Korean-American burger joint bopNgrill cooks up an expansion

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By Mary Lee

Growing up as a Korean-American, 36-year-old William Song developed a love for burgers and fries and his mother’s Korean home-cooked dishes. Thirty years later, Song fused these two identities into a formidable contender on the Asian-American fusion restaurant scene.

Imagine truffled mushroom garnish nestled between a toasted bun and succulent burger with a side of Kimchi fries, or the loco, a burger comprised of a fried egg, short-rib gravy, caramelized onions, bacon and cheddar.

Such dual cuisine attracts eager customers who float in and out of bopNgrill in Rogers Park, while Julie London’s “Sway” plays in the background. Satisfied customers munch on gourmet burgers as conversation bubbles throughout.

“Burgers are such a huge staple. That’s going to sell well, no matter what,” Song said. “But the fact is not everybody wants a burger everyday,” he added. “So, we leverage that we have two different cuisines on one menu, as opposed to Five Guys or McDonalds.”

Despite its loyalty to Asian influences, the burgers are still the draw. Song said bopNgrill sells 70 percent burgers and 30 percent rice plates, which include traditional Korean-style marinated rib eye, marinated barbeque chicken, chicken katsu, and a tofu and Kimchi dish.

“The concept of the restaurant itself is very unique,” said Devon West, a line cook at bopNgrill. “Who’s ever heard of a Kimchi burger? I think there’s such a rich tradition that the owners and staff bring to life.”

Song, former sous chef for new-Asian Sunda restaurant and graduate of Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago, once aspired to become an executive chef at a renowned restaurant or five-star hotel kitchen. His decision to step into the culinary industry was widely influenced by his genuine love for food and exposure to his mother’s home-cooked Korean dishes.

“Nobody aspires to go to culinary school to be flipping burgers, right?” Song shared about his journey from college, where he was a French and Japanese major, to the food industry.

“But you realize that a huge percentage of these kids that go to culinary school will never attain that dream,” he said. “Because one, they don’t have the financial backing, and two, they don’t have the financial backing.”

His dream came to fruition in 2009 when he founded bopNgrill at its first location in Evanston with an initial investment of $25,000 and one part-time employee. Two years later, Song opened its second location in Rogers Park.

Song said he typically sold 80 plates in the Evanston restaurant and 250 plates in the Rogers Park restaurant on a busy day. But then business exploded after the restaurant was featured on The Food Network in 2011. The next day, foot traffic increased three-fold and the kitchen ran out of food by early evening after pushing out 370 plates and 900 plates in Evanston and Rogers Park, respectively.

Short-staffed and overwhelmed, Song decided to fold the Evanston location and focus on the Rogers Park establishment.

Over the course of five years, the small restaurant boomed into a $1 million establishment in annual revenue with 20 part-time employees and 4 full-time employees.

This year, bopNgrill’s revenue increased 20 percent and the restaurant added five more part-time employees, compared with a year ago. Song projects another 20 percent revenue increase next year.

“I’m living my dream every single day,” Song said, as he looked around the restaurant. “It’s incredible.”

The restaurant’s climbing revenue is not buttressed by marketing and Song hasn’t spent a dime on advertising. Instead, social media and word of mouth have driven sales and awareness.

Michael Golis, a patron at bopNgrill, heard about the fast-food business from a friend. He ordered the “build your burger” option, which allows meal customization. “It was a double. And I can honestly say it was one of the best burgers I’ve ever eaten in my life—better than Five Guys, better than any other burger place I’ve been to.”

BopNgrill’s average menu price is $11-$12, with prices contingent on the restaurant’s cost of goods. Angus beef is their most expensive ingredient, Song said.

“[Prices] are always rising,” bopNgrill’s owner said about climbing menu costs. “That’s actually a big struggle for small restaurants.”

“Consumers are price sensitive. So even raising it a quarter, people flip. So, we eat up the cost to maintain a loyal following.”

Song believes creating a devoted clientele by offering free samples and keeping prices relatively low are minor hurdles for greater compensation down the road.

And despite rising costs, Song hopes to open another site within the next year.

“It’s been challenging trying to find the spot, at the right price, at the right size, at the right area,” Song said. “I think we found the spot,” he added, while declining to reveal the location.

Song’s aspirations have evolved over the years, but he is content with bopNgrill’s outlook.

“I love food,” Song said. “I genuinely got into this business because of the cooking aspect. It’s great to hear when people come in here and say ‘Oh my god, I really enjoyed that meal.’ That’s exactly why I do this.”

“Minus the money, it’s truly a labor of love.”