Ben and Jon Lee were improbable restaurant owners in 2011. Aged 25 and 23, respectively, the brothers had no restaurant or culinary experience, no loans and no investors. They didn’t understand food costs. They didn’t have a marketing budget. They didn’t know anything about bookkeeping, or how to find a good accountant. They had just left military service. And so they opened a burger restaurant — in a neighborhood, Irving’s Valley Ranch, with a large population of Indian-Americans who don’t eat red meat.
As Jon Lee says now, “We had no business being in the business.”
And yet LA Burger broke even within its first six months, and, with its Korean fusion hamburgers and hot dogs, has been a suburban success story ever since. There are locations in Irving, Richardson and two in Carrollton, the newest of which opened in summer 2016. It’s a remarkable example of lessons learned on the job, support from Dallas’ Korean-American community and a knack for terrific burgers.
The idea came about when the brothers were serving in the military: Ben Lee was stationed in Abilene, where, he remembers, “The only thing we really had to eat was the Chinese buffet.” On leave, he regularly drove to Dallas just to eat. Jon, stationed elsewhere, was taking his mates off base to the nearest Korean restaurant, eager to introduce everyone to the cooking he grew up with. “It made me proud,” he explains.
That desire to introduce a new audience to Korean food is the founding idea of LA Burger.
Ben explains: “It wasn’t a marketing ploy for us to say, all right, let’s put kimchi on our burgers, let’s put wasabi on our burgers. We didn’t grow up privileged, we grew up in Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots, and when you think about our parents coming from another country, having a language barrier — in the blink of an eye the riots took everything away. In the fridge we had kimchi, canned Spam, and we kind of had to play Iron Chef every day. What do we have? Because our parents didn’t buy American ingredients.”
They used that resourcefulness to build their menu, on which kimchi (the famous spicy fermented cabbage) and bulgogi (thin-sliced marinated beef) are regular burger toppings, fried eggs are plentiful and kimchi fries are a must-order. And although the Korean community in Dallas has embraced LA Burger, the Lee brothers take special pride in introducing Korean food to newcomers.
Jon Lee says, “One thing I like about being in this business is the diversity of the clientele. I come in at lunchtime and I see a good mix of people. It reminds me of my hometown, and they’re all enjoying not only the Korean fusion part of our menu but everything else too.”
And they’re aware that this sort of introduction helps other Korean restaurants and food stores, too. As Ben puts it, “What was once too intimidating for them, now they’re going in with confidence: Now I tried bulgogi, now I tried kimchi.”
But LA Burger isn’t just self-consciously a declaration of Korean-American pride. It’s also a model for a young generation of Asian-American entrepreneurs. The Lee brothers are active in the Korean American Professional Network, which organizes seminars, presentations and networking events for young leaders.
Ben Lee talks about the importance of that work: “A lot of Asian people at a young age are told that they can only be doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects, so they are kind of shied away from going that entrepreneurial route, because typically that’s where parents are from – dry cleaners, doughnut shops. They don’t want their kids to go that route. So we are kind of opening up that path for newer generations.”
Look for even more to come from LA Burger. The chain will be expanding, cautiously. Jon Lee says, “To this point I can’t say that we were strategic in our growth; we just went with what was available. With our next location we want to strategize about how we can move into a prime location and succeed.” That might even mean a food truck.
LA Burger’s growth across the suburbs, to Richardson and Carrollton, lays the groundwork for an eventual move into Dallas, all while the chain builds its reputation (they still don’t have a PR team) and perfects its menu.
“We know that Dallas consumers can be unforgiving, and they demand a lot,” Ben Lee explains, “which is why there are so many great restaurants and such high turnover.”
But, as disappointing as that slow growth model might be to LA Burger fans who live in Oak Cliff, it’s worth remembering just how far the chain has come already. The Lee brothers have learned everything about restaurant ownership on the fly, and they’re still driven to get even better. LA Burger and its scrumptious fusion food may conquer Dallas yet.
Bonus: the Lee brothers’ favorite Korean restaurants and burgers in Dallas
“I like Koryo [Kalbi],” Jon says. “That’s one of my go-to Korean places. For bar food, I like this new place next to Omi, it’s called Ddong Ggo — I would say more bar food than actual food.”
The brothers’ favorite fried chicken place — and not coincidentally the Observer’s — is Rice Chicken.
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Ben Lee adds Maki Boy. “It’s owned by Koreans, but it’s Japanese fusion. It’s the best bang for the buck. Their unagi don [rice bowl with eel] is really good.” And he suggests Dal Dong Nae, a traditional late-night spot which is the Observer's Best Korean Restaurant 2016.
As for burgers, Jon says, “We’ve definitely slowed down our burger hunt, but when we opened there was a time when we went burger hunting, tried at least a burger a month.” Ben adds: “That was our R&D.”
They still occasionally take the LA Burger staff out for a rival’s burgers; they recently treated 15 employees to Liberty Burger.
Jon adds: “If I want just like a basic standard greasy burger, very old fashioned, I’d want to go to Maple & Motor. A little more upscale, I’d go to Whiskey Cake and get their OMG Burger.”