As an occupational therapy practitioner, Joohae “Chewy” Yoon’s home visits to care for patients isolated in rural Missouri inspired her to develop the Korean-American fast food concept GOCHEW Burger & Sandwich.
Her full-time job involves traveling to meet patients in Kansas City and Independence, as well as such cities as Odessa, Higginsville, and Warrensburg. Curious patients often ask Yoon, who emigrated from Seoul, South Korea, about her cultural background. They frequently inquire about where they can get Korean food, she said.
GOCHEW now operates from a shared kitchen space at the Ennovation Center in Independence, Missouri — taking online pre-orders and serving guests through delivery and a few popups in its early phase.
Click here to learn more about ordering GOCHEW Burger & Sandwich
While several Korean restaurants operate in Kansas City, Missouri, and Overland Park, Kansas, many of Yoon’s patients live miles away in outlying towns and cities. Driving a long distance to experience Korean food isn’t practical for many people, Yoon said.
“People in rural Missouri do not have a chance to experience the wonderful flavors of Korea — the heat, sweet, and savory — three elements that create a flavorful fuel,” she said.
Yoon envisioned GOCHEW as a food delivery service to serve urban and rural customers. GOCHEW is a play on the Korean word gochu which means pepper, a key ingredient featured in Yoon’s cooking. Rather than traditional dishes, she decided to use burgers and sandwiches as a vehicle to feature Korean-based sauces and flavors.
“I don’t know any American friends who do not like a good burger or a sandwich,” Yoon said. “Most importantly, it is a surprisingly good combination when you add Korean flavors inside soft bread and burger buns. It soaks up the juiciness of Korean flavors.”
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The fledgling business recently won a “Shark Tank” style competition hosted in November at an Independence Chamber of Commerce luncheon. Yoon’s presentation and food samples impressed the judges and chamber members. Her ambitious plans continue to roll forward.
Click here to follow GOCHEW’s journey on Instagram.
Yoon eventually plans to shift from the Ennovation Center to a mobile operation, where she can operate three food trailers in a rotation of 10 cities across rural Missouri within the next three years.
GOCHEW plans a soft opening launch in April 2023 with its first food truck initially serving Independence.
“I love Midwestern people. They have fed me so well for the last 10 years,” Yoon said. “It is my turn to return the ‘flavor.’”
“In the rural Midwest, people wave at you and smile at you even though they don’t know you,” she continued. “They hold the door for you, and they take their time to get to know you. This does not happen in Seoul. I cannot wait to serve these people and make them happy.”
But her appetite for expansion doesn’t end there — with Yoon eventually hoping to scale beyond the region, she said.
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From South Korea to the US
Yoon’s business plan to introduce Korean food to an eager audience is launching now, but actually began much earlier in life, she detailed.
At 13, Yoon worked steadily to achieve her dream of becoming an exchange student in the United States. She labored at multiple part-time jobs to save money, practiced speaking English, and earned acceptance to the University of Seoul.
By 19, Yoon emigrated to the U.S. in 2012 and enrolled as a University of Central Missouri (UCM) exchange student. Overcoming challenges and achieving goals is instinctive for Yoon.
“I’ve never regretted anything I’ve done that is hard to do,” she said. “The harder it is, the happier you are after you accomplish it.”
Yoon founded a Korean Language Club at UCM in response to interest in Korean culture from classmates and locals. She cooked native dishes for friends and mastered adapting Korean food for American palates.
“When I examine people’s faces when they eat, I immediately know what to tweak,” Yoon said. “I truly enjoyed it when their faces lit up as they tried my Americanized Korean food.”
A decade later and now working in health care, Yoon met patients who were interested in Korean cuisine, but unable to find a nearby local source.
“There isn’t good Korean food in rural Missouri. That’s when I felt the need to do something to fix it,” Yoon says.
GOCHEW’s business plan, menu evolves from UMKC
Navigating the startup world is nothing new for Yoon. She was part of the University of Missouri System’s Entrepreneurial Scholars and Interns Program (ESIP), and part of the competition as a presenting member of UMKC Enactus. She was awarded a full scholarship from ESIP to take entrepreneurship classes in 2015 at UMKC’s Bloch School of Management.
Yoon also completed numerous internships with startup companies in Kansas City and San Francisco.
“I think this experience helped me move forward with GOCHEW,” she said. “I am so grateful for the abundant resources that Kansas City offers for entrepreneurs.”
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Creating a menu familiar to Americans was a calculated decision. Yoon sought to keep the barrier of acceptance low, she said.
“I want my target audience to be Americans who have never tried Korean food before, and may not be super interested,” Yoon said. “People who don’t know what they are missing out on. We know that once you try it, there is no way you won’t seek it again. The right amount of sweet, savory, and heat in GOCHEW’s food creates a uniquely flavorful fuel. It will keep you energized so you can do what you love to do.”
A “carefully engineered” Korean barbecue sauce made with soy sauce, fresh garlic, fresh onions, green onions, and apple with creamy mayonnaise adorns the GOCHEW burger.
The third-pound smashburger comes with signature messy fries laden with sauce.
Spicy Bull Pork sandwich is served on a bed of cabbage in a subway bun with fries.
Other dishes include sweet K-rumble beef and Korean fried chicken nuggets. Protein dishes may also be ordered as a mashed potato bowl or salad bowl. Sauces range from mild GOCHEW to moderate Kicken Mayo to Heckin’ Spicy. More menu items are in development.
From Midwest tastes to national palates
Within eight years, Yoon aspires to expand her food trailer model to other rural cities in Missouri and the Midwest. By Year 15, Yoon seeks to make GOCHEW a national brand, she said.
“I dream big and I have a marathon to run here. I want to create a hub for all my future GOCHEW food-truckers, and create a structure that works,” Yoon said.
GOCHEW currently seeks funds to build an accessibility ramp for its first food trailer and customize it to be fully accessible for employees, including those who are differently-abled, she detailed.
Elisabeth Koch, occupational therapist and program director at Metropolitan Community College of Kansas City, is working with Yoon to write a grant proposal to fund a fully-accessible trailer. Approved grant funds would cover vocational training for employees using wheeled mobility.
Yoon is also developing a partnership with The Whole Person, a nonprofit that provides services to people with disabilities and their families, she said.
“Since my background is in occupational therapy, I would love to give employment opportunities to people who are differently abled,” Yoon said.
For Yoon, Korean-American food serves as a medium to build bridges and foster understanding for those impacted by ableist prejudices and cultural divides.
“By providing something new and fun to my future families and friends in the Midwest, I want to open them up to the world,” Yoon says. “I hope GOCHEW breaks racism. I hope my brand grows up to be an eye-opener for people, and tellS them a story. We all love good food. We’re the same people. Something new is not scary. Something new is fun.”
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.