Kien Ha describes himself as a risk-averse entrepreneur. And given that restaurants are notoriously risky start-ups, Ha went with a concept he knows well – shabu-shabu. Shabu-shabu, or Japanese hot pot dining, is a trendsetting phenomenon that has long driven technology transplants from California to expect its healthy, simple, and affordable food on almost every street corner. Ha’s discovery that Washington is the fourth fastest growing state for Japanese-style restaurants convinced him to launch Shabu Chic at the UW’s 2008 Business Plan Competition.
Open Friday through Sunday in Seattle’s International District, Shabu Chic boasts fans who are true devotees talking and sharing photos of the restaurant and the unique food presentation. Yelp gives Shabu Chic a 4.5, and the restaurant got 200+ Facebook “likes” when it posted the possibility of adding a Kimchi sauce in the fall. “Word of mouth has been great,” Ha says. But once a customer is in the door, he relies on wait staff training and social media to share little morsels of Japanese food history along the way.
Still working part-time as an advisory manager for a Seattle accounting firm, Ha is content taking things a bit more slowly than his tech entrepreneur peers. “Most restaurants fail in the first year because they’re under-capitalized. Having no outside funding from the outset has kept us on task and deliberate in all that we do,” he said. His hope is to break even in year two, make a profit in year three, and go full-time with a second location.
Ha sees tech start-ups and restaurant start-ups in the same light. “Whether it’s a tech or food,” he says, “you have to own everything from end to end.” By serving Seattle’s unmet shabu-shabu need, Ha is developing a market for something people in Seattle never knew they’d love. An entrepreneur’s dream.