by Brandon Fox
3/19/2015: “If you like dragon-breathing, fire-breathing, really spicy stuff, we’re going to bring it to you,” says Derek Cha, co-owner of Zzaam! Fresh Korean Grill, a restaurant based on the build-a-bowl model pioneered by Chipotle.
These aren’t the words you’d think to hear from a man who built a self-serve frozen yogurt empire consisting of more than 300 stores that extends across the United States and as far away as London and the Dominican Republic. How about, “we just ran out of gummy worms” or “have as many sprinkles as you want,” instead?
Cha started Sweet Frog in 2009 with only one store in Short Pump. The company steadily opened hundreds of other yogurt shops during the next six years and plans more for here, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
But while he was growing his business, Cha had an idea. If you lived in a smaller town, the Korean food he grew up with wasn’t readily available. It was easy to come by in big cities, and the Los Angeles food truck that sparked the food truck revolution, Kogi BBQ, had put Korean cuisine on the national food scene’s radar. What if he could come up with a business model to bring the food he loved, at a reasonable price, to the places that didn’t have it?
Cha took a look at the hugely successful Chipotle chain and realized that its way of serving Mexican food could easily translate into another cuisine. One problem: Sweet Frog was booming, and he didn’t have time to make the concept a reality. Cha had to make a choice, and last month he sold the majority share of the company to a private equity firm, Boxwood Capital Partners.
“It was the right time to get out of Sweet Frog,” he says.
He started looking for the perfect location in Richmond -- and wanted that location to be in Carytown, he says: “I really wanted to get into the old Yapple space.”
Yapple Frozen Yogurt threw down the fro-yo gauntlet in 2012 when it opened a shop two doors down from Sweet Frog’s Carytown spot. Richmonders were unimpressed, and it closed two years later. Spiral Noodle, an Asian fusion noodle bar with a similar build-a-bowl model plans to open in the space in April.
Instead, Cha and his co-owner and wife, Annah Cha, began with a food truck last spring and opened their first restaurant in Charlottesville in September. When the old Carytown Cleaners space became available, Cha jumped on it. “I think it’s an even better place,” he says.
Plans are now moving ahead to renovate the space. “I want it to have that vintage industrial feel,” Cha says, “and we’ll also have a huge patio.” Besides rice and noodle bowls, Zzaam will serve Korean street food -- grilled vegetables, pork belly, kalbi (beef short ribs) and more, all grilled out on the patio. Beer, wine and soju, a Korean liquor, also will be available.
Cha is excited -- all of the sauces, from the dragon-breathing kind to a sweet teriyaki, will be made in-house along with kimchi and the other offerings from recipes devised by his chef and minority partner, Sam Gang. “He can cook up some really mean Korean dishes,” Cha says.
Construction will take about 90 days, he says, and Richmonders can expect to sip a glass of soju with a skewer in hand sometime in June. Franchising is planned after the Carytown location opens.