Korean Beacon

Bobby Kwak

KAs@Work: Bobby Kwak of CIRCLE NYC / Social Eatz

Posted on 27 September 2011 by Mink Choi

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KAs@Work is a new series that profiles Korean Americans and their jobs. Want to share what you do, or know of people with interesting jobs? Get in touch.

Bobby Kwak, one of the foremost entrepreneurs in New York City, talks to us about owning a famous nightclub, starting and maintaining businesses, and his view on the steadily increasing popularity of Korean cuisine.

Bobby, we best know you as being a highly successful entrepreneur and the owner of Club CIRCLE in Manhattan, but what other businesses have you started?

Within the past 4 years, I’ve started an event planning business, a catering business, a karaoke lounge, an organic frozen yogurt spot, and a restaurant. All of them I consider small businesses though.

Can you describe for us what it’s like to run one of the most popular nightclubs in Manhattan?

I think most people think of the glitz and glamour aspect of nightlife which has its fun times, but what they don’t realize is that it’s really important to stay on top of your game in any business. In order to maintain a brand you have to keep giving people a reason to want to return and that’s why we focus on marketing, great service, and creative added value for our clientele. The only way I can describe the feeling of running CIRCLE is by saying that it “keeps me on my toes.” What I mean by this is that on any given night we’ll get anywhere from 750-1,000 people and the only thing on my mind is, “how do I create a full on experience for each and every person here so that they will want to stay the entire night and eventually return on a weekly basis?”

Bobby Kwak (left) with business partner, Joseph Ko (right)
and K-pop group, Brown Eyed Girls

CIRCLE has had—and continues to have—amazing guest performances from popular K-pop artists like Brown Eyed Girls, 2AM and Brian Joo. How did you network your way to the top music industry companies like JYP Entertainment and SM Entertainment in Korea?

By having the luxury of being in Times Square, New York City, I think there’s a “wow” factor according to Korean business standards. Therefore, we’ve had the privilege of creating relationships with many Korean celebrities and singers that come to NYC for whatever business or leisure reasons. Many of these talents don’t know anybody here, so what we do is pretty much guarantee them the best NYC experience, and take care of them from the minute they arrive at JFK Airport until the day they return back to Seoul.

Regarding the music played at CIRCLE, have you witnessed more people requesting K-pop songs over American music over the past few years? Do you believe that K-pop will take over the U.S. like it slowly has in other parts of the world?

Music is definitely one of the main factors that attract people to CIRCLE. I remember when we first opened 4 years ago we were struggling with the balance of playing K-pop, Hip Hop, and Top 40. We soon realized that it was going to be impossible to satisfy everybody since we were attracting the Korean Americans who were all about Hip Hop and Top 40 compared to the international native Koreans who wanted to hear more K-pop and Euro dance music. Nowadays it seems like everybody has shifted to House/Electro along with selective K-pop, so right now things are good. In regards to my opinion of K-pop domination here in the states? Hmm…my personal opinion is that K-pop is great for what it is and will fill the void in many parts of the world—I’m just not convinced that the formula is ready just yet.

Are you a k-pop fan yourself, and if yes, who are your favorite artists?

I used to be a fan of K-pop in the mid-to-late 90’s, but now-a-days I don’t follow it unless it’s the songs they play at my club. My favorite groups/artists are Cool, DJ DOC, Roora from the old days and probably 2ne1 from current day.

What are your thoughts on start-up companies and what are the most important factors you take into consideration when starting a business?

I think any start-up business is a risk and that it’s probably not for most people. I’ve always been a risk taker so this is nothing new for me. Now that I’m a little older and a little more experienced, before I dive into a new project—besides believing in the concept and having an execution plan—I focus a lot on the expansion and/or exit strategy. The sole purpose in my businesses is to replicate and expand, but if it doesn’t work out, you have to have a backup plan to prevent failure.

Aside from your for-profit businesses, you also founded Fastbreak NYC (FBNYC), a group of community-based sports leagues that promotes charity, social action and athleticism across APIA communities in the Tri-State area. Can you tell us more about the organization and how it all started?

I started FASTBREAK NYC 7 years ago because I wanted to raise money to eventually start sports clinics for underprivileged Asian kids here in the city. Sports was a huge part of my childhood, but being raised as a latchkey kid made it very difficult for me to excel when compared to my Caucasian friends who had their parents’ full support. FASTBREAK has grown to over 40 teams per season (500 active members) and we’ve just started the Dynasty Foundation, which is a nonprofit that promotes Asian youth athletics.

You recently met South Korea’s First Lady, Kim Yoon-ok, who came to New York to speak about Korea’s initiative of globalizing Korean cuisine. As the owner of Social Eatz (a.k.a one of the hottest joints in NYC also serving “The Best Burger in America,” the Bibimbap Burger), do you think Korean cuisine will appeal to the masses? And have you witnessed some progress, or do you think it’s going to be a slow process?

I think that Korean cuisine is very close to bursting the bubble and will become the next hot food trend, but I think it has to be done very intelligently. I think the biggest debate is whether or not Korean food can be modernized but still hold onto the traditional flavors. I don’t think that 32nd street traditional Korean food creates a pleasant first experience for non familiar eaters mainly because it’s too authentic. Dishes like kalbi, bibimbap, and bulgogi are no-brainers and everybody loves them, but dishes like dwenjang jjigae (stew made with soybean paste) and daegu maewoon tang (codfish stew) may scare first timers away from Korean food for good. My idea with Social Eatz was to slowly introduce Korean flavors and dishes to the American public by giving them a sense of comfort. Knowing that burgers, sandwiches, and salads were staples for most of my American friends growing up, I just decided to use the same types of foods but give it a Korean spin. I think it’ll take time to get to where we want Korean food to be mainstream like Chinese and Japanese, but I think we’re definitely on the right track.

Do you have any new ventures that we should be on the lookout for?

Yes. I’ve fallen in love with food, so I’m currently working on two more Korean inspired restaurant concepts that will launch in early 2012!

CIRCLE Nightclub
Follow CIRCLE on Facebook and Twitter
Social Eatz
Follow Social Eatz on Facebook and Twitter
Fastbreak NYC
Follow FBNYC on Facebook

[Photos: (first and last photo) Social Eatz Facebook; photo with BEG; courtesy of Bobby Kwak]

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The Reign of Korean Cuisine is Coming!

Posted on 23 September 2011 by Deborah J. Yoon

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On Wednesday, South Korea’s First Lady, Kim Yoon-Ok, met with Korean and Korean American chefs, bloggers, and important figures leading the way for hansik (Korean cuisine) in the NYC food scene. Kim, who plays an active role in the Korean government’s effort to globalize Korean food, visited chef Hooni Kim‘s Danji, a restaurant serving modern Korean cuisine, and Social Eatz, a restaurant famous for its glorious Bibimbap Burger, to give tips on how Korean and Korean fusion restaurants can further promote Korean cuisine, reports The Korea Times.

Emily Kim, First Lady Kim Young-Ok, CIA student Joon-su Bae, Marja Vongerichten, and Ham Ji Bach’s Young-han Kim

Some of the people in attendance were Maangchi‘s Emily Kim (who blogged about her meeting with the First Lady), Social Eatz‘ owner Bobby Kwak and chef Angelo Sosa, Kimchi Chronicles Jean-Georges and Marja Vongerichten, and Peter Kang, founder of Korean Food Gallery. During the meeting, Kim commended them for their efforts in promoting Korean cuisine and culture in the U.S. and pointed out how Korean restaurants serving traditional Korean dishes were key in successfully introducing hansik to a wide range of people and palates.

Kim’s trip to NYC’s Korean food scene is another step in the Korean government’s billion-dollar-plus campaign to promote Korean cuisine and ultimately be ranked in the world’s top 5 cuisines by 2017. Though it takes time and persistence, we hope bibimbap and kimchi jjigae will become well known as dishes from other Asian countries like sushi and Pad Thai.

[Photos: (first photo) Wall Street Journal; (2nd photo) Emily Kim/Maanchi.com]

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Top 5 Most Korean-American Cities: New York City

Posted on 02 September 2011 by Korean Beacon

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In a weekly series of posts, we will present the Top 5 Most Korean-American cities, selected not only for their numbers, but also for their visibility in mainstream America. Our research was guided by the following criteria: population, famous and/or influential locals, programs, and hotspots.

#2 New York, NY

New York City proudly boasts the second largest population of Korean Americans in the United States. Bustling Koreatowns have sprouted in Manhattan’s 32nd Street (a.k.a. “Korea Way”) and Flushing, a neighborhood in Queens where the streets are lined with Korean shops, restaurants, and churches. Walking through both areas is like being transported to Korea itself—minus the grueling 13-hour flight. NYC is also home to your favorite go-to place for KA news: Korean Beacon!


  • 132,371 – New York metro area (population data compiled using the 2010 Census; excludes counties in Jersey and PA)


  • Dai Sil Kim-Gibson is an award-winning filmmaker, whose films include Sa-I-Gu: Korean Women’s Perspectives, Wet Sand: Voices from LA, and Silence Broken: Korean Comfort Women.  The latter film inspired her to create the Silence Broken Foundation, a non-profit organization that is “dedicated to exploring gender discrimination, racism, poverty and class struggle around the world.”
  • Pauline Park is a tireless fighter for transgender rights. Based in Queens, Park co-founded the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA), the first statewide transgender advocacy organization in New York, and Queens Pride House, the borough’s only LGBT community center. Pauline recently gave the commencement speech at Columbia University’s Lavender Graduation this past May.

Adrian Hong (left) and Pauline Park (right)

  • Adrian Hong is a TED fellow, and the co-founder and former Director of Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), a global NGO whose mission is to “redefin[e] the North Korea crisis through creative storytelling, while providing emergency relief to North Korean refugees and pursuing an end to the human rights crisis.” Devoted to defending human rights, Adrian recently founded The Pegasus Press—a new initiative that uses innovative technology to keep the internet open and “safe for political dissidents and citizen journalists.”
  • An advocate for women’s and children’s rights, Kyung B. Yoon is the Executive Director of the Korean American Community Foundation (KACF), a non-profit organization that “provides grants and capacity-building assistance to organizations working to address the most pressing needs in the Korean American community and beyond.” Last year we interviewed Kyung about her inspiring work with KACF and her goal to foster philanthropy in the KA community.
  • A former candidate for New York City Council, Jin “PJ” Kim, a first-generation Korean American, is now the Executive Director at New York Needs You (NYNY), a career and leadership training program that empowers first-generation college students to achieve and realize their full potential. Notably, PJ also served as the Executive Director to the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy (DMI), a non-partisan progressive “urban think tank” founded during the Civil Rights Movement.


MinKwon’s Executive Director Steven Choi at rally on immigration issues

  • MinKwon Center for Community Action fights for marginalized community members such as the youth, the elderly, recent immigrants, low-income residents, and limited English proficient residents who lack access to vital resources. MinKwon and its executive director, Steven Choi, were featured in a New York Times article that discussed the recent influx of Asians in New York and the fight to get fair representation for all Asians living in the city.
  • The Korea Society was founded in 1957 with the purpose of facilitating a friendly relationship between the US through programs that allow for exchanges on topics such as public policy, business, education, and the arts. Next week, the organization will host an event with Wesley Yang, author of the New York Magazine article “Paper Tigers“—a response to Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.
  • Fighting on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning people of Korean descent, the Dari Project aims to increase awareness and acceptance in Korean American communities. Dari provides resources such as personal testimonials about the experiences of LGBTQ people that are dispersed through a website that is available in both English and Korean.
  • The Korean American Family Service Center (KAFSC) fights to prevent and end domestic violence and abuse for adults, youths, and children. KAFSC’s Board Chair Sarah BJ Sung was featured in the documentary series “NYC Women: Make it Here, Make it Happen” as a woman who is making a significant difference in New York City.
  • The Korean Cultural Service New York (KCSNY) promotes Korean culture and aesthetics in New York through gallery exhibitions, performing arts concerts, film festivals, and educational programs. KCSNY also manages a library that contains more than 18,000 books magazines, and AV materials so that information on Korean films and Korean culture are easily accessible.



Buddae jjigae at Pocha 32

  • NYC is home to Korilla BBQthe Korean-style taco food truck founded by Ed Song. Since there are three trucks now, it’s impossible to miss out on a delicious taco lunch or dinner!
  • Pocha 32 on W. 32nd street is a near-perfect replica of pojangmacha-style eateries littering the streets of South Korea—except it’s indoors. It’s known for its strong garlic odor, and delicious bubbling jjigaes (stews). Pocha 32 is also one of Kimchi ChroniclesMarja Vongerichten’s favorite spots in NYC.
  • Circle is the premier attraction for newcomers to Manhattan looking for a fun, dance-filled night out. Owned by Bobby Kwak, one of NYC’s most savviest entrepreneurs, the nightclub is best known for hosting mini-concerts by top K-pop stars like Brown Eyed Girls and rapper Crown-J. It’s also been confirmed that this Labor Day weekend, T.O.P. from Big Bang will make a special guest appearance on both Friday and Saturday night! Other popular club spots in K-town are Maru Lounge on 32nd St, and Third Floor Cafe on 5th Avenue.

  • Boka, in the heart of St. Mark’s, serves up plates of Korean fried chicken from Bonchon in all of the flavors you love. Make sure to top it off with an order of watermelon soju!
  • U2 Karaoke is one of the bigger noraebangs in Manhattan—located in St. Mark’s rather than K-town. It’s a great spot for large birthday parties, or even just hanging out with a group of friends on a Friday night. The bar spans three floors with private karaoke rooms, and boasts a fully stocked bar on the second floor with seating.
  • Kimganae, on Union Street in Flushing, has amazingly decent prices and is the best place to go for a fast meal that tastes just like a home-cooked Korean dish. The restaurant serves a variety of “comfort” foods like kimbap, tonkatsu and deokbokki.



Momofuku’s David Chang (left) and KC’s Marja Vongeritchen (right)

  • Born to a Korean mother and an African American father, and adopted by an American family at the age of 3, Kimchi Chronicles Marja Vongeritchen is the new ambassador for Korean cuisine and culture, as well as a refreshing new face and voice in Korean America. A passionate noraebang-er, you’ll most likely bump into Marja and her “karaoke crew” (which usually includes her birth mother) in K-town.
  • After moving to New York for a job as the host of an Oxygen show, SuChin Pak was quickly spotted as a rising star by MTV and promptly began her career as an MTV VJ in 2001. SuChin was recently featured in an interview with V Magazine about her role as the founder of Hester Street Fair.
  • Kelly Choi is an Emmy-award winning television personality on NYC TV, former host of Bravo’s Top Chef Masters, and co-producer and host of the documentary series Secrets of New York. She also created and produced Eat Out NY, a show that is a guide to the city’s most popular and most hidden restaurants.
  • Other locals include Alexander Chee, the author of Edinburgh (one of our Summer Reading picks!), and Emily Kim, the Korean food blogger pioneer better known as “Maangchi.”

The #1 Most KA city probably won’t be a big surprise, but still check back next week! We have some awesome hotspots and people lined up!

UPDATE: Check out our Top 5 Most Korean-American Cities Map!

Melissah Yang and Mink Choi contributed to this post.

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