Emily Krouse remembers the first time she tried bb.q Chicken. How could she possibly forget?
A Korean adoptee, Krouse journeyed from her Twin Cities home to Seoul, South Korea, seven years ago to meet her biological family for the first time. Their first-ever meal together? bb.q Chicken, the fast-growing Korean chicken chain with 3,400 locations in 57 countries.
“It was the first meal I had with my birth mother," Krouse remembers. "I don’t speak any Korean, they don’t speak any English, and yet this one fried-chicken meal was enough to bring a level of connection between my birth family, myself, and my family that raised me.”
Back in the U.S., Krouse had worked for a wide range of local food companies (Parasole Restaurant Holdings, Deli Express, Jimmy’s Food & Cocktails, Rise Baking Co., Blue Plate Restaurant Co.), mostly in HR but sometimes as a server. Having made "a conscious decision to leave [her] corporate life," she invested in Sencha Tea Bar a few years ago, and helped manage the MOA and St. Paul locations.
But she felt pulled toward bb.q, which had expanded to 150+ U.S. locations since launching in 1995. (FYI: The name stands for "best of best quality," not barbecue.)
“I had searched for this incredible food I had with my biological family all over, and could never find that Korean chicken. I ended up on a trip to California, and on a night out with friends, I went to a random Korean fried-chicken place, and it ended up being bb.q," she says. "That immediate first bite brought me back. That moment, I said to myself: I need to bring this brand to Minnesota; as a Korean-American, I feel like I have a community, a cultural responsibility to help form a connection back to my people.”
When Krouse reached out to the company, execs were excited to expand into Minnesota, with one small concern: Bonchon, the Dallas-based Korean-style chicken chain, had recently entered the Twin Cities marketplace with six stores.
Satisfied with Krouse's biz acumen and enthusiasm, bb.q and Krouse inked a multi-store agreement to open three shops in the next three years. (She's forecasting a St. Paul store and a first-ring suburban one, but those plans are preliminary.) First up: 1500 W. Lake St. in Minneapolis—exactly one block from a rival Bonchon.
Krouse enters the local Korean chain chicken fight with supreme confidence in her brand, which has become a pop-culture fixture in K-dramas like Crash Landing On You, One Spring Night, and King Eternal Monarch. The fellas of K-pop sensation BTS apparently love the stuff:
"The biggest difference is Bonchon in Korean-styled chicken," the restaurateur explains. "If you and I were to go to Korea right now, and we were to ask anyone about Bonchon, they would think we were talking about side dishes. They have great product, but bb.q is the Korean fried chicken—it’s crisp, it’s juicy, each piece gets a 16-hour marinade before it hits the fryer.”
Krouse scouted the real estate market for 10 months before arriving at the Uptown address that once housed Andy's Diner. She grew up hanging out in Uptown, and has a soft spot for the neighborhood whose pulse is a constant source of online discourse. "The biggest thing I want the community to know is I'm here to support Uptown, help it rebuild, and give job opportunities to people." Krouse says.
Opening day is just over a week away: December 12. (Take a sneak peek at the menu here; Krouse personally recommends starting with soy garlic from the list of 14 flavors.) She's all staffed up, due in part to career's worth of service-industry connections. Now it's time to introduce Minnesotans to food that helped her form a family connection.
"I picked this brand because it's how I met my birth mother," Krouse says. "But the product itself is truly sensational."