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Emerging Brands

5 things to know about: Chi’lantro BBQ

How a Korean-Mexican fast casual got back in touch with its food truck roots to navigate the pandemic.
Photo courtesy of Chi'lantro BBQ

Buzzworthy Brands is a bi-weekly Restaurant Business podcast and feature highlighting innovative growth brands. Listen to the conversation with Chi’Lantro BBQ Founder Jae Kim here.

Jae Kim immigrated to the U.S. from Korea when he was 11 years old. Not long after, a new friend took him to a Mexican restaurant.

The spices and flavor profiles were similar to his favorite Korean dishes, but different enough to be exciting.

“I fell in love with Mexican food then,” Kim said.

So, in 2010, when Kim was casting about for a new business, he emptied his savings account, maxed out his credit cards and rolled out a food truck serving Korean-Mexican fare.

Chi’lantro BBQ grew into a fleet of seven food trucks in Austin and Houston before Kim opened his first brick and mortar restaurant in 2015.

Chi’lantro now has eight units. The chain pressed its food trucks back into service during the pandemic, shifting its catering team to solicit business from neighborhood groups.

Here are five more things to know about Chi’lantro BBQ:

  1. There was a steep learning curve when Kim moved the business from food trucks to brick and mortar. “When I got into the restaurant, I was freaking out,” he said. “There was rent, people had to come into our restaurant space. I had to hire a lot more people. It was very intimidating for me.” It was sometimes taking 40 minutes to get orders out. But team members worked on efficiencies, and operations went more smoothly after a few weeks.
  2. Chi’lantro’s menu made a big shift when it moved into restaurants. Instead of late-night comfort food, the menu began to include rice bowls and salads. “Late-night food was great out of a food truck but we need to connect with people coming in two to three times a week for lunch,” he said. Kimchi fries, quesadillas and burritos were the chain’s best sellers. Now it’s bowls.
  3. One of Chi’lantro’s core values is transparency. So, at the outset of the pandemic, Kim explained to all employees that the company had enough cash on hand to pay everyone for six months, even if there was zero business. One downtown Austin location remains closed since office workers are still at home. Many units saw business fall by 50% but Kim said some stores are now doing better than they were last year.
  4. Kim has used social media to show consumers the safety measures the restaurant is taking in its stores and to let them know what delivery and takeout options are available.
  5. Chi’lantro redeployed catering staff to call homeowners’ associations and other groups to bring the restaurant’s food directly to neighborhoods. “We’re trying to keep the staff as much as possible,” Kim said. “We’re making the food out of the restaurants and the food truck became the delivery vehicle for us to go to the neighborhoods.”







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