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SAVOR Talking with Will Song of bopNgrill
DISH Dining Guide
by Andrew Davis, Windy City Times
2018-11-25

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In Chicago's restaurant scene, it can be tough to survive with just one establishment.

However, Will Song has been pretty successful, with two locations of the fast-casual Korean restaurant bopNgrill ( www.bopngrill.com/ )—one in Rogers Park and the other in Lake View. ( Now, he's also part-owner of the Evanston chicken restaurant 10Q, along with Chicago clothing store Belmont Army owner David Yoo, according to The Daily Northwestern. )

Song recently talked with Windy City Times about various aspects of bopNgrill—including a legal tussle that took place a few years ago.

Windy City Times: I can imagine that you're pretty busy, with all these restaurants.

Will Song: Yes—I am very fortunate.

WCT: Tell me about how bopNgrill came to be. I understand you sank your life savings into it.

WS: [Laughs] Yeah. I was working in different kitchens in Chicago; my last gig was working at Sunda. I was there for about a year and a half as a sous chef, and I decided to try something on my own.

I looked into opening a restaurant, but realized it's very expensive. I guess I was kind of naive thinking that I'd get into this without any real capital. I thought that dream would die pretty soon because I didn't have any money.

One day I was in Evanston visiting a friend at Northwestern [University]. I took Church Street back home and I saw a sign that had "Mr. Burger" on it, and stopped in because I was hungry. Long story short, after ordering—and t took about 30 minutes to get my food even though I was the only one in there—the owner found out what I did for a living, and asked if I wanted to buy the restaurant. When I got home, I started thinking, "Maybe I should do this, because I could probably get it cheap." Also, it was across the street from Evanston [Township] High School, which has two or three thousand students there. So I bought the business for about $10,000 and opened two weeks later.

So I thought I better brush up my resume because there was no business at this restaurant—but, for whatever reason, it got better. [The Evanston location of bopNgrill closed in 2012.]

WCT: I saw a picture of you with chef Guy Fieri. What's the story behind that?

WS: So, that was when the executive producer [of the TV show Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives] called our [Rogers Park] location, saying they'd be in Chicago filming. When I first got the call, I thought, "This is the worst prank ever. Why would you do this to me?" [Interviewer laughs.] But the person said, "No—we're really coming, and we'd like to feature you." Three months later, it aired. We were very lucky; that pretty much put us on the map.

WCT: The restaurant has also been featured in Men's Journal. Does that mean the food is good for you? [Laughs]

WS: [Laughs] I guess so! That was a little bit of a shock when they said, "We like to feature this burger in Men's Journal."

WCT: How would you describe the cuisine?

WS: It's just things I grew up eating all the time. At home, I was eating rice and meat. At school, I was eating burgers, hot dogs, pizza and fries. That was kind of how the menu turned out, initially.

WCT: Does the menu change?

WS: Yeah—we try to put specials here and there. But I think one of the biggest challenges I've faced in the last few years is that when you have more than one location, it's hard to maintain the quality control. The workforce you hire is sometimes entry-level, so you have to make sure you keep up the quality as you're growing.

WCT: For people who have not tried Korean food, how do you recommend navigating the menu?

WS: Even though Korean food is pretty popular now in the States, it's still not common for people to try kimchi or the other basic staples. So one thing I wanted to push was making some of the traditional ingredients and dishes mainstream, like tofu or bi bim bop, which is like Korea's answer to the burrito bowl. If you like it, great—maybe you'll go to a traditional Korean restaurant and try a full onslaught of ingredients.

WCT: And there was an umami burger that bopNgrill had—but then a legal problem surfaced. Isn't "umami" an everyday word? I could see a problem, maybe, if you had a Beyonce Burger.

WS: [Laughs] Of course—and "umami" is an everyday word. So that lawsuit was a few years back. We're a little dinky restaurant in Chicago, and this larger spot knocked on our door, saying, "You're infringing on our trademark." I asked my attorney and he said, "Don't worry about it." So they sued—and I had to hire an attorney and deal with [legal processes]. When you're a company that large, you can do whatever you want to a little dinky place.

You can't trademark "umami," but you can trademark "umami" and "burger" together. But I wasn't calling my [sandwich] "Umami Burger." My attorney said, "You have a great case, so how much money do you have to litigate this case because they have deep pockets. … I'd advise you to settle. Yeah, you'd probably win—but at what cost?"

[Settling] was the hardest thing. We had to settle and move forward. I didn't know I'd have to deal with lawsuits, taxes, payroll, compliance and other things; I just wanted to cook—but that's just one component. There were so many issues I didn't understand at first. Things can get pretty vicious.

WCT: But if you want to name a burger after us, feel free.

WS: [Laughs] Let's do it—The Windy City Times Burger!


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