When William Lee and his wife Karina decided to leave their tech careers to take over Bart Grocery and BBQ, a small Korean restaurant and convenience store in Daly City, they didn’t want to modernize the place or make it more upscale. They didn’t want to “disrupt” anything, and didn’t follow any of the typical narratives you see when tech people go into the food business.
Mostly, they just wanted to keep Bart Grocery the same — the same low prices, the same heaping plates of grilled short ribs and other home-style Korean barbecue dishes. “My goal and intent wasn’t to be this cool and trendy bodega,” Lee says. “I’m just trying to keep the recipes together and normalize how good Korean food has always been.”
Keeping things “the same” hasn’t exactly been easy, though — not after the coronavirus crisis threw the restaurant into disarray just a couple of weeks after the Lees purchased it. Even as business has picked up over the past few months, Lee says it’s still bringing in less than half the revenue that it did under its previous ownership, during pre-pandemic times.
Still, the restaurant has persevered: Inside a glorified liquor store on a residential block just a short walk away from the Daly City BART station, it’s still selling kalbi plates big enough to feed two hungry eaters for $17.95. It’s still serving up home-style Korean food to feed the predominantly Filipino and Latino neighborhood, as the restaurant has done for the past 12 years.
Lee explains that he and his wife, both 29, came to buy Bart Grocery because of a family connection: His parents were friends with the older Korean couple, also with the surname Lee, who opened the little bodega in 2009 with the idea of cooking homestyle Korean food inside — a place where you could pick up a six-pack, some basic groceries, and a plate of kimchi fried rice all in the same space. It was always meant to be a neighborhood spot, Lee says: There aren’t really any other grocery stores within a two-mile radius, and no bus routes pass through the neighborhood, so most of the core customer base consists of older Filipino and Latino folks who live within walking distance. “We get a lot of grandmas and grandpas coming in,” Lee says.
That’s the restaurant that the younger Lees fell in love with when they first visited — and the one, ultimately, that they wanted to preserve. In particular, they felt inspired by the homey style of Korean barbecue that the restaurant served, which, for Lee, was so reminiscent of the Korean food he grew up eating.
“Our purpose was to keep [the previous owners’] legacy alive even though they had retired,” Lee says. “We wanted to keep that legacy as a younger generation.”
The restaurant purchase included all of the previous owners’ recipes, and to keep the restaurant’s homey vibe, Karina Lee took on many of the cooking duties herself. Lee also convinced his mother, Woo Won Lee, to retire from her 20-year-plus career at the Korea Times newspaper to help run the Bart Grocery kitchen, working long days that start at 7 a.m. each morning and adding her own touches to many of the recipes — the idea being to create dishes that “tasted like home,” she says. “The short ribs and the chicken will taste like something your mom or grandma made you when you were little.”
Lee says that while he appreciates the way prominent chefs like David Chang have boosted Korean food’s mainstream recognition in the U.S., the idea of high-end restaurants capitalizing on the cuisine’s popularity makes him uncomfortable. “Some places in [San Francisco], they’re charging $26 for a little mason jar of kimchi,” he says. “That’s the part that makes me a little mad.”
The Lees’ goal, then, is to keep the food affordable and accessible — to fight against the idea that a Korean barbecue meal needs to be this high-end splurge. At a time when you’d be hard-pressed to find a kalbi plate for less than $30 in SF, Bart Grocery still sells its exceptionally generously portioned version for just $17.95. They, too, sell mason jars of kimchi that Lee’s mother makes in-house — but Bart Grocery’s is priced at just $6 a jar. With so many people in precarious financial circumstances due to the pandemic, it’s still the kind of neighborhood bodega where you can buy a filling meal for less than $10.
Ultimately, Lee says, his family’s goal with the restaurant is just to help preserve traditional foodways that he believes are getting lost with the younger generation: “I want people to experience the food that my mom and my wife are cooking. I want them to taste what I tasted when I was younger.”