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