Editor's note: This is part 1 of a two-part series chronicling David Choi's journey into the food truck business.
David Choi didn't expect to become the owner of a fast casual and food truck chain 10 years ago, while studying youth ministry at Central Bible College in Springfield, Missouri. The son of an immigrant pastor from Korea, Choi didn't really picture himself as an entrepreneur.
|A refurbished food truck set Seoul Taco on the path to a small chain of restaurants in a few years.|
"I didn't know what I wanted to do at all," said Choi, who earned his degree in 2007. "I just went with the flow. I gained a passion for food."
That passion combined with a desire to improve his lot in life and a little luck propelled Choi to launch Seoul Taco, a small chain of restaurants and food trucks now employing about 50 full-time equivalent employees — all within the course of a few years.
Shortly after graduating from college, Choi began his work life holding various minimum wage jobs, including food delivery jobs and working as a Starbucks barista.
"I was working two or three jobs at a time just to make ends meet," he said.
By the time he reached his mid-20s, he had saved enough money to buy a new car. And once he tasted that small amount of success, he wanted more.
"I wanted to be able to be independent and work for myself," he said.
At 26 years of age, Choi decided he wanted to have his own business, and he saw a food truck as an opportunity that did not require a huge upfront investment.
Little did he know how good his timing was. In 2011, when his food truck journey began, food trucks were becoming more popular in St. Louis, Missouri, as in other parts of the country. Nor could he predict that his food truck would lead to five brick-and-mortar restaurants and a second food truck.
The search begins
Searching the Internet, Choi came across some used food trucks for sale in the Washington, D.C. area. With $18,000 in savings, he bought a one-way airplane ticket, determined to buy a truck to drive home and launch his business. He found a 14-foot truck in Philadelphia equipped with a kitchen priced at $40,000. Choi told the seller he had $18,000 cash on hand, and the seller, with some hesitation, accepted.
Back in St. Louis, Choi had no problem identifying his niche in the local food truck market — Korean food based on his family's recipes.
"I wanted to introduce Korean barbecue flavor to St. Louis," he said. "There weren't too many Korean options."
Recognizing that Mexican items were already popular in St. Louis, he opted for a mix of Korean and Mexican fare, which he dubbed "Korean Mexican fusion."
"Between those two cuisines there are actually a lot of similarities, so it worked out really well," he said.
The "Korean taco" was already prevalent on the West Coast.
Choi sourced his Korean ingredients from local Korean markets. The rest of his food came from Sam's Club.
Choi reached out to city officials to learn the regulations. St. Louis officials have been helpful, explaining what streets were approved for food trucks.
"They were really great off the bat," he said.
Success came fast
Success came on day one.
There were 30 to 40 people in line the day he began serving at a 4-hour food truck event in a public park in 2011. Assisted by one employee and some family members, he served around 200 people.
"We didn't know it would be that much," he said. "We completely sold out." He had to turn people away.
"It's a good problem to have as a business owner," he said.
Choi began taking the truck to office parks at lunchtime, which continues to be his mainstay. Finding business for the truck did not pose a challenge.
To get the word out, he kept in touch with customers via Facebook and Twitter.
Choi liked being in control of his own destiny.
"Instead of working two or three jobs, I was working one," he said.
Within one year, he opened his first brick-and-mortar restaurant. This was not by design. Like many fast-growing food truck owners, Choi soon realized he needed a commissary to prepare his food.
Part 2 of this 2-part series will explore how Choi's commissary evolved into four brick-and-mortar restaurants with a fifth on the way.
Elliot Maras Elliot Maras is the editor of KioskMarketplace.com and FoodTruckOperator.com.