The Toast of the Town

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The Toast of the Town

Philanthropy does not have to start at the top. Sure, Andrew Carnegie made a fortune in steel and then gave close to $400 million to promote arts, academia and society in America. Korean conglomerates like Samsung and LG set up endowments to donate billions of won (millions of dollars) to help the needy. But a humble food hawker in Korea says helping the disadvantaged should be a way of life for everyone. And he acts on that credo.

Slice 1

Kim Seok-bong, 45, has been concocting his famous toast in the hub of downtown Seoul's business district for over five years. Pedestrians, businessmen and students stop by for a bite from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. daily except Sunday. His aptly named "Seok bong toast" is famous not only for its delectable taste, but also for the owner's devotion to its preparation.

"I never miss a day coming for breakfast just before heading to the office," says Moon Se-mi, who works at the Seoul Finance Center. "It's clean and tidy, and the toast is really, really, delicious. It gets me through the day." Inside Mr. Kim's tent-like enclosure, bundled-up customers are munching on toast and washing it all down with milk.

What distinguishes Mr. Kim's toasts from the hundreds of similar vendors in this city?

Two things: wholesomeness and variety.

After buttering two slices of bread and grilling them on a wide rectangular pan, Mr. Kim tops them with a special kind of beaten egg mixture (which includes four ingredients that the master won't divulge) plus layers of ham, cheese, shredded cabbage, mayonnaise and ketchup.

Mr. Kim also uses organic eggs, a special brand of salt and no artificial ingredients in his sandwich.

Customers can choose to nosh on a plain egg sandwich, or a combination of others. "I tell myself that the toast I am providing to these working men and women is not just a quickie snack, but a proper nutritious meal," says Mr. Kim.

Mr. Kim's toast is so renowned that during the morning rush from 7 to 8, a 20-person line often forms outside his food tent. With quick, nimble hand movements, Mr. Kim can prepare up to 10 egg and toast sandwiches in a minute. Japanese businessmen in the neighborhood are some of the vendor's most loyal customers, a factor that helped land Mr. Kim in Japanese travel guidebooks. Customers come from as far as Yeouido and Bundang just to taste this toothsome toast, so he has been told. Buoyed by his popularity, Mr. Kim recently opened his sixth "Seok bong toast" franchise (also a van) in Euljiro, central Seoul, and is aggressively pursuing sites in shopping malls and discount department stores.

A devout Christian, Mr Kim does not take his success for granted. As a measure of his gratitude, Mr. Kim has helped the needy almost daily for more than 15 years.

"Giving a hearty meal to customers is all well and good, but my goal in life is to help others," he says. "Volunteer work is a key principle in my life. Because I come from a poor family background, I grew more aware of the needy. My Christian beliefs also sustain this way of life for me."

However, the dedicated toast-maker required a monthlong hiatus to recover from an operation in December to treat a developing stomach cancer. Because surgeons had to remove part of his stomach, today Mr. Kim can only eat half his normal amount. Two women substituted for him during the absence.

Slice 2

One Saturday morning, Mr. Kim drives his toast truck to the Salvation Army's Seoul Broadview Children's Home in Sangam-dong, western Seoul. Nearly a month has passed since his last visit, and the children eagerly anticipate his arrival. They circle about the truck chanting, "The missionary has come! The toast man has come!" He smiles broadly as he positions his small truck so that a line can be formed in front of it. He tells the eager group of children, "Today, I'm going to make you tteokbokkgi." Some kids are visibly disappointed, and mouth comments like, "I want toast instead."

The children ask if the tteokbokkgi is going to be as good as the toast, to which he replies, "Yes, yes, of course!" Aided by a fellow churchgoer, Mr. Kim takes about half an hour to prepare the spicy snack of log-shaped rice cakes. Almost 40 children, ranging in age from 2 to 20, have now formed two crooked lines in the courtyard. Older boys push the younger ones out of their way to reach the front.

"There's enough to feed a hundred," cries out Mr. Kim, and the group cools down. Kim Woo-joon, 5, says, "I want seconds!" The children clap as Mr. Kim mixes the ingredients together. As he hands out the first cupful, more children pour out of the foster home's doors. Children line up again and again for second and third rounds of tteokbokkgi and murmur "The soup is awesome!" Their reaction elicits a smile from Mr. Kim.

When Mr. Kim first visited here a couple of years back, he staged puppet shows based on themes like overcoming adversity and helping others. He has also shown his puppetry in rural areas.

But later he opted to give his elated audiences a taste of his legendary toast, which delighted the children even more. "Every Saturday [the children] eagerly await his truck," says Noh Sung-woo, general secretary of the Children's Home. "He's really a young kid at heart," says Mr. Noh. "He loves children so much."

The manager of the foster home, Major Kim Hyung-kil, echoes his colleague's opinion. "He is a real angel from heaven. Even though he is not that well off, he still finds time and energy to help those who are less fortunate than himself."

After handing out the last cupful of tteokbokkgi to a young child, Mr. Kim packs up.

His next stop this afternoon is the Mapo district wholesale market to buy eggs to distribute to the elderly. Once a month, Mr. Kim visits elders in his neighborhood who live alone; he delivers five dozen eggs to each home. "At first I helped them by giving pocket money but then realized how few I could help," he says. "So I decided to give them eggs instead to sustain their basic protein diet." Today, Mr. Kim provides a monthly egg supplement to 43 elders.

Slice 3

Born into a rural Jeolla family that eked out a living hawking snacks to mountain hikers, Mr. Kim hotfooted it for the big town in his early teens where he put his elementary school education to work. Marriage to a fellow churchgoer has resulted in three sons, with a fourth on the way.

"I've tried everything from being a car mechanic to a fruit and vegetable vendor," he says. "Some call me 'MacGyver' because I can do almost anything." Indeed, his gaunt frame belies a mental and physical strength that enabled him to complete several full-length marathons in the 1980s. After trying to earn a living at the wedding business, Mr. Kim turned to toast in 1997.

At first he was shy about selling to strangers, so he hid his face beneath his hat. But after a few months' practice, he donned a white chef's outfit and declared to himself: "You are a professional toast-meister."

Despite his lifetime of travail, Mr. Kim nonetheless is a happy man with a perpetual smile and a polite word for a stranger.

"My ultimate goal is to build a children's camp. I want to plant dreams in children," Mr. Kim says.

As for Seokbong toast? "I hope my brand becomes a symbol of health and a slogan for helping others," he says.

by Choi Jie-ho
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