Sung Kim is the founder and CEO of Chick-N-Bap, a Korean-inspired eatery with five locations across a variety of college campuses in upstate New York. Given that his company’s business model almost entirely relies on campus presence, Kim’s outlook on the effects of COVID-19 is a multifaceted one. Chick-N-Bap’s ability to stay open, after all, doesn’t solely rely on a state’s pandemic-related guidelines concerning restaurants but on the various schools’ modus operandi as well: If there aren’t any students on campus to purchase the food, it doesn’t matter much whether the government allows Kim’s locations to stay open. In this Voices in Food story, 27-year-old Kim tells Anna Rahmanan about having to play defense to stay open in 2020, how a Biden presidency may shift the future and how mom and pop restaurants might fare moving forward.
On the moment COVID-19 hit his business
I think it was March 12 when the director of dining at SUNY Cortland had to pull me aside in the middle of service and tell me all SUNY colleges were closing down, and therefore we had to halt the pop-up we were hosting immediately. Students had to get out of there, and so did we. At the time, I just remember the frustration that I felt. I hadn’t done anything to cause this and, from the looks of it, there was nothing I could do to improve the situation. So that was very hard for me to swallow. And that was only the second week of March. When I look back now, I clearly had no idea what was going to come after. It got a lot worse.
On staying strong following shutdown news
There are so many pros of this business model, but there are also cons. You lose a lot of control. I don’t have free rein on certain things and [having to close] was one of them. It was a mandate and everyone had to leave. The moment we found out, the dust settled a bit because we knew what it was going to be like until the fall reopening. We did a team meeting to address a couple of things. First, the most obvious but hardest thing was that we couldn’t pay the hourly employees when none of our locations were open. A lot of them were family households, employees that have to pay rent. So it was tough, but we had to furlough them. The salaried employees — meaning all the partners and myself — had to take a salary cut given our completely skewed forecast.
“This industry is already a roller coaster as it is, and this has been the craziest [ride] I’ve been on.”
I follow these entrepreneur startup pages and they all say the same thing: Companies that become successful are the ones that innovate and provide value during hard times. I remember telling my team that everybody is probably looking to play defense and just maintain and survive, but given how little we had, we needed to still get on the offense without spending all of our resources. So we thought: What could we do without spending so much money? One, we improved every back-end system that we built in place from day one, from how we do inventory to how we order and prep. We [also] ended up working on a 250-page manual over time to make sure that if the opportunity came for franchising, we would be ready and wouldn’t have to scramble for time. We also recreated all of our existing recipes, and the sole purpose of that was to make them better. I have to thank my partners for everything they’ve done to help us stay afloat.
His thoughts on mom and pop shops’ ability to survive through the pandemic
The moment COVID-19 hit, I realized everybody was talking about how they were going to survive. I live in Queens, around the Flushing area, and all these Korean mom and pop shops that I go to all of a sudden had no idea how to address this shift. When delivery opened up, they didn’t even speak English, so they had never used Grubhub or DoorDash or any of that. I even helped out a restaurant and I just realized how hard they were struggling to think of the numbers for rent, for food costs, for the labor.
This industry is already a roller coaster as it is, and this has been the craziest [ride] I’ve been on. What I believe is that people will view this — especially restaurant owners — like a mini, more niche 2008 crisis. We’ll remember where we were when COVID-19 hit back in 2020 and what we did and how we managed to survive. If we can overcome this, I think it will be one of those stories to tell in the future.
On how the government did and didn’t help
I do think the government probably could have helped a little bit more, especially because I felt like the whole Paycheck Protection Program process was extremely frustrating. It wasn’t easy for the business to get the loans. I guess I can’t really talk about what [the colleges] could have done better because they were closed, but when I look back at this past semester, I realize that although we were operating for many days, all of a sudden, they would tell us they were going online and we had to pause operations. I think that stricter project management, with help from higher authorities, would help. These colleges are forced at this time to make really difficult decisions, but if there was a mandate [from the government] that was going to be enforced for the entire system, I think it would help the individual institutions make judgment calls. I think the government needs to take it upon themselves because that’s what the national government is supposed to do.
“What the government is doing is not helping the restaurant directly. … It’s forcing the restaurant to seek customers’ help at the expense of their own image. And that’s not helping.”
As for [other restaurant owners], I think they’d [like] a bit more leniency. Don’t make it harder for them! I understand that the government has done a lot to help regulate COVID-19 and manage it, but what it isn’t doing, I think, is offering more support to help increase sales or decrease expenses. What they’ve done is add things like a relief percentage on each check for the customer, but the reality is that for a customer, that might be an unpleasant thing. It’s not a reflection on the government but on the brand, on the restaurant, on the owner. So what the government is doing is not helping the restaurant directly with it. I think it’s forcing the restaurant to seek customers’ help at the expense of their own image. And that’s not helping.
On whether a Joe Biden presidency might help the situation
I’m not entirely sure, but generally speaking, Biden is more for the people and Trump is more for the businesses. So speaking in that sense, maybe Trump’s policies would have been better [for restaurants]. But like my parents always told me, take care of your health first. The reason we are having a hard time right now in the industry isn’t because of the restrictions, but because of COVID-19. If we figure out how to control it better, I think there would have been a chance for us to go back to our businesses sooner, the way we know best, without all these adjustments. I believe we definitely could have done a better job as a country. Like I said, health comes before money, so is the new administration going to help the restaurant industry in the long run?
On what customers can do to help
For universities specifically, general consumers obviously [can’t help] because nobody goes into a university to just eat food. But for [other shops], I think the tip goes a long way. Everybody that is in the industry is needing a little bit of confirmation and validation that they’re doing a great job and helping in this really dark time.