Suji Park is the founder and CEO of Suji’s Korean Grill and Food Dreams Made Real, dba Suji’s Korean Cuisine. Suji was born and raised in Seoul, South Korea before moving to New York City. When she returned to her native country she brought American food products with her, opening a New York style restaurant while introducing the concept of brunch to Korea and new-to-the-market flavors and combinations of New York deli products to Korea, then Japan. Now she is doing the same thing in reverse, introducing classic, vibrant Korean dishes to US and Japanese consumers.
Park’s endeavors have been featured in The New York Times, the Washington Post and on CNN in addition to being named one of the top fifteen best prepared foods on the market. We caught up with Suji at the Fancy Food Show at the Javits Convention Center in Manhattan to chat with her about her new restaurant opening in Nebraska and the impressive history of her company.
Suji, what does it take to manage a company that is active in three countries?
We arrange carefully for a specific market, tailoring products to fit local tastes and needs. that is how we can specialize in Korean, Japanese and American cuisine that appeal to cross-cultural audiences. Generally, foodservice is much harder than retail. However we know how to scale, we know the regulations of design, labeling and distribution.
What would you say defines Korean cuisine?
Korean food should not have a lot of preservatives. It is all natural, the flavor comes from fermentation, aging and bold, but not necessarily hot, spices. Once you taste Korean food you can’t go back to more processed Asian food because your palette understands you aren’t supposed to have all those chemicals and preservatives. We aren’t built that way.
What makes your prepared products so successful?
We were chosen as the fifth best prepared food company in the country. Korean cuisine is all natural with real ingredients, and we embrace that concept. When we say natural, we aren’t joking. There is no “yellow number five” or anything like that. You can read the ingredients right on the packaging.
Are you non-GMO or certified organic?
We aren’t because it is not our market. We use non-GMO soybeans and ingredients like that, but to get certified is very expensive and we don’t want our customers to pay double the price to get our products. Our market is people who want affordable, great quality food. I believe in natural and gluten free and non-GMO but we won’t penalize our customers by increasing the price.
Do you have any new products coming that fall in line with that mantra of natural and affordable?
Our next products will be a line of low sodium items. That is becoming very popular in the US as people try and eat healthier and more consciously.
How do you prep people to serve and prepare your Korean products?
We do presentations called Korean 101. We host one and a half hour session with a Korean chef who introduces customers to different dishes and ingredients. We want to educated our buyers and chefs on what they are using.
On the restaurant front, you have your first place opening in the US soon correct?
We are doing a pilot restaurant. Our test market is Omaha, Nebraska. This is going to be a national chain and our thinking was if we can succeed in Omaha then we can succeed in any regional market. We are planning to open our second location in New York.
What will the menu be like?
There will a lot of modern Korean food. Street tacos, Korean pancakes and lettuce wraps as well as rice and noodle bowls.
In your own words, how would you describe the restaurant?
This is a sophisticated fast casual Korean restaurant. That is the best way I can put it
Is it a challenge to import Korean ingredients for the restaurant?
It is not difficult, we work with large companies in Korea to get our Kimchi because you need a state of the art facility to produce large amounts of Kimchi since it a live probiotic and difficult to handle. Everything else we make and source here in the US.
You can read more about Suji’s career and businesses here at sujiskorean.com/about-us