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Korean American chef Roy Choi had a promising career as a hotel chef over a decade ago, but the road to his success only began when he was fired from his job.
Choi, who has a degree from The Culinary Institute of America and years of experience working at Le Bernardin and the Beverly Hills Hilton, ended up unemployed and unable to find a job at age 38.
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“I was so scared. I have a family and I didn’t know what else I was going to do,” he told Inc.
Choi then went the traditional route of job hunting but found no luck even if he started lowering his standards.
“I started laterally at the top, wasn’t getting the job, moved down. I was always going backward in my career, going to every level, every promotion that I got…. No, no, no, no.”
As he was going through each rejection, he received a phone call from former Hilton coworker Mark Manguera, who pitched him a business idea that would “change their lives.”
Manguera’s idea was to put Korean BBQ-style meat in Mexican tacos and sell them in front of clubs in Los Angeles.
While he initially hesitated on pursuing the idea, he ended up founding Kogi with partners Mark Manguera and his wife, Caroline Shin-Manguera, in 2008.
They rented a truck and hit the streets of LA serving their one-of-a-kind tacos in front of the clubs.
“People are going crazy, they were loving it,” Choi recounted. “But they were all drunk, so when they woke up the next morning, they didn’t even remember anything.”
He then shared that one encounter with a group of young female customers changed everything. The women, who were UCLA students, invited the Kogi truck for an event on their campus, promising to spread the word on how good their Korean BBQ tacos were.
“We showed up on that night that they told us to… and there were 600 people there waiting,” he shared.
Choi recalled that within the first hour of serving their customers, they were already out of food. As the line of hungry customers kept growing, Choi talked to the crowd and asked them for help in gathering ingredients for them.
“We’re gonna feed all of you here. If you’re willing to stay, we’ll stay,” he remembers telling the students.
When the ingredients came pouring in and the food truck was again busy preparing meals, Choi took the opportunity to get the young crowd to start tweeting about their tacos.
“Everyone started telling their friends. Our following started growing by the tens of thousands, all overnight. That all happened at that moment, that Thursday night.”
Choi looked back at that point in their business as the moment that they became a nationwide phenomenon. Their humble food truck started appearing in articles, citing their then-unique method of using Twitter to announce the location for their next stop.
“When we post our location, there will be hundreds and hundreds of people waiting there in their cars,” Choi noted. “And that’s really where the food truck revolution started.”
The food truck movement that Kogi launched is now generating over $850 million in revenue each year in the United States.
Choi, who now co-owns seven restaurants, currently hosts a cooking show on Netflix called “The Chef Show” alongside frequent collaborator Jon Favreau. He also has a six-part series called “Broken Bread” on PBS channel KCET in Southern California and streaming on Tastemade TV’s streaming platform.
Featured Image via Instagram / chefroychoi