Chi’Lantro on ‘Shark Tank’: Look Inside the Korean BBQ Business With Their CEO

Chi’Lantro, a Korean BBQ food truck that has evolved into four restaurants, entered the Shark Tank in Season 8.

We interviewed CEO Jae Kim, who started the Austin-based business that can be found at events like Austin City Limits, SXSW, Beer Fest and the Austin Food Truck Fest. He told us their bestseller is their Original Kimchi Fries, and they go through 100,000 pounds of them annually.

By the end of this year, he is opening his fifth store and has plans to open three more in 2017.
Here’s what else he told us about…

How the Idea Came About

I immigrated to the United States from South Korea when I was 12 years old. When I came to the States, I found that Mexican food spiciness was similar to Korean food and I fell in love with it. When I decided to start my food truck business in Austin, Texas, I combined those flavors that I loved and that’s where the company name, Chi’Lantro, the “Chi” from Kimchi and “Lantro” from cilantro, came from.

Their Famous Kimchi Fries

Austin is notorious for its downtown night scene where a lot of locals and tourists blend to create a great vibe. I used to park my food truck downtown at 2 am to serve the late-night crowd, but nobody knew who we were. They didn’t know what kimchi was, so I was throwing out kimchi and fries at the end of each night and it was an expensive waste. One night, I piled every ingredient I had on the food truck into one dish and made Kimchi Fries – hot french fries with homemade caramelized kimchi, Korean BBQ, topped with fresh cilantro and onion, sesame seeds and drizzled with Magic Sauce – and charged highest price to people who didn’t know what to get. They became a hit and are now our signature dish.

Why He Hopes to Partner With a Shark

My vision is to grow our company to 100 units and compete with companies like Chipotle and Shake Shack. I own 100 percent of the company and I’ve done my best to grow the business to where we are today. I am all in. I’ve hit our growth limit and want the Sharks to bring capital and experience to our company.

Having ‘No Idea’ What He Said in the ‘Tank’

I’ve tried out three times to be on Shark Tank and kept getting rejected. I’ve failed so many times and I thought of this as a challenge because I believed I would be a good fit for the show…I was very nervous in the Tank, but I loved it. This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I live for moments like that. I prepared as much as I could, but being in the Tank also brought out all the insecurities in me, because I was never good in school and it felt like I was going into an exam. I have no idea what I said in the Tank.

Operating Food Trucks

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It’s a great start for any culinary entrepreneur to get into the food truck business before pursuing a restaurant. Operating a food truck is not easy and that made it an incredibly valuable lesson for me. Weather is always a challenge as cold or rainy weather has a significant negative impact on your sales. You also have to factor in trucks breaking down. When I’d take my truck to the shop, I’d stick around and really observe what the mechanics were doing so I could learn to do any fixes myself and not pay the next time. Food trucks have a very small kitchen, so maximizing food storage and utilizing your working space efficiently for four to five people takes some trial and error. Staying in contact with your customer base is a continual challenge as you’re constantly moving locations. Once the hype dies down, you still have to keep up with them so they know where to find you.