The congested crowd of hangry students craving Korean fare will soon reappear in The Commons with the addition of Austin’s Kitchen — a Korean restaurant owned by UB alum Austin Lee — which is set to open on Wednesday.
Korean Express, a restaurant that served customers in The Commons for over 20 years, tried to sell its space for three years, but struggled to find the right buyer. Lee says he remembers visiting Korean Express when it was marked by long lines and a menu that spanned the entire two back walls of the restaurant.
“You see all those holes in the wall?” Lee told The Spectrum during renovations. “Each hole was one menu.”
With a degree from the Culinary Institute of America and seven years of experience cooking in Korean restaurants in Manhattan, Lee says he saw opening his own restaurant as a good opportunity.
“We signed the contract back in early May, but with COVID-19, banks had extra steps to take and nobody knew how to process it [a commercial loan], so it took way longer than expected.”
With the delays behind him, Lee says he aims to bring students the same experience of Korean Express without the inefficiencies of the past.
“You can enter your phone number and you get perks like 10% back,” Lee said. “And when the order is ready, you get a text message so you can just hang out anywhere you want and come to pick up your order.”
Lee even added self-service stations so customers can place their orders with little hassle.
Although Lee is excited to reintroduce Korean cuisine on campus, he says he’s apprehensive about consumer demand given his small staff.
“I have mobile-ordering ready, but I’m not going to open it for now, I want to start slow,” Lee said. “We have only two people in the kitchen and nobody in the front. If too many people come, actually that’s a problem for me.”
Lee also notes, “I don't want to use that freezer as much as other restaurants do.”
To work toward his goal of a more sustainable kitchen and a simplistic menu where fresh ingredients can be easily rotated across offerings, Lee limited the menu to seven items total. This includes five “core dishes,” like tofu soup and kimchi fried rice, as well as two specials. He hopes to change the specials on a weekly basis, but with the price of ingredients “literally doubling,” Lee says he needs time to assess his offerings.
But above all else, Lee says he expects the first day to be “chaotic.”
“I have no data at all so I’m starting everything from the ground [up],” Lee said.
Jack Porcari is a senior news/features editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jack Porcari is a senior news/features editor at The Spectrum. He is a political science major with a minor in journalism. Aside from writing and editing, he enjoys playing piano, flow arts, reptiles and activism.