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Korean immigrant reigns over an empire of tofu stew

Hee-sook Lee took a common dish from her native country and turned it into the centerpiece of a chain that spans the Pacific Ocean.

January 24, 2008|Victoria Kim | Times Staff Writer

When Hee-sook Lee opened a restaurant at the edge of Los Angeles' Koreatown more than a decade ago, there seemed to be nothing remarkable about the tofu stew she served.

But with a "secret recipe" for the common Korean dish and an entrepreneurial side that family and friends had never before seen in her, Lee within a few short years was exporting her brand of tofu stew to South Korea, building a small empire that has spawned numerous imitators.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, January 25, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
BCD Tofu House: A caption that accompanied an article about the BCD Tofu House restaurant chain in Business on Thursday incorrectly said Chief Executive Hee-sook Lee was among the kitchen workers photographed at the branch on Wilshire Boulevard. The woman in the foreground was an unidentified employee.

Today, tourists from South Korea arrive by the busload at BCD Tofu House and snap photos. Visiting dignitaries, sports stars and actors frequently dine at the restaurant. Even though the restaurant is open around the clock, there is almost always a wait.

Since the Vermont Avenue restaurant opened in 1996, Lee has expanded it into a transpacific chain with more than a dozen branches in Southern California, Seattle, Tokyo and South Korea. And she is far from being done.

"It's not important whether there are 10 or 100 branches," Lee said, speaking in Korean. "I consider myself a diplomat of sorts, making Korean food known to the world."

The success of Lee's restaurants has catapulted the 48-year-old chief executive into minor celebrity status in South Korea. People recognize her from numerous media reports and approach her on the streets of Seoul. The South Korean government invited her to speak at a convention for overseas Korean business owners. In 2006, the tale of her success was reenacted in a 12-part radio miniseries broadcast in South Korea.

Fellow immigrants look to Lee for a clue as to how she built up a business that brings in $19 million annually and employs more than 300 people. Many wonder how a common dish brimming with very Korean flavors -- spicy and salty, and served scalding hot -- succeeded in Los Angeles.

To those asking for the secret to her success, Lee smiles sheepishly and says there really isn't much to it.

"To succeed in anything, you just have to be fanatically devoted to it," Lee told a hall full of dark-suited businesspeople at the government-sponsored convention in 2006. "No matter what other people tell you, you shouldn't look back."

When she first arrived in Los Angeles with two of her three sons in 1989, Lee barely spoke English. She left behind her husband and 18-month-old son so that she and the other two sons, 5 and 7 at the time, could get an education.

Initially, the plan was to return to South Korea after a few years. She studied design at Santa Monica College and then moved on to the Gemology Institute of America. But when Lee finished her studies, the children had grown attached to life in the U.S. and didn't want to move back.

Lee toyed with the idea of permanently settling here and wondered what she could do to earn a living. Having married young, she had limited work experience -- a brief stint as an accountant and helping operate a restaurant owned by her husband, Tae Lee. But Lee was convinced that she could thrive as a businesswoman, she said.

She decided to take a gamble and open a restaurant. And entering the restaurant business was no small gamble. A quarter of all new restaurants close by the first year, and by the third year nearly half shut down, according to the California Restaurant Assn.

To differentiate her eatery from the seemingly endless array of restaurants lining the streets of Koreatown, Lee decided she would serve just one simple tofu dish, soon-dubu -- a common, cheap lunch dish with chunks of white tofu submerged in a bubbling bright-red soup saturated with spices.

Lee took to the kitchen, spending long nights experimenting with different spices and condiments. From the commonplace stew, she conjured up 12 varieties with different types of meat and flavors. She brainstormed ways to customize the dish like a cup of coffee, offering four degrees of spiciness, with or without monosodium glutamate. Her final recipe is a secret that she won't share with anyone, not even her husband, she said.

After about a year of preparation and some advertising, Lee opened her first BCD Tofu House on Vermont Avenue in April 1996. The name is short for Buk Chang Dong, a neighborhood in Seoul where her in-laws once ran a restaurant.

Lee spent much of her time tending to the restaurant's operation. Each day at 2 a.m. she went to the downtown wholesale market to handpick produce. Three months after her restaurant opened, Lee and her family, reunited, moved to Las Vegas, where her husband owned property and the residency application process was shorter. She commuted to L.A. by plane each day to oversee her restaurant's operations.

"I wanted to be home by the time the children got home from school and cook them dinner, so I would take the 6:30, 7:30 flight back. . . . The children would get tired of waiting and fall asleep, and that was painful for me to see," Lee recalled.

Ten months after the first restaurant opened, Lee opened a second BCD Tofu House in Koreatown. Ten months after that, she opened a third in Garden Grove.

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