Press

Korean Immigrant reigns over an empire of tofu soup

January 24, 2008|Victoria Kim | Times Staff Writer
When Hee-sook Lee opened a restaurant at the edge of Los Angeles’ Koreatown more than a decade ago, there seemed to be nothing remarkable about the tofu stew she served.

But with a “secret recipe” for the common Korean dish and an entrepreneurial side that family and friends had never before seen in her, Lee within a few short years was exporting her brand of tofu stew to South Korea, building a small empire that has spawned numerous imitators.

BCD Tofu House: A caption that accompanied an article about the BCD Tofu House restaurant chain in Business on Thursday incorrectly said Chief Executive Hee-sook Lee was among the kitchen workers photographed at the branch on Wilshire Boulevard. The woman in the foreground was an unidentified employee.

Today, tourists from South Korea arrive by the busload at BCD Tofu House and snap photos. Visiting dignitaries, sports stars and actors frequently dine at the restaurant. Even though the restaurant is open around the clock, there is almost always a wait.

Since the Vermont Avenue restaurant opened in 1996, Lee has expanded it into a transpacific chain with more than a dozen branches in Southern California, Seattle, Tokyo and South Korea. And she is far from being done.

“It’s not important whether there are 10 or 100 branches,” Lee said, speaking in Korean. “I consider myself a diplomat of sorts, making Korean food known to the world.”

The success of Lee’s restaurants has catapulted the 48-year-old chief executive into minor celebrity status in South Korea. People recognize her from numerous media reports and approach her on the streets of Seoul. The South Korean government invited her to speak at a convention for overseas Korean business owners. In 2006, the tale of her success was reenacted in a 12-part radio miniseries broadcast in South Korea.

Fellow immigrants look to Lee for a clue as to how she built up a business that brings in $19 million annually and employs more than 300 people. Many wonder how a common dish brimming with very Korean flavors — spicy and salty, and served scalding hot — succeeded in Los Angeles.

To those asking for the secret to her success, Lee smiles sheepishly and says there really isn’t much to it.

“To succeed in anything, you just have to be fanatically devoted to it,” Lee told a hall full of dark-suited businesspeople at the government-sponsored convention in 2006. “No matter what other people tell you, you shouldn’t look back.”

When she first arrived in Los Angeles with two of her three sons in 1989, Lee barely spoke English. She left behind her husband and 18-month-old son so that she and the other two sons, 5 and 7 at the time, could get an education.