Restaurant gone rogue
The Harvest breaks business manual rules with style
By Kwaak Je-yup
Management courses say never do business with family or friends, especially in equal partnerships. We read in books that there needs to be a single go-to guy for decisions.
When it comes to running a restaurant, we are told that traffic — foot or car — is key. Service should ideally achieve the right balance between attentiveness, promptness and discretion.
Specifically in Korea, one is advised against opening a joint that serves local fare, as they tend to fall into the lower price range and still require a lot more hands than Western counterparts.
But since last December, modern North Korean restaurant The Harvest has successfully gained a considerable client base while breaking virtually all rules.
It has four owners in equal partnerships, two blood-related and the other two “like real brothers.” With three hired servers, management outnumbers the employees.
It is located in a quiet cul-de-sac in Gye-dong, downtown Seoul, practically invisible from the only road it is connected to, which is a one-way street. “Are you bringing a car?” one of them would ask you if you called for a reservation. And they would also add: “We have no parking.”
What appalls some first-time visitors most is the chatty owners/servers, who keep instructing customers about how each dish should be enjoyed and which wine makes for the right pairing.
So why do people come back for more?
“I want to ask them the same question,” said Lee Seung-heon, co-owner and the younger of two brothers, laughing. But it was no joke.
He has asked his customers and received four answers: the design, the food, the price range and, surprisingly enough, the conversation with the owners and staff.
All doubts about the hard-to-find location proved to be right, initially. The first day of business seated a single table, the second a few more and the third none. Lee’s elder brother Seung-jun fell ill, mostly from stress. The Harvest’s uncanny formula has won fans, however, especially among the tourists and artists that frequent this area.
The building’s eye-catching black and white exterior is a winner. Its large open terrace with a little garden on the side is a welcome anomaly in this area of old houses with high walls. As if to confirm that point, during the interview, a mother and a daughter strolled onto the terrace. While the former read through the menu, the latter was running around the garden like it was a playground.
As a restaurant, The Harvest’s main attraction is still the excellent modern North Korean cuisine, inspired by the pool of traditional recipes from Hwanghae Province that the brothers’ mother and grandmother have fine-tuned.
But the often subtly-spiced fare, unlike pepper-heavy southern counterparts, means it needs explicit explanation — especially if they want to justify the price of 25,000 won ($22) or more per dish. Listening to the background stories, some are informative while others sounded whimsical.
“We talk to our customers about our welcome mandu, for example, and some of them listen to us pretty carefully,” Seung-heon said, referring to the steamed dumplings served at the beginning of every set menu, like a welcome gift. “We could see that their pre-conceptions (about Korean food) were changing, too.”
Without the cheerful chaps walking around presenting each dish with care and passion less people would be convinced to return. They are proud of the food they serve and the conversations are strictly food business.
“We don’t even serve soju because we don’t want to degrade our food to a side dish.”
And the four 30-something men, the Lee brothers and Lim Dae-il and Bae Young-min, are genuinely interested in the feedback, given they have little to no previous experience in the field. (Only the elder brother Seung-jun previously helped his mother run another restaurant in Eungam-dong, northwestern Seoul).
“At first we didn’t know how to do the proper table setting ... which dish goes where,” said Seung-heon. They speak every night, he added, about each day’s business and future directions, but not necessarily in order to maximize profit.
“We’ve had an earful about how we would go out of business in no time... But ultimately our goal is not a restaurant but creating a culture. We’re not just selling food here.”
On Sundays, the restaurant is closed, but they often hold impromptu flea markets or barbecues. Sometimes they even bring a large tent and camp out. With the four’s nightly discussions, who knows what next Sunday holds?
“If we do it the old-fashioned way of business, the boring 9-to-5 way that the older generation did it, it would drive us crazy.”