Bringing Korean Flavor to an All-American Menu
By Jane Han
Korea Times Correspondent
NEW YORK - Imagine a thick, decadent and gooey Philly cheesesteak sandwich. Thinking of the all-American favorite, it may be surprising that the owner of the largest Philly cheesesteak chain in the U.S. is actually Korean.
His name is Charley Shin, a man who knew that a business centered around the cheesy sandwich would strike it big.
"I always thought it reminded me of 'bulgogi' (grilled marinated beef) with the meat placed in between a bread roll and melted provolone cheese instead of rice," Shin, founder and CEO of Charley's Grilled Subs, said in a Korea Times interview.
After 24 years in business, the company now has more than 400 franchises worldwide. But how it all started was by "accident," Shin says.
As a teenager, Shin and his family were on their way to New York for a family vacation, but a wrong turn led them to Philadelphia instead. And there, Shin tried his first Philly cheesesteak sandwich.
"We took a wrong exit, but found the right place to eat," he said. "The experience was exceptional and the taste very memorable - so much so that years later I acted on it."
At age 22, Shin opened his first Charley's Grilled Subs across from the campus of Ohio State University, where he was a student.
Starting his business, he had a lot at stake - his mother's entire life savings.
"During my junior year at school, an incident occurred where my mother was injured and she looked to me to open a business to generate income for our family," Shin said. "It was then that I recalled my Philly cheesesteak experience and thought deeply about opening a restaurant that specialized in it."
Watching his mother run a restaurant business, Shin knew the basics. So after making several trips back to Philadelphia to study the processes and testing the final product with family and friends, he was ready to start.
"From day one, the lines were out the door," Shin said.
Just two years later, he opened the second Charley's and a third soon afterwards. By 1991, Shin began franchising the chain. Charley's shops are now in 16 countries, including Korea.
"It was never part of any plan to grow globally," he said. "It just happened naturally."
With the business continuing to expand, Shin said that he has recently been focusing on combining Korean flavors and ingredients with the sandwiches.
"A recent menu we launched proved to be a huge success," he said. "It's exciting to see the embrace of such complex flavors."
Shin mentioned that the exposure of Korean food in the U.S. may not be as much as Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese food, but expressed confidence that it would become more popular one day.
"My instinct tells me that Korean food will surpass other ethnic foods because of the way all the complexities of the flavor come together in harmony," he said.
"It seems to already be happening and the migration of the Korean flavors are beginning to make their way to the U.S. market," said Shin, "and not just through Korean restaurants."