Deep in the heart of Texas, there’s a Korean restaurant that’s as fun as it is delicious.
In the last two years, restaurant owner John Lee has created an amazing atmosphere with a family feel and delicious drinks through a rebranding and renewed restaurant strategy.
After spending time in Korea to teach English in the 2010s, John’s move back to Texas found him diving into the restaurant business to help his mom.
“Before Seoulju, it was called College Roadhouse and at that time it was started by my mom and a different owner,” recalls John Lee. “In 2018, we came on board to manage College Roadhouse. We helped out my mom and the second owner to bring in different clientele.”
New management, new ideas, and eventually a new name — things were moving.
The only missing ingredient? It turns out what they needed was a little Digital Hospitality.
“By not being able to use social media, they had a hard time bringing in diverse groups of people other than Koreans,” recalls John Lee. “So, we came in and that’s what we did. We started advertising on Instagram, Facebook and changed the menus.
“Basically, we changed everything about College Roadhouse and sure enough, it grew and grew and grew.”
“Eventually we bought out the second owner and then it was me and my mom. We changed it to Seoulju back in September 2019 and had a grand opening. We hit it off strong.”
Hitting it off strong may be an understatement.
“Every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and even Sunday, we were looking at an hour and a half to two hours wait,” says John Lee. “We had people from all over Texas coming to our restaurant. I even have a guy from Baton Rouge who comes to eat at our place!”
The wild popularity was rooted not just in great food and drinks but in great hospitality.
“Everybody is like family to me, so you would always see me sitting down with our guests,” shares John Lee about Seoulju in Austin. “They come back and we get to know each other even more. People don’t mind waiting because when they sit down, I sit down with them and we just have so much fun.”
A family atmosphere and a focus on fun had Seoulju booming.
“We are not a traditional Korean restaurant,” smiles Seoulju General Manager Tram Lee. “We’re more of like a Korean late-night bar.”
Not a Typical Restaurant
Since rebranding back in September, Seoulju is famous for its guests – and staff – engaging in K-Pop dancing and singing. Watch any of their highlights on Instagram and you’ll see what we’re talking about.
At the beginning, focusing on social was intended to get a new base of customers in the door. Soon after, it became a way to focus on the fun happening inside those doors.
Now with COVID, it’s become crucial in keeping their doors open as they continue to pivot the restaurant during the pandemic.
“When I’m doing social media, I like showcasing that we are a family owned business,” says Tram Lee about Seoulju’s online presence. “Now during COVID with the bar closed, I want show where our values are. With shutting down the bar since March and not reopening it, we’ve been doing fundraisers for charities and doing drives for Black Lives Matter. That’s our values and that’s what we believe in. Basically, just showing where we stand.”
Aside from showcasing their values and philanthropy on social during the uncertain times, Tram has also shown their vulnerability.
“Yes, we’re struggling,” Tram said about the though times that many restaurants have been facing in 2020. “A couple weeks ago when our back rent was due, we put a plead out: please support us, we have rent that’s coming up. Literally that week, we were slammed! People were showing up for us and supporting us because before that we were supporting every social cause that matters to us and showing people our values.”
In publicly paying it forward and standing for what they believed in, Seoulju’s social following was able to reconnect with the restaurant on an emotional level even if it didn’t mean dancing at their bar.
“I feel like we’ve been rewarded with a lot of good things, even though we can’t operate our restaurant right now the way we want to,” reflects Tram. “We’ve always been true to ourselves. We are a family business and whenever you come into our restaurant, you’re inside our home.”
“During COVID, we made a lot of changes,” shares Tram. “First, we closed our dining room as soon as Dallas closed down. We made the announcement a day before Austin’s mayor announced closure. Then we literally ran to Restaurant Depot that morning and we bought up everything we needed to go forward to do takeout because we knew that it was coming to Austin. Once (Austin) Mayor Adler announced that restaurants had to close their dining room, we were already prepared. We had all the supplies we needed for a couple of weeks.”
Preparation and forward thinking placed Seoulju in a place to succeed. Still, the experiential nature of their restaurant and the COVID crisis saw sales suffer.
Using a Ghost Kitchen
In order to pivot and push out their famous food as efficiently as possible, John and Tram sought out the services of a ghost kitchen. Using a ghost kitchen would allow them to move more product if sales spiked and it’d also allow them to sell Seoulju favorites remotely if the COVID crisis forced them to close their doors.
“Back in May, I was looking through all the different ghost kitchens,” begins Tram, “just to see that if we were to lose our restaurant, we’d have a backup plan. We sent inquiries to Dark Kitchen, Cloud Kitchen and Kitchen United. The only one that responded back in May was Kitchen United Mix Austin. We got to talking to them, getting more information and they really knew our situation. They offered us a short-term commitment and they waved their startup fee.
“They basically worked with us and didn’t make us sign a long-term contract. We decided to join their kitchen and at that time maybe two or three other kitchens were opening up in there. They had 13 kitchens total. Now I believe they only have one kitchen left.”
By signing on with Kitchen United Mix in Austin, John and Tram can create Seoulju’s famous dishes – to include their Best in Town Fried Chicken – outside of their restaurant at a more affordable rent. This ghost kitchen concept allows the ability for increased production when working with delivery apps. It also allows them to serve out of two spaces if the city does open back up.
“Prior to COVID, takeout wasn’t even 10% of our business,” shares John. “The good thing is that our food was always takeout friendly. Tram, me and my mom were able to coordinate how to get our food out fast to our guests because we knew it was going to come.”
As shown by Seoulju’s to-go pivot before Austin announced its shutdown and signing on with Kitchen United before the buzz got out, John and Tram are able to forecast and prepare for the future.
“Our way of thinking is always thinking two to three steps ahead,” says John. “Seeing what the chatter is and from there seeing what we can do if that happens to us.”
By working with a ghost kitchen and keeping an ear to the conversation on social media, John and Tram understand the new needs and concerns of their customers.
“With Kitchen United, we’ve learned that customers don’t want to do takeout if customers are also eating at the restaurant,” explains John. “With Kitchen United, if we do open up the dining room at our bar, takeout customers can order through Kitchen United instead.”
Seoulju’s flexibility comes back to their family ethos. The restaurant is not just a bottom line, it’s all about the people that make it possible.
“We always try to think of what is best for us, our employees, our guests and our family too,” says John. “We have a two-year-old and I do not want to give them COVID. I’d rather close the dining room so we can try to avoid COVID coming into the restaurant.”
So far, the dining room has remained closed during the pandemic. With customers experiencing cabin fever at home there’s been plenty of inquiries to access but the same values from ownership.
“We’ve always been a place for groups to gather,” notes Tram. “We have calls constantly asking if we’re open. People have tried to bribe us to open for a party, but we just have to turn away money.”
Turning away money is never easy and it’s not any easier in these times. Fortunately for Seoulju, changes in local laws have allowed them to pivot during the pandemic in a similar fashion to Cali BBQ in San Diego.
“One of the biggest things that’s helping us is alcohol pickup and delivery,” notes John. “If Governor Abbott continues with this law, that’d be the perfect situation for us after COVID. Having to-go has taught us that we’re strong at it now and it’s one of the things we want to continue working on.”
To-go alcohol orders have allowed Seoulju and other Austin businesses to stay earning and evolving during these challenging times. Always thinking two to three steps ahead, John and Tram are already looking into their next pivot.
“We do cocktails in to-go pouches and we sell bottles of soju to go with our food,” says Tram. “We’re actually working with a new Austin start-up that does alcohol delivery with our food and their drivers are TABC licensed. They’re called Spirit Tree and they’re working with liquor stores to delivery and now restaurants. We’re going to launch with them soon.”
As of today, Seoulju and Spirit Tree have just launched together and are up and running.
While Seoulju has a lot figured out, they’re still set on evolving and connecting. Considering all they’ve been through and all they’ve learned, what advice would they give to other restaurant owners looking to thrive and survive?
“It’s hard to give advice, especially when there’s a lot of businesses that are going bankrupt,” admits John Lee. “It’s hard to say, ‘Keep your keep your chin up.’ Everyone’s lives are being affected, but the best thing to do is to try to stay positive and think of new ways. Think of new ways on how you can entice people to come to your place. Create something to entice people to come to your place.”
“And that’s what we’re always trying to do. Me, Tram, my mom and my auntie are sitting down thinking, what can we do? What kind of new foods can we create so that we can showcase it to our guests?”
With John and his team ideating new dishes and Tram sharing them on social, Seoulju stays two to three steps ahead and they’ll continue to do so.
“My advice,” John closes, “is that you always be fresh.”