Three friends sit in Titan Student Union, occasionally taking advantage of the free pingpong table as a way to avoid studying for finals, unaware that their years after graduation would intertwine them, not just as friends, but as business partners.
Jason Kang, Johnny Lee and Sean Butler all graduated from CSUF. In 2013 Kang opened Seoulmate, a Korean-Mexican fusion restaurant in Long Beach.
Following a successful two years in Long Beach, Kang asked Butler if he would be willing to co-own a second location. Butler, an Enterprise Rent-A-Car manager at the time, quit his job and joined Kang. Lee has served as a marketing consultant at both locations. They hope to open the restaurant in downtown Fullerton in mid-November of this year.
Kang, Butler and Lee were part of a campus club called InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, which made them more aware of how they could help others.
“That foundation of being in that time and in that club was huge for setting us on a trajectory of, ‘Even if we open a business, why are we doing it?’” Kang said. “It’s not for the money.”
Kang graduated from CSUF in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in radio-TV-film. He was inspired by Tim Maloney, his RTVF professor, who taught him to see the practical side of every artistic dream.
“He was all about the numbers, making sure that yeah, you have this amazing vision, but how are you going to actually make it?” Kang said.
Kang saw a business opportunity when he noticed that Long Beach only had one Korean restaurant open at the time. When Seoulmate opened, it became the second. Although not a full Korean restaurant, Seoulmate offers Korean-inspired dishes and infused flavors. The hybrid is something that their patrons have responded to positively.
“For the number of stars we have ratio-wise (on Yelp), we are one of the top in terms of five-star reviews,” Lee said.
Their rare take on cuisine matches their approach to owning a restaurant. Kang’s vision is based on practical morals and integrity.
Having worked as a waiter in a sushi restaurant, he was aware of the mistreatment of employees, particularly behind closed doors. He witnessed one cook at a previous job who would work 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day without a break, and was being paid below minimum wage.
“This story is so common in the restaurant business whether you go to big chains or small mom-and-pops; it’s everywhere … it’s too common,” Kang said.
Kang and Butler attempt to challenge restaurant stereotypes in Seoulmate by training their employees in all aspects of the store.
“We have more of a teammate culture. Whether you are the owner or the manager, there are no assigned roles, so everyone does everything,” Kang said. “For us, it works because there is no specific dishwasher, no specific chef; everybody does everything, so it creates a very equal playing field.”
Butler supported Kang’s decision to turn down big investors because he feared they were going to want to cut employee pay and do everything on a massive scale.
“I trust his vision and his integrity and see how he treats his employees and the people around him, and that’s why I felt like this could work,” Butler said.
Seoulmate offers fast, casual dining as well as a place for people to sit down and hang out. Everything is made fresh to order.
“If you’re going to go out to a bar, you have to do a lot. You might have to dress up, you might have to wait in line, you know you are going to have to spend a good amount of money on drinks and things like that,” Lee said. “There’s a time and place for that, and there’s also a time and place to just hang out. We wanted to create a place where we could just hang out and just chill, talk and eat.”
In addition to a laid-back atmosphere, the owners are committed to providing good food. Kang and Butler said the decision to fuse Korean and Mexican food was simple.
“We love a good burrito,” Butler said.