Money How Jun Lee built a $16 million chicken and beer business

17:40  10 january  2018
17:40  10 january  2018 Source:   The Age

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Jun Lee , co-founder of Gami Chicken & Beer : "We love chicken and beer and we wanted to sell something we love." The four friends have gone on to open 14 Gami Chicken & Beer stores, with the group turning over $ 16 .3 million this year.

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Jun Lee, co-founder of Gami Chicken & Beer: © Simon Schluter Jun Lee, co-founder of Gami Chicken & Beer: "We love chicken and beer and we wanted to sell something we love."

Forget Kentucky Fried Chicken, the hottest chook in town is Korean fried chicken.

One of the first places dedicated solely to serving up the spicy, crunchy chicken was Gami Chicken & Beer, a business started by four university friends.

In 1996, Jun Lee, Roi Yoon, Max Ji and Ayden Jung were all Korean students studying at Monash University in Melbourne when they made a deal to start a business together in 10 years.

"I came here as an international student and I barely spoke English," Lee says.

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"I was struggling to settle in and made some friends and we were all studying business or IT. Every Friday night was our Korean dining night. Like any uni students, we were worried about our future, talking about what will you do after graduation and we thought it would be nice to do something together in 10 years."

Two of the friends ended up working in hospitality, while the other two worked in marketing and sales.

"A few years later, we sat down again and we were sharing what we did and I said, 'Do you remember when we said we'd do something together?'," Lee says.

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"Since two of us were chefs, we thought, 'Somehow we can create value together'."

Culture of sharing

Lee says Korean food was the obvious choice but the friends wanted to do something different to what was currently on offer.

"Korea has a very strong culture to share food and share joy," Lee says.

"We think Australia has that culture too. We thought, 'Let's bring out some of the Korean authentic food, but we don't want to do it as fine dining as that's less about sharing culture. Back in that time, all Korean restaurants were doing Korean barbecue. We thought, 'Why don't we do fried chicken?'. In Korea it's a very popular dish - fried chicken places are like the pub in Australia."

In 2006, the four friends opened their first restaurant in Carnegie, putting in $30,000 of savings each. Three years later, they refined their concept to Gami Chicken & Beer, opening their first store in Melbourne's central business district.

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Lee says picking a name for the restaurant was obvious.

"I just wanted to be direct, we sell chicken and beer," he says. "Gami means in Korean beautiful taste, so it is literally beautiful tasting chicken and beer."

Fried chicken from Gami Chicken & Beer.© Kristoffer Paulsen Fried chicken from Gami Chicken & Beer. A humble shop

It wasn't an easy start because Lee says Korean fried chicken was not well known in Australia.

"We started in a very humble shop, not much of a fitout," Lee says.

"Because the Korean fried chicken was really new we did not have that much attention the first time. Most of the owners were eating our food and having our beer for a month without having customers. But after a month, people paid attention. We got restaurant employees from nearby restaurants coming in and word spread."

The four friends have gone on to open 14 Gami Chicken & Beer stores, with the group turning over $16.3 million this year.

Gami Chicken & Beer employs 120 staff but Lee says the business' fast growth has not been without its challenges.

"It's hard to find good people," he says.

"Even if you find good people, they will often leave because we are a very small brand and people like to work for big brands. At the end of the day, people make such a difference. The food is the foundation and it has to be good but what makes a huge difference is people."

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Some Gami Chicken & Beer stores are franchised while some are owned by the business and Lee acknowledges franchises are under scrutiny at the moment.

"Every restaurant owner has challenges," he says.

"But to me it is like food. If you cook the right food, people appreciate it. The only distinctive thing I can do is doing things right, like the way we cook the food. We deal with the people right and deal with the local suppliers right. If we find a problem we fix it. The food business is a very honest business and people can feel that. I want to do things right from dealing with my food to my staff."

Expanding

The four friends will open Gami Chicken & Beer's first Sydney store in 2018 and are aiming to have 45 Gami Chicken & Beer stores Australia wide by 2020.

They face increased competition with a growing number of Korean fried chicken restaurants opening such as Da Rin in Melbourne and The Sparrow's Mill in Sydney.

"The chicken and beer concept has spread and I see a lot more competition, the market is booming we are not the only ones doing chicken and beer," Lee says.

"Competition to me is always good, it means I don't stay in my comfort zone."

Ken Burgin, of hospitality consultancy Profitable Hospitality, says Gami Chicken & Beer is onto a winner because everyone likes chicken.

"There is something quirky about it, the crunchiness of the skin really appeals to people and the extra heat in sauces," he says.

"This feels like safe adventure, which is an important category. People can go for fried chicken and skip the hot sauce if they want. The whole veto factor is important."

Burgin says expanding Gami Chicken & Beer through further franchising will pose a challenge for the business.

"It will be interesting to see how they manage the whole franchise game given it has changed so dramatically, with lots more oversight," he says.

For Lee, the appeal of Gami Chicken & Beer is quite simple.

"We love chicken and beer and we wanted to sell something we love," he says.

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