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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

"I could have just operated one restaurant to perfection, but anyone could do that," Lee said.

Just two years into the business, Lee began to export her soon-dubu to South Korea. Now she operates 13 tofu houses on either side of the Pacific and plans to open two more in Irvine and Fullerton in the coming months. Lee, who became a naturalized citizen in 2000, says she wants to eventually open branches on the East Coast and in China and to franchise the chain in the U.S.

Even at this rate, Lee hasn't been able to open branches fast enough to keep up with the demand, and numerous imitators are taking advantage of the opportunity. One chain calls itself BSD and has nearly 50 franchises throughout South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and China.

In July 2006, Lee faced a restaurateur's worst fear -- a food poisoning report to the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services. When the restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard was closed for nine days as a result of an inspection, the Korean media in Los Angeles reported on the story daily, treating it as front-page news because of the restaurant's popularity.

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.

Rumors that the restaurant was unsanitary circulated in the Korean community, and the flow of customers ebbed for a while, Lee said.

The experience was especially painful for Lee because she tries to keep a tight rein on the restaurants' operations. Each day she makes about 40 gallons of her secret seasoning herself, which is shipped out to all her U.S. restaurants. When she visits one of her restaurants, she listens for the clatter that dishes make when carelessly placed on the table and looks for the one customer in the corner who has been waiting a minute too long to be served. For first-time diners who look a little lost, she will even demonstrate how her food is to be eaten.

"She stops by every day to look around. Mostly she'll encourage people, but she'll criticize sharply when something's wrong, especially when she finds things aren't clean," said Eun-jae Kim, 43, a head waitress who has worked for Lee for eight years.

Lee's husband Tae, 70, complains that she doesn't know how to take a break. When they chat over coffee every morning in their Malibu home, he mentions going on cruises or other vacations; instead, Lee takes him on business trips. This month she took him to Shanghai to scout potential restaurant sites.

"She works a little too hard," he said.

But relaxing isn't on the menu. Lee recently purchased a 15,000-square-foot factory in Gardena that produces a milder version of the signature Korean cabbage dish kimchi for non-Korean palates. In December, she opened a restaurant on Alvarado Street near MacArthur Park that serves Korean chicken stew to a largely Latino clientele. The restaurant is called BCD Pollo Pillo.

"Your heart flutters when you start up something new like this," Lee said, watching her newly hired staff test the deep-frying equipment at the chicken restaurant. "It's like when a mother bears a child. Giving birth is so painful, but she soon forgets and bears a child yet again."




BCD Tofu House

Business: A Koreatown restaurant that has grown into a mini-empire based on a simple tofu stew. The company operates more than a dozen restaurants in Southern California, Seattle, Tokyo and South Korea.

Founder: Hee-sook Lee

Revenue: $19 million

Employees: More than 300

Latest venture: In December, Lee opened BCD Pollo Pillo, a Los Angeles restaurant that serves Korean chicken stew and fried chicken to a largely Latino clientele.

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