by: Christa Ferguson
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A yearslong mission to bring Korean barbecue and karaoke to downtown Grand Rapids will be realized starting Saturday.
K-ROK Korean Barbecue & Karaoke opens at 4 p.m. to patrons with dining reservations. It’s the moment owner Rob Yoon has waited nearly three years for, and it comes days after he broke down, watching his business bustle with friends, family, community members and new employees.
“I just couldn’t believe we finally got to this point. You know, the… last couple of years have been really, really up and down and a lot of stress, a lot of weird stuff. (But) God’s good, man.”
Yoon was getting ready to open K-ROK when the COVID-19 pandemic reached West Michigan. He held a job fair exactly one week before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered the first round of shutdowns and restrictions.
As the months progressed, challenges kept cropping up.
“COVID, staffing, shipping is crazy. I can’t get nothing in here on time. I’m still waiting for a few things,” Yoon said Wednesday. “There’s all kinds of these little things that add up that you think wouldn’t be a big thing, but they’re just, they’re huge, and especially in a restaurant world or hospitality thing.”
Yoon says K-ROK is still short on staff, “but I’m still going to roll with what we’ve got.”
Located across the street from Rosa Parks Circle at 169 Louis Campau Promenade NW, K-ROK was previously a hotel storage space until Yoon took over in December 2018.
“They were waiting for the right place to come in here. Amway gave us a chance to bring some Korean culture and karaoke down here, so more night life that they need in this area,” Yoon said.
K-ROK features two dining areas and three private karaoke rooms. Little touches inside each space stand as tribute to South Korea, from photos of K-pop stars, Korean beer flyers and wall art in the restaurant area to vivid murals of Seoul’s popular Myeongdong Market inside each karaoke room. Splashes of red, black and white follow visitors throughout K-ROK, representing the colors of South Korea’s flag.
But K-ROK’s cornerstone is its “Korean soul food,” as Yoon calls it.
“It’s all mom’s and grandma’s recipes from back down home. They learned how to cook and they’re showing me,” he said.
The menu includes beef and pork bulgogi, traditional Korean soups, dolsat bibimbap, kalbi which are beef short ribs marinated in a sweet garlicky soy sauce, and boneless unmarinated ribs called kalbi sal “which melt in your mouth,” Yoon said.
K-ROK will also serve up its own twist on samgyeopsal, using thin cuts of beef belly, “and it’s amazing,” Yoon added.
Each meal typically ranges between $25 and $29 and is brought out to guests to cook on the inlaid smokeless grill at their table. Each table also comes with a container of kitchen tools.
“Koreans like to cut their meat in bite-size pieces while it’s on the grill, hold it with the tong, cut it up,” Yoon explained.
He says staff will always be nearby to guide customers through the dining experience. Each grill table is also equipped with a “call” button to swiftly summon a server.
“It’s a Korean thing. They have them in a lot of Korean barbecues, so I wanted to bring that character here,” Yoon added.
Once staffing and business ramp up, K-ROK plans to expand its lunch hours and menu to roll out cupbop.
“They’re like rice bowls, but they’re spicy pork, bulgogi, sweet potato noodles and you’ve got four different sauces you can put on there, mix it up. It’s like a Korean cooked poke bowl,” Yoon explained.
K-ROK plans to keep its drink menu authentic as well with a Seoul mule, soju and soju cocktails. Yoon says once pandemic-prompted shipping issues clear up, Heit will also be available. But for now, Stella Artois and Kirin will flow from K-ROK’s taps.
K-ROK plans to begin accepting reservations for its three karaoke rooms next week.
“There’s nothing like us down here. (We have) private rooms, you can have fun singing and drinking with your fam,” Yoon said.
Colored lights dance across the walls of the rooms, which are each lined with a mix of red and black furniture. The two smaller karaoke rooms fit about 8 to 10 people; the larger one can hold up to a dozen guests.
While no soups or barbecue will be allowed in the karaoke rooms, visitors can still enjoy drinks and fried food or Korean appetizers listed on a special menu.
K-ROK’s karaoke system will carry a range of music, from Vietnamese, Chinese and Filipino songs to nationally known acts like Bon Jovi, Frank Sinatra, Frank Ocean, Tupac, Biggie Smalls, Jennifer Lopez, Madonna and Michael Jackson.
While rates will vary depending on the day and time, each room will be available for about $50 an hour and must be booked for at least two hours at a time, according to Yoon. All reservations must be booked online. The mandatory deposit will go towards the final bill.
“It’s a fun experience. That’s the point of what we’re doing here. We’re offering experiences and memories for you guys that you’ve never had before,” Yoon said.
K-ROK’s starting business hours will be Wednesday, from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Thursday through Saturday, from 4 p.m. until 2 a.m. The karaoke rooms will be available by online reservation only Thursday through Saturday and upon request on Wednesdays. Tables will be waitlist only via K-ROK’s website.
Yoon plans to expand K-ROK’s business hours to six days once he gets more staff.
While Yoon is grateful for the community’s patience as he’s worked to open K-ROK, he says credit for the new restaurant should go to his mother.
“Everything here is because of her faith in God and her faith in hard work and her love for serving people and making them smile,” he said. “I just came in and tried to make it a little bit bigger so she can get what she deserves.”
Yoon says while the focus is on K-ROK now, his family’s other restaurant, Emonae Korean BBQ, will remain in business in Cascade Township. He plans to remodel that restaurant next.
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