The discovery of this small Korean restaurant in Georgetown enchanted us, we wanted to know more! Jeanny Rhee, gave us some of her time, thank you Jeanny !
What is your background
II grew up in Renton, WA, where I came from Korea when I was 3 years old with my parents. I went to UW and graduated in 2015, I got a bachelors in Journalism and Nutrition Sciences. After graduating, I worked in Marketing at tech companies for a couple years before venturing out to start a business.
How did you start BopBox?
I initially got into the food business with Haus Mylk, a plant-based beverage line that’s made with nuts with no additives or preservatives. I’m lactose intolerant and I couldn’t find a non-dairy milk brand that I truly enjoyed, so I made my own. I was (and still am) very interested in nutrition and ate a vegan diet in college so I was already familiar with making my own plant-based milks.
I found a commissary kitchen in Seattle to start making the beverages but I knew I wanted my own space for more output and flexibility. Coincidentally, I drove through Georgetown one evening and passed by a ‘FOR SALE’ sign on one of the storefront windows. I made a deal on buying the vacant space.
I was told that in order to rent the space we’d have to serve food or have something other than just selling nut milks. Coincidentally, my parents – especially my mother – always dreamed of owning a restaurant so we created a business plan with the concept, the menu, and the branding of BOPBOX. The renovation of the space took only two months before we were ready to open. Everything from the paint and décor to the restaurant sign was prepared and made by family and friends. We were lucky our space was small enough for more flexibility in layout and furniture design.
We opened BOPBOX on November 19, 2018.
Have you worked in the Food business before starting your own?
My first job was at Baskin-Robbins when I was 15. I have held multiple service jobs since then and worked my way through college, but the interest for cooking or working in a kitchen just wasn’t there yet. My plans were never to operate a restaurant – my interest in wellness, food culture and cultural identity only manifested itself to my applying to graduate school in 2017 but after viewing financial options that would require me taking out a loan and moving to the east coast, I pivoted plans and felt the desire to venture out even if that meant staying in Seattle.
After deciding to stay and not dig myself into debt, my entrepreneurial itch grew and I began to think of food concepts and establishments that were missing from our city. Things I wished we had – which at the time was homemade nut milk and now fresh, approachable Korean food – I thought others might be interested in.
2 years in, running a restaurant is the education and stimulation I was looking for in grad school and I’m still continuing to learn. The challenges are constant – what’s BOPBOX’s next move in 2 years, 5 years; people coming and going; new menu items; equipment breaking down unexpectedly; efficiently upgrading our space; cutting costs without sacrificing quality – but it’s highly rewarding. It’s not easy and I’m SO grateful to have a supportive family that’s whip smart, incredibly creative and resourceful.
How would you describe the food you are offering at BopBox?
At BOPBOX, Korean food is approachable, customizable to your mood and explorative. I don’t like to describe our menu as “fusion” – we are not blending 2 opposing cuisines. We retain a lot of the traditional cooking techniques and concepts, like the bibimbop served in a stone pot, or our best seller bulgogi bopbowl that’s ubiquitous and can be found everywhere in Korea, but we’ve made it our own.
The foundation is very traditional, but we give ourselves the freedom to layer the dishes with seasonal and untraditional ingredients. It helps that when we create a menu item, my family and I have a mutual agreement on what’s good and tastes like how Korean food should taste but the question is how do we execute it in a way that’s interesting, new yet still familiar with the modern palate? It’s a highly creative and collaborative process I find most enjoyable. Interestingly, I see the dichotomy of this approach to Korean cuisine a reflection of my cultural identity as a Korean American and has further deepened my curiosity and appreciation for my heritage.
Where does the name BopBox comes from?
Deciding on the name was the final piece that was most challenging. I wanted a name that was catchy and resonated in a casual way and had references to Korean culture. “Bop” means both “meal” and “rice” in Korean and when people greet each other in Korea, they ask: “have you had Bop?” I was initially hesitant to use the word “BOX” in a name because I find it to be tacky, but I’m certain it helps people to remember us. We have a lot of word-of-mouth newcomers who hears about us from their friends, neighbors, and even people overhearing conversations and many have credited our name to be memorable.
How has Covid-19 affected your restaurant?
When the pandemic started, we shut down for nearly two months from mid-March to mid-May because I didn’t want to risk getting my family and staff sick. After it was safe to do so, we pivoted to take-out only service and installed safe ordering and pick-up stations. During the closing time we made sure that our recipe could support to be re-heated or eaten cold, that they could “travel” for delivery without alteration in the quality. Luckily, our food holds up very well and we’ve also included in the menu “BOPBOX’D Bentos” that are inspired by Korean Dosirak, a boxed lunch meal that travels well and requires no reheating. It’s been growing in popularity since we’ve launched it in May.
Before COVID, we were a lunch only restaurant with 1 dinner service on Saturdays and closed Sundays and Mondays. Now, we’re open for both lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday and we’ve been getting busier. We have online ordering for takeout, curbside pick-up, and in-house deliveries to specific Seattle areas and it’s been working out very well. For now, we have no plans of offering dine-in and plan to reconfigure our layout to best utilize our dining space.
Any project of opening another restaurant in another part of Seattle?
We have regulars and newcomers requesting us to open closer to their homes (wherever that is), but I’d like to continue taking my time and keeping my options open. I’m grateful people travel out of their way to visit us and I think that’s a driving factor [for us] to keep our product fresh and consistent. The pandemic and restaurant closures has offered insight into what we should be doing next which coincidentally works with a concept I’ve always dreamed of and want our city to have access to. It’s too early to say, but it’s fitting with the BOPBOX motto, “good everyday food, made daily”.
To know more about the restaurant, please check the link BOPBOX.
Interviewed by Claire and Emmanuelle