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(Yonhap Feature) Students' gift throws lifeline to specialty burger shop

All News 09:00 January 18, 2016

By Oh Seok-min

SEOUL, Jan. 18 (Yonhap) -- The delectable smell of stir-frying minced meat and vegetables fills the air of a small, cozy burger shop in front of Korea University run by "Uncle Lee Young-chul," effectively driving out the strong odors of the newly renovated space.

"I never imagined finding myself standing in front of this iron fry top again this soon when I shut my business down last summer," Lee said.

With his shop reopened two weeks earlier, Lee was all smiles as he was busy making pork patties for his signature "Street Burger."

Despite a near six-year hiatus, Lee, 48, never forgot his secret recipe for what was, by far, the most beloved burger among students, which he began selling in 2000 in a street cart near the school in Seoul.

The 1,000 won (US$0.83) burger, which had generous pork and vegetable fillings in a hot dog bun, instantly attracted young students in droves. A free drink and his warm pep talks became the icing on the cake. Students formed a long line around his cart, devouring more than 1,000 burgers every day.

"Whether you've tasted the Youngchul Burger or not was one of the key criteria among us to judge if he or she really attends Korea University," reminisced Kim Jong-hyun, a 35-year-old office worker who graduated from the school's economics department. "Uncle Lee and his burger were just part of our school, ourselves."

Kim Hyong-jin, another Korea University graduate, recalled that it was "just a perfect slap-up meal."

"His burger defied all comparison, as it was completely different from Burger King or McDonald's. Just one bite made me feel like I was having what my mom made for me, and Young-chul was our blood brother," he said with excitement.

After all, the burger itself is unique. It is a Korean-style mix of the American hot dog and hamburger, with cabbage and Korean chili peppers.

The rising popularity helped the street vendor make the jump to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, then to a decent shop nearby. In seven years, Lee, who failed to finish primary school due to his poor economic background, became the owner of a franchise with around 80 branches across the nation.

In the face of rising costs for ingredients amid intense competition in the dining industry, however, Lee was forced to change his course and adopted a new strategy: serving "haute cuisine," which of course came with a big price tag.

"I lost at least 200 won when selling each burger due to rising prices, but I could not raise the price for the burger out of concerns that students may feel burdensome," Lee sighed.

While taking the signature 1,000-won burger out of the menu, he then came up with many different types of burgers using high-end ingredients, such as steak meat and gourmet cheese. The "black chicken steak burger" went for 7,000 won for a meal.

"After around a decade since launching my business, I needed to change not only to stay afloat, but to be an artisan in this field for decades to come. I was eager to bring my business a notch higher," he said.

But things took a turn for the worse.

His novel strategy consequently drove away students on a tight budget, and his two major branches in downtown Seoul had suffered severe setbacks, threatening his whole business.

While raking in losses for years, he never skipped his yearly ritual: giving scholarships to students at Korea University, one of the most prestigious schools in South Korea.

Between 2004 and 2008, he donated more than 20 million won per year to help students in need. Of the total 51 recipients, a majority have landed decent jobs, with some passing the state-run bar exam and others making it to envious conglomerates.

"I think I am supposed to give back the love I received from students as I made money thanks wholly to them," Lee said. "Some of my friends warned me that such a 'cronyism-based' way of management would cause me to go bust. But I felt like I was thrown into an abyss of despair when I had to stop giving the scholarships in 2009," Lee said.

Saddled with snowballing debt, he finally closed his shop in July last year.

But those very friendships brought him back. Not only students, but graduates, professors and even residents in the neighborhood rolled up their sleeves to help get him back on his feet.

The student union of the political science and economics college at Korea University, in particular, took the lead and launched a fund-raising project.

"We and Uncle Lee have forged a strong bond of friendship over the past 15 years, and we could not sit on our hands and watch him just become a thing of the past," said union chief Sul Dong-hyun. "Now is our turn to repay what we've got from him."

Under the project named "Begin again, Youngchul Burger," the collegians set the goal of raising 8 million won through crowdfunding, a way of raising capital from a large number of individuals mostly via online platforms.

After the goal was reached overnight, the union raised it to 20 million won. In about one month, the project drew in a whopping 68.12 million won from 2,579 people.

"I felt a great sense of loss upon learning that one of the precious memories I shared with my wife would disappear," said 32-year-old graduate Kim Soo-yang, who married his younger colleague. "Albeit too small, I am happy to join my friends in helping Lee's successful comeback."

Expressing his apology for drinking too much of the free soda back in the day, another participant named Shin Young-sup said, "I will bring my kids to his shop and have them taste the burger which carries many beautiful stories of my young days. I hope and believe that his burger will last long as a soul food for students."

On top of the financial aid, Lee received free consulting from a team of experts led by graduates on how to run a business in a lucrative fashion.

"After rounds of meetings with professionals, I've decided to revive my signature street burger rather than focusing on expensive ones," Lee said. This time, he set the price at 2,500 won.

He was also advised to put only two menu options, rather than seven or more, as too much diversity in the menu means difficulties in managing inventories.

Though he was unable to return to the place where he had been nestled since 2005, he opened the new shop early this month on the second floor of a building right in front of the previous one. One wall is plastered with encouraging messages from his long-time buddies at Korea University.

"After going through these growing pains, the 16-year-old Youngchul Burger will be born again as a strong, trusty entity, while I hold on to my first resolution to be a proud burger maker," Lee said.

"Now, I am excited, above all, to think of granting scholarships to students again."


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