean BBQ and Mexican fast food mash-up.

“That was the beginning," said Kim. “From there, it was a crazy ride."

On his first day of business, Kim brought in $7 worth of sales. The next day, he only made $14. “I didn't do a good job in the first month in terms of picking where I parked the truck," he said. “It was also cold. Then, we parked our truck downtown when it was warmer out, and the rest was history."

Now, Kim has four locations throughout Austin, and plans to open up shop in Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. He also recently appeared on Shark Tank and received a $600,000 investment from Barbara Corcoran, who got 20 percent equity in exchange.

Pursuing What He Loves

Kim's journey began when he was a kid and stepped into the kitchen. Kim was born in Seoul, Korea, and moved to the U.S. when he was 12. He grew up in California, the son of a single mother with a strong work ethic.

When Kim's mom would go to work, she'd leave food behind for him to make. It was from this young age that he discovered his predilection for cooking.

“I'm not traditionally trained," he said. “I just love it and I'm passionate about it. When you're passionate about something, you want to get better at it. I hired great people around me to help me make it better, and that's how I became successful."

It is Kim's creativity with food that makes Chi'lantro stand out. He came up with the original kimchi fries, which come with a protein, like pork, chicken, beef, or tofu, and carmelized kimchi, cheddar, and Monterey Jack cheese, cilantro, onions, “magic sauce," sesame seeds, and sriracha. The restaurant also offers Korean fried chicken wings, a rice bowl with kimchi, fried eggs, and salsa, along with classics like guacamole, tacos, and burritos.

Learning from His Mistakes and Experiences

Chi'lantro wasn't Kim's first business or entrance into the food industry. When he was just 21 years old, he opened a coffee shop and ran it for three years. Though he said it was a failed venture, he gained knowledge about how to run a business. “That was a valuable experience for me because I learned so much from it. I told myself that the next time I do this, it'll be different."

Kim kept going in the food business, becoming a contractor for the sushi departments in H-E-B, a chain of grocery stores. After that, he decided to become an entrepreneur again, starting Chi'lantro as an LLC and then signing up for LegalZoom's Business Advisory Plan to get legal advice from independent attorneys.

Once he was all set up, Kim took his idea to the streets of Austin. Chi'lantro may have gotten a slow start, but it continued to grow and grow, once it hit its stride. He knew that his business would be appealing to the Sharks because of how successful it had become.

Having His Persistence Pay off

Although Kim garnered $600,000 from appearing on Shark Tank, the road to get there wasn't easy.

He had tried out for the show two other times, going up against 40,000 people who apply every year, he said. Out of those 40,000, only 150 are given the opportunity to pitch to the Sharks.

Kim didn't let the first few rejections stop him from going after it again. It's always been in his nature to go after his aspirations, even when he's up against so many other businesses. After all, he chose to start Chi'lantro in Austin because of its bustling food scene. “It's a competitive city with the food truck and restaurant business," he said. “I wanted to be in a place where it's very competitive."

Kim had the same attitude toward Shark Tank. After his first rejection, he kept in touch with the interviewers, established a rapport with them, and eventually it paid off.

“As our business grew, I felt like I had a great story to talk about," he said. “I was hoping they believed in me and could see all the growth I had."

Going Forward with the Investment

Kim plans to put the $600,000 toward starting two more locations in Austin next year, and then branching out to the other bigger cities in Texas. He hopes that his appearance on the show will bring more customers into Chi'lantro. “Shark Tank was a very successful event for us and it's a part of our journey we're proud of," he said. “This type of exposure validates our hard work."

Kim may have done well on the show, but he's aware that there are more challenges ahead. He's learned that in his time as a small business owner. “Every day is an obstacle," he said. “The good comes with the bad. It's what you make of it. We're very positive and driven by the happiness of our customers. That was embedded into the culture of our company from day one. It's really challenging, but it's also fun at the same time."

No matter what issues may come up, Kim always keeps his goals in mind. This is what pushes him forward.

“I have the dream to grow, and I'm persistent and grounded," he said. “My dream is what's driving me. I see great results because of that."