When Angela Hong and Nick Crofoot started dating, they made and ate a lot of Korean food. Although they searched for freshly made gochujang (Korean chile paste) to pair with their meals, they couldn’t find it anywhere in the Kansas City area – so they decided to make it themselves.
The recipe came from Hong’s mother, who emigrated from Korea to Kansas City with her daughter when Hong was two years old, and after some time, the couple – who are now married with two kids – adapted the recipe so that their gluten-sensitive daughter could enjoy it too. Finally, with Mom’s approval, they began bottling and selling two types of gochujang sauce (Original Sesame and Sweet & Tangy), along with a bulgogi marinade and dipping sauce, under the brand name Born with Seoul.
How did you learn to cook? I grew up watching my mom cook – she made everything herself. She was a farmer in Korea and has six kids, so she learned to cook for a crowd. When my husband and I started having our own dinner parties, Korean barbecue became a popular dinner request from our mostly American friends, who also frequently asked for sauce and recipe recommendations.
How did you turn a family recipe into a successful business? With my mom’s help, we took our gochujang paste and made it into a finishing sauce, which is typically an extra step that home cooks have to learn to do. A ready-made gochujang sauce was not something you could find on grocery store shelves at the time, and we knew we wanted to target busy American home cooks, so we simplified things as much as possible. Even my family on the West Coast told my husband and me that a gochujang sauce, ready-made and gluten-free, was needed.
Today, what products does Born with Seoul offer? We started with two gochujang sauces to be more visible on grocery store shelves: our Original Sesame and our Sweet & Tangy. Both are gluten-free, and both have done very well for us. We also make a delicious bulgogi marinade and dipping sauce that is non-GMO and vegan, and we sell jars of white and black sesame seeds. Gochujang is really a foundational element to great Korean food. The challenging part is explaining to people that ours is more of a finishing sauce, like Sriracha. I really hope people see the difference in our sauce. [When we created it], we were on a mission to leave out all of the chemicals and preservatives typically found in store-bought gochujang, making sure everyone could pronounce all of the ingredients in ours.
How can people incorporate gochujang or bulgogi sauce in their cooking? The easiest way is to use them in place of ketchup or cocktail, teriyaki and barbecue sauce. Instead of dipping your coconut shrimp in cocktail sauce, use our sweet and tangy gochujang hot sauce. You can also use the sweet and tangy variety as a salad dressing: Take some mixed greens, throw them in a bowl, [add the sauce] and a little more rice vinegar and toss. It’s so flavorful, you don’t really need anything else. Tacos are another thing that you can totally put a Korean flavor spin on. For this, I use the original sesame gochujang or bulgogi sauce. Cook a pork shoulder in a Crock-Pot and then take it out and massage it with [one of the sauces], shred it and put it in a corn tortilla with some avocado. Bulgogi chicken tacos are good, too.
Where can people find your products? People can find [our products] in all the Whole Foods Markets in the Kansas City metro area and Wichita, Kansas. We are also in the majority of Walmart Supercenters and Walmart Neighborhood Markets in the Kansas City metro area and surrounding towns. Also look for us in a handful of Hy-Vee supermarkets and on Amazon.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your sales? Sales had been pretty consistent for Born with Seoul year-over-year, but our sales are definitely up with more people cooking at home [during the pandemic]. I also think that people are interested in learning how to prepare different types of cuisines now more than ever because people have the time to cook. I know I have cooked more during the pandemic than I have in years.
What has been the best thing about launching Born with Seoul? I am so happy when people tell me that my sauces have helped to open their eyes to how delicious Korean cuisine is and that I have helped them to get their family to try different flavors. Food can be a catalyst to a much greater understanding, and there is a world of flavors to explore.
Born with Seoul, bornwithseoul.com