Seoul Kitchen Owner Fights Food Insecurity With New Nonprofit
As the owner of Seoul Kitchen in Westford, Jay Chung has made cultivating happiness through food his business. While the successful entrepreneur could open another restaurant or invest his time and money elsewhere, Chung is driven by childhood memories of food insecurity to help feed vulnerable members of the community.
In April 2018, Chung and his wife, Debbie, founded Eat To Give, a nonprofit organization that partners with local restaurants to label a menu item for which $1 is donated every time it is ordered. In fact, Seoul Kitchen has selected two best-sellers for the honor: its signature bibimbap (Korean rice bowl) and Korean tacos stuffed with barbecued rib-eye beef or spicy pork.
Through the end of 2018, a total of eight participating restaurants have generated about $3,500 to benefit the Merrimack Valley Food Bank and the Life Connection Center in Lowell; the Worcester County Food Bank in Shrewsbury; Mustard Seed Catholic Worker, Net of Compassion and St. John’s Food for the Poor Program, all based in Worcester; and Provision Ministry, based in Westborough. Because there are no operating costs, 100 percent of all donations directly help people in need.
The irony is not lost on Chung that his family at one time could have sought assistance from the same charitable organizations that Eat To Give is now supporting.
“I know from personal experience that you don’t have to be homeless to be hungry,” says Chung, who got the idea for the nonprofit while volunteering at soup kitchens. “More recently I’ve seen the opioid epidemic affect people I know and love who, with support, have gotten better and gone on to live successful lives. My immediate goal is to grow Eat To Give to 40 rotating restaurants, but my greatest vision is raising awareness of these issues and ending hunger in our local communities.”
A family legacy of hard work
Born in Seoul, South Korea, as the only child of Moon and Jin Chung, Jay Chung was 6 years old when his family immigrated to the West African country of Ghana in 1987. They opened a Korean restaurant even though the cuisine was so unknown there at the time that Chung reflects on the decision as “inconceivable.” Moreover, the ingredients were such novelties that even staples such as tofu and fermented pastes had to be made from scratch.
Five years later, the dream of a better life led the family to the U.S. Shortly after settling in Flushing, N.Y., however, they encountered a shocking setback when their life savings of $60,000 in cash was stolen by an acquaintance. Chung, 11 years old at the time, watched his parents — in their 40s, with limited knowledge of English and no local connections on which to rely — go to work seven days a week in restaurants owned by others.
“The devastation to our family is forever ingrained in my head,” Chung says, recalling his mother coming home from a 15-hour shift with blisters covering the soles of her feet. “We were living in poverty, and I remember being hungry. I had to grow up fast. But in hindsight, learning from my parents’ work ethic, which is unmatched even today, and having to figure things out are the same qualities that helped me succeed as an adult.”
In constant search of better opportunities, the Chung family moved to Pennsylvania and New Jersey before settling in Shrewsbury in 1996. They opened their first Massachusetts restaurant on Cambridge Street in Worcester that year, then closed it to open another on nearby Main Street in 1998.
Bowing to his parents’ desire to see their son in a white-collar desk job, Chung graduated from Northeastern University in 2004. But after working for 3 1/2 years in the finance industry, his passion for restaurant entrepreneurism eventually won them over. The family opened Sapporo Korean Barbecue & Sushi Restaurant in Westborough in 2007.
Though they may seem like disparate careers, Chung’s experience in finance provided him with many transferable skills for running a restaurant, including professional behavior in all interactions, communicating effectively with individuals from varying walks of life, and projecting leadership while retaining the humble nature so valued in
Still, Chung recalls struggling that first year to educate newcomers about the cuisine and convert them into regular customers.
“Not a lot of people at that time knew about Korean food, especially in the suburbs,” says Chung, who lives in Westborough. “In the beginning, our core customers kept us alive. Korean food became more mainstream, and we started doing well.”
Eventually, Chung began evaluating locations for a second restaurant that would combine authentic Korean cuisine, sushi and creative dishes with craft beers and cocktails in a contemporary setting. He ultimately zeroed in on Westford, recognizing its economic similarities to Westborough and believing that area diners would be open to trying something new. For all his previously learned lessons, however, challenges remained after Seoul Kitchen opened in December 2014.
“It’s funny. After you run one restaurant, you think, ‘I’m going to know exactly what to do this time.’ Then, almost from the beginning, you make so many mistakes, and everything that could go wrong, does go wrong,” Chung says, recalling construction delays, unrelenting snowstorms that trapped people in their homes that first winter, freezing pipes, and staffing, boiler and sewer issues. “Finding the right people and getting business going just takes time.”
The key to Seoul Kitchen’s subsequent success, Chung believes, is the consistent quality of the food — still cooked by Moon Chung — and that it’s presented in a pleasing ambiance by upbeat professional servers who create a positive dining experience that guests want to repeat. He has a long and committed history of giving back through local fundraisers, but hopes that his vision for expanding Eat To Give will have a real impact on combating hunger, the scourge of addiction and homelessness.
“I understand the pain, cost and financials of what I’m asking,” Chung says, “so I’m incredibly grateful for the support of my fellow restaurant owners — and all of our customers.”