Cooking up a revolution: How chef Roy Choi developed a cult following

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When Roy Choi was at the lowest point of his life, a friend asked him to “put Korean barbeque in a taco,” he says, an idea that changed his life and the American street food scene forever. Choi took to the streets of Los Angeles, grilling meat and serving up tacos in the first Kogi BBQ food truck — now grown to a fleet — an act that led many to credit him with revolutionizing the food truck movement. A decade and multiple businesses later, Choi is a New York Times bestselling author and award-winning chef — a testament to the hard work that landed him on the 2016 TIME 100 Most Influential People in the World list.

This week on Retail Gets Real, Choi shares his story of reinvention and the journey to fame from L.A., where the hosts met with the chef at NRF’s Shop.org, NRF’s annual ecommerce conference.

Roy Choi (left) joins co-hosts Sarah Rand (right) and Ana Serafin Smith (center) at Shop.org.

Roy Choi (left) joins co-hosts Sarah Rand (right) and Ana Serafin Smith (center) at Shop.org.

Growing up with immigrant parents in L.A., Choi knew well the fruits of hard labor. For a decade, he painstakingly studied the culinary arts and worked his way up the ladder, culminating in his becoming an executive chef at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, a job he found less than what he expected. “I was really proud of myself,” he says, but “I hated my job.” He changed to restaurants and promptly “got fired.” Feeling defeated, Choi took to his friend’s idea without thinking twice.

Choi’s businesses were built on low prices, though costs have tripled over time. His fan base is sticking around, but “I can’t just shoot our prices up,” he says; he’s currently in a reinventing phase to figure out where to go from here. “Another part of being an entrepreneur is [that] you have to constantly reinvent things, even if you reinvented it yesterday,” Choi says. “Because today, the whole marketplace might be different than yesterday.”

Listen to the episode for more insights on how Choi earned his loyal followers. Subscribe to Retail Gets Real and stay tuned for more great interviews from Shop.org. For more information about the show, view the official recap.

Sarah Rand is one of NRF’s co-hosts on Retail Gets Real. Meet all the co-hosts and learn more about the show.