Seoul Spice brings on the bodega: an interview with Conor O’Reilly
By Robert Craig Baum
“The winds, the storm, hit all of us but we can choose how we want to set the sail.”
Skip Prichard, The Book of Mistakes
When COVID-19 hit the DMV, many restaurants laid off workers or closed altogether. Others maintained skeleton crews while management threw on kitchen aprons and prepared takeout. Seoul Spice’s Conor O’Reilly, director of operations for all three locations — Tenleytown, NoMA, and College Park — had a different plan. I sat down with O’Reilly to talk about how he has been able to pivot his business and survive.
RCB: When did you know that operations at your three locations would need to make immediate and perhaps drastic changes to survive the pandemic?
CO: Eric Shin [founder and CEO], Danielle Wilt [vice president] and I met in late February, before the shutdown, to discuss how we could immediately take care of our families and to define what we all needed as a corporate team, as a business [and] as part of the community. I also needed to take care of my seventy-one-year-old father. While shopping, I immediately noticed the shortage. I can’t find peanut butter, toilet paper, frozen vegetables …
RCB: That was me. I bought like thirty dollars’ worth of peanut butter, so I may owe you an apology!
CO: No. [laughs] It’s all good. But immediately, I wondered to myself and in meetings, how will this shortage impact our customers and staff?
RCB: You saw a need, an opportunity — a path, of sorts.
CO: Yes. We said to ourselves and our staff [that] we can do something that will help our customers that will probably change our services for the better. We won’t be the same operation in six months.
RCB: Not just reacting to the problem, but re-shaping how you do business …
CO: We didn’t want to fail the workers or each other. You see, if we made the wrong move, we could’ve simultaneously hurt the staff, and the customers and the community.
RCB: When I read that you were turning Korean barbecue restaurant into bodegas for pantry items and groceries, my reaction was nothing less than shock; I’m sorry, a Koreatown-inspired bodega at ALL locations?
CO: Yes. You see, after we decided to start the bodega in Tenleytown, the word got out immediately that we were not only open, but we were going to provide groceries and essentials for the immediate community.
RCB: How long did that take to plan?
CO: Maybe a day or two.
RCB: So now you’re a restaurant that transformed its empty dining room into a corner store. That’s mental!
CO: Right? We wanted to keep our people working, moving, doing things. We sold the items for cost. It wasn’t about profiting; it was about reaching a demand for the local community, gain[ing] some PR for the future — because we saw a future.
RCB: This is the whole story, Conor. In the pandemic, you became more of what you already were. You changed but stayed true to your mission.
CO: Eric and the leadership team, with the staff and customers, saw this as the best answer to the pandemic. We wanted to project a proactive, immediate way to survive and thrive in the pandemic.
RCB: What’s Eric like?
CO: He’s an innovator. He listens to his management, staff and customers. He can see the whole picture, not just the bottom line. He is macro and micro and can shift his focus without taking away attention from the problem at hand. He worked hard with us to redefine Seoul Spice as a community service and small business that addresses both UMD [University of Maryland] students and the local year-round customers like you. We were too student-focused when we launched.
RCB: Did you experience any supply chain problems?
CO: Nothing. Our supply line never shut down. Except corn, for some reason. We carried a different brand; not a shortage.
RCB: So, you had to change your corn provider? Not beef? Chicken? Tofu? Your famous Korean egg?
CO: Of all that could’ve gone wrong, we only had to modify corn. That’s not bad.
RCB: To succeed, you already had to be ready for this.
CO: We used our experience in everything we’ve been doing already to create this new model. Owners and managers delivered food, too. It wasn’t just the company, but the community and culture at Seoul Spice that came together to determine our response. We worked too hard across the DMV to be taken down by this pandemic.
RCB: What was your staff retention?
CO: Ninety percent.
RCB: No …
CO: Yes, Robert. Eric gave employees bonuses once a month. Higher level received a quarterly bonus. Eric adjusted contractual percentages so they were attainable during [the pandemic]. Otherwise, they would’ve taken a period hit. They didn’t.
RCB: When the College Park listserv mentioned your new bodega, I felt relief knowing you and the staff were still up and running.
CO: Others felt that way, too. Business colleagues and customers, too. We were even approached by other local businesses and individuals who wanted to sell products in our stores. Stanton & Greene drink mixers. Local greeting cards. Local artisan chocolates.
RCB: You communicated a message clearly to all: How can we support you during this crisis?
CO: We initially reached the businesses and individuals through the D.C. mayor’s office. Many were also customers. Like the greeting card company who custom made a new line just for us
RCB: Get well soon. Happy Birthday. It’s a pandemic, Charlie Brown.
CO: They covered everything.
RCB: What happened to your pivot model when the supply chain normalized?
CO: In July, we shut down the bodega model. College Park Seoul Spice is now doing the best of all locations. Because Metro ridership is down, AU [the Tenleytown location] is down. So we applied for parking permits to launch a drive-thru operation, in addition to providing curbside and delivery [and lower capacity inside dining]. We added to our services as we learned what our community and staff needed in the summer of 2020. It went against established thinking to go on offense. And take risks.
RCB: You have created a culture of opportunity for anyone and everyone willing to address problems head on. What’s next?
CO: If we’re going to support our workers, we have to innovate and grow and do what we do well [even] better. We’re expanding in 2021 and 2022. I’m going to hold myself and Eric to account for growth, as individuals and as a business. Every day we’re here, pitching growth and high standards. We tell our staff [that] what you learn here you carry with you for life. Covid cannot take value away from what we do.
RCB: If there’s one thing we can count on humanity to do is normalize.
CO: How we address this new normal is a different story. As we continue to move forward, the public has become more aware of what we do and plan to do, and all we offered them during the worst months of the pandemic.
Robert Craig Baum is a writer who lives in College Park with his wife and four boys. He is the author of Thoughtrave: An Interdimensional Conversation with Lady Gaga and the forthcoming memoir 1483 about a haunted house on Long Island and an even more haunted mother-son relationship.