Do not change your recipe because one person didn’t like it. My golden rule is if one person doesn’t like your food then it is “opinion,” but if everyone doesn’t like it then it’s a “fact.” When I first started in the food industry, I was too concerned about the taste of my dishes. I asked friends to try them and once I received negative feedback, I immediately changed the recipe. I stopped doing that because I learned not to jump to conclusions; sometimes the person trying it just doesn’t like it!
As part of our series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Restaurateur”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Ockhyeon Byeon.
Ockhyeon Byeon is the owner and founder of RHK Seafood Boil and Bar. In South Norwalk, Connecticut, bringing Cajun-inspired seafood boils and new American flavors to lower Fairfield County. Byeon is also the founder and owner of New York City’s RoundK Coffee & Roasters, roasting coffee beans from around the world in addition to offering creative food menu items. As a graduate of APICIUS International School of Hospitality in Italy and later having nearly 15 years of experience as a barista, Byeon believes coffee is a culinary ingredient, and focuses on direct engagement with farmers to source his award winning coffee beans.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restaurateur?
Like most people, I started out with a childhood dream. I was just a normal 8-year old boy who wanted to make my mother a cup of coffee before she ran off to work. That’s what I did, and from that, my love of coffee started to evolution and grow. I realized food and drinks are not only to satisfy hunger but also a moment to share and be together. During my college years, I was selling coffee from my car, not a truck but a really small two seated used car. It was the best time of my life, and it was the beginning of my dream. But of course, all dreams comes with obstacles; my skills and professionalism was questioned. No one believed a college student could serve “correct” coffee. I entered a coffee competition in Korea, attended many coffee workshops/conferences in Japan, volunteered at coffee farms in Vietnam and visited coffee farmers in Indonesia but it was just not enough.
So I decided to buy a one-way ticket to Italy; I didn’t even attend my own graduation or pack suitcases — I left with one backpack. In Italy, my skills were quickly accepted and acknowledged; I became a head barista in Florence. I spent my time in Italy studying culinary art, business and marketing. I spent about a year traveling and hopping from one city to another to understand human needs and expectations. I traveled from Brazil to most of Europe and Asia over three years, then finally landed in New York. In New York, I was able to make my coffee dream come true, and own my first coffee shop on the Lower East Side called Round K Cafe. I gained recognition for my innovative drinks such as Matte Black Latte, Egg Cappuccino and Astronaut Coffee.
I am very happy that my success in the food and beverage industry are finally being recognized. And now, I want to chase a bigger dream to prove myself as a culinary chef and a restaurateur. I started with a small dream and I know it will not be an easy road, but the struggles, doubts and hardships did not stop me, it only nurtured me. I am where I am today because I never gave up on myself.
Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?
To be honest, everything on the menu is food that I will eat and I like to cook. I strongly believe you have to first love what you cook before you start to share what you cook. And that’s the secret behind all my food. I see many restaurants start to lose their way and make what they think is the best-selling item. I won’t say I am not doing that as well, but I try to stick to my core goal, which is to serve what you love to your loved ones. That’s the most important lesson I learnt from all my years of working in Italy. This is also why I created the “aperitif” night, so that my chefs and cooks can make what they love. Those items may not be bestselling or favorites for everyone, but it is what the chefs and cooks are most comfortable and confident with. It is what they love and want to feed people.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a restaurateur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
I won’t say it is the funniest story, because it was more of an experiment. There was a period of time when everyone tried to tell me the reason no one was visiting my business was because the storefront was small and hardly visible. I wanted to prove people wrong. I wanted to show people that the size of my storefront was NOT the reason why business was slow. So the next day, I covered the whole storefront — windows and doors with lumber painted in black. I left one small cutout for people to peep through. The result? I had a lot of people stop and look through the small cut out; they weren’t coming in, but just couldn’t resist the desire to peep through the cutout because deep down, everyone is a child at heart and curious in nature. People will only take time out of their busy schedule if it is something that interests them. The same goes for my business; if the business itself is not interesting, then I cannot expect people to visit or even come back. I proved to others that is not about the size or look of a storefront but what’s inside. A fancy cover is not enough; it needs to be an interesting story as well.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?
Looking back at all the years I’ve owned a coffee shop and traveled from one country to another, the most common question I hear from my customers and staff is, “Ockhyeon, you are such a fortune teller, how did you know?”
Let me make this clear; it as not magic and I cannot foresee the fortune, it’s market research to understand needs and demands. When I first invented Matte Black Latte, I was faced with negativity and doubts. No one believed it would work, and my staff didn’t think it would work in the market. But I insisted! I was alone in the cafe every night after closing trying to figure out the perfect recipe. After months of testing, I finalized my “weird” creation. Soon, Matte Black Latte was all over the news and I had lines out my door every day. I had customers from all around the world trying it, telling me it was the coolest and weirdest drink but they loved it.
For me, it was not about guessing — it was about studying, learning and not being afraid to try!
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
Crazy and weird is fun and cool but your food needs to be something that is lovable at the end of the day. What keeps you going is not a dish that is so crazy that people only want it one time, but to create a dish that people can come back to all the time. I like doing fun and crazy things with my food but what I have noticed over the years is that for a “hype” to stay, then it needs to be something people love. No one can be crazy about a dish unless it is something they truly like eating.
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
For me a perfect meal is not just about the food. It is the entire experience: the environment, the people and then the food. If I am camping in the woods, sitting around the fire and eating a bag of potato chips with my friends and family, I will consider that the perfect meal for me because I am where I want to be with the people I want to be with. I’ve learned that food is only perfect or “tasty” when you are at the right place, at the right time, with the right people.
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
This might sound really weird but some of my best work is from the negativity from my family. Whenever an idea hits me, I always like to share it with my wife. Whenever she rejects an idea, that’s the idea I end up working on. My wife doesn’t really like trying new food, especially if it is something she will consider different from the norm. I find that this is the case for a lot of people, but being innovative is to think outside the box and do something out of the ordinary. So sometimes I will take her least favorite food or food combination and try to play around with it. My goal is to “sell” it to her. If I can change her mind and make her buy something she could never imagine or want, then I am on the right path to create something sensational.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
Something that I am working on right now is food and drink pairing. I know food and wine pairing is very common but there are way too many drinks out there and all of them deserve to get the same attention as wine pairing does. I am working closely with a few distilleries to figure out how their product can enhance our food or desserts. And since I have a very solid coffee and roasters background, I am also working on finding interesting ways to pair coffee with food other than our normal day-to-day breakfast items.
What advice would you give to other restaurateurs to thrive and avoid burnout?
Never let a quiet street scare you away, and never do anything without enough research. As a successful restauranteur, you have to do enough market research to understand your audience: what people want and what you can give them. If there is no one on the street, figure out how you can create new foot traffic but do not expect to drop a restaurant somewhere and people just rush into your place. Great food and great location is important but what your audience wants should be your priority. Never assume, always collect enough data and facts before you make any major decisions.
Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restaurateur” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Always prepare extra budget for the unexpected. I couldn’t tell you how many people I know and how many stories I have heard about projects getting paused because it was more than their expected budget. With the cost of everything so high now, it is very hard to stay under or even at budget. Someone I know had to stop their renovation because they ran out of budget, It was not because they didn’t allocate a budget for renovation but because they didn’t expect the cost of everything to increase.
2. You will need to have rules set so your staff can follow them. I learned the hard way that it is impossible to expect your staff to understand what you want unless everything is on paper. Everyone should know their own roles and duties and it should all be listed and posted. Having this done before opening a restaurant will save a great deal of confusion. Even the most experienced person cannot work in a restaurant without standards to follow.
3. Do not change your recipe because one person didn’t like it. My golden rule is if one person doesn’t like your food then it is “opinion,” but if everyone doesn’t like it then it’s a “fact.” When I first started in the food industry, I was too concerned about the taste of my dishes. I asked friends to try them and once I received negative feedback, I immediately changed the recipe. I stopped doing that because I learned not to jump to conclusions; sometimes the person trying it just doesn’t like it!
4. Hire and train ahead. Never wait until the last minute to hire and train staff; have them ready to go before you open a new business. I was consulting for a friend’s restaurant and he started hiring only two weeks before opening. All his staff were under trained and no one had experience. It was the most chaotic time, and things finally got better after two months of trial and error.
5. Beware of used equipment. I know people like to save money by buying used Equipment, however, not many people can handle maintaining it. I have an electrical engineering degree and background in mechanical engineering which is way I love getting old items because I can fix them myself. But that’s not the case for most people. My friend that owns a cafe in Manhattan called me two weeks ago because he was struggling to get rid of a used refrigerator that he recently purchased. The refrigerator was fine when he purchased but it was no longer functioning after the first few days. He was told by the repair shop that it would cost him more to fix the refrigerator than to get a new one so he ultimately purchased a new one. If you are new restaurant owner, put your valuable time somewhere else instead of fixing machinery.
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?
If there is only one dish then I wish people could try the Korean Sweet and Spicy Chicken Wings. It is the item that most closely represents my Korean background. I created the recipe for the sauce and it is the closest to the tastes and flavors I remember when I was a child in South Korea.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
As a father of two, I struggle like most parents figuring out what to feed my picky eaters every day. However, are kids really the picky ones or are we limiting their possibility? If I had the power to inspire a movement, I would want to make a change in the food choices we feed our kids at home, school and restaurants. I would create children’s food education and nutritional resources. Kids should be able to go to supermarket with parents and pick out new or unknown ingredients that they want to try. Schools should have kitchens to cook a variety of food for kids and not just heat up oven-ready items. Restaurants should have more than just chicken nuggets and French fries on their children’s menu. It is important to give kids a diverse amount of food to try and taste; show them to enjoy and appreciate their food. Food is not just for nutritional purposes but also to build their brains. Everything they taste and touch is a way for their brains to learn. Trying diverse foods can serve as a great skill for the next generation as it will educate kids to have an open mind and willingness to accept and try new things.
Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!