Entrepreneur finds success in a burger sold ‘with love’These days, there are a lot of street stands selling hamburgers, sandwiches, waffles and dumplings for just 1,000 won (98 cents). The country’s economic slump brought a surge in businesses selling inexpensive food, although not all of them succeed.
Young Chul Burger, a pioneer of the 1,000 won “boom” located near Korea University, however, has set a good example for startup businesses.
It’s 4 p.m., near the university’s back gate. While the food shops nearby take a break, waiting for dinnertime customers, Young Chul Burger is jammed, as usual.
Wearing a red baseball cap and apron, Mr. Lee, 38, and his three employees are busy serving their “hamburgers” to customers. The shop is tiny, but it is always teeming with students trying to get a bite of the “ghetto dog,” as a group of visiting young American men call the burgers.
The “burger” is actually grilled, chopped pork sirloin served with lettuce, pepper and onion and a secret sauce, in a hot dog bun.
“Don’t ever call it a hot dog in front of Mr. Lee. He won’t like it,” his employees warned. “It’s called Young Chul Burger, Mr. Lee’s own creation.”
The food’s price may be cheap, at only 1,000 won plus unlimited free drinks, but the business, which makes up to 2,000 burgers daily, produces healthy profits.
“When I first opened a stand in 2000, we only made 100 burgers, but as I grew closer to the students, the number went up to 400, 600, and now 2,000,” Mr. Lee said.
In 2003, he began franchising his business, granting 40 franchises nationwide that year and in 2004, but he stopped because of low profit margins, although he still receives inquiries from as far away as Los Angeles.
“The other franchises only make about 500 to 600 burgers a day. I think it’s because their business tactics are different,” he said.
“You’ve got to think this way. It is not only the burger we sell; it’s more about sharing love,” said Mr. Lee, who donates 20 million won to Korea University every year.
Born in Haenam, South Jeolla province, Mr. Lee left home and came to Seoul to make money when he was only 11, after his father passed away.
“I was exposed to the real world at an early age,” he said. “Because I never received the proper education that I was supposed to get, I was a bit worried about myself. I was taught directly by society.”
His first job was as a delivery boy at a Chinese restaurant. He worked for 10 years for a construction company, but was forced to quit at 32 because of a back problem.
“As a husband and father of two kids, I had to find another job quickly,” he said. “I didn’t even have enough money to open up a stand. I started wandering around Seoul looking for a job.”
After finally launching his business from a stand in 2000, Mr. Lee opened his shop in 2003.
“People seem to think it’s an easy job since it doesn’t cost much to open up a shop. But maintaining a price of 1,000 won is not that easy.”
Last summer, when the price of lettuce surged, the business was losing 200 won per burger because it could not reduce its ingredient costs. And yet, he declared, “As long as Young Chul Burger lives, the price of 1,000 won will never change.
“You can say I’ve succeeded, but not for the money,” Mr. Lee said. “My success comes from the acknowledgement of the people who love my burger.”
by Stella Kim