Everybody’s family at the Gallery

Paul Park always takes care of his family.

For him, it only seemed natural to hire his “mom’s cousin’s brother-in-law” as the manager of Gallery Salad Bar and Grill in the Ivory Tower basement.

Most of Park’s employees are fellow South Koreans, and many are considered family, including his younger brother, a distant relative and close friends.

“We’re all kind of family-related,” Park said, “In the Korean culture, if you’ve known someone a long time, you almost consider them family.”

In addition to owning the grill, Park owns two convenience stores on campus: the Gallery Gourmet Market, also in Ivory Tower, and Gallery News and More at 1957 E St. The South Korea native lives in Virginia and employs friends and family to work at his three shops at GW.

“It’s my joy to take something from scratch and build something that’s successful,” said Park, 37, as he watched students filter out of his caf? in the Ivory Tower food court.

His ascent from laundry store chain owner to GW business maverick offers a view into a self-assured entrepreneur who is not afraid to take risks.

In 1974 Park immigrated to northern Virginia with his mother after his father moved to the United States two years earlier, saving money to pay for his family to join him.

“When you immigrate you don’t have as much as your neighbors might,” Park explained.

While Park’s father, who was an English major in South Korea, spoke the language well, his mother had difficulties adjusting to the U.S language and culture. His family spoke Korean at home, a practice Park continues today with his children in Virginia even though his own English is without even a trace of an accent. Park went to Oakton High School in Vienna, and later attended the University of Richmond as an economics major.

“I think it was easier for me because I came here at such a young age,” Park said.

Based on the successful chain of dry cleaners his father began when he moved to the United States, Park followed in his father’s footsteps and at age 26 started his own dry cleaning business.

“I would build them and sell them,” Park said of his earliest entrepreneurial endeavors.

Park began working in the building that houses the Charles E. Smith real estate company and began expanding his services into restaurants. His establishments landed him a comfortable relationship with the company, and when GW approached Charles E. Smith about potential vendors, Park was immediately contacted.

The first store, opened at 1957 E St. in December 2003, quickly turned into a chain of three locales with the opening of Ivory Tower last year. Park said he is in discussions with the University for a fourth in the new business school building, Duques Hall, set to open for classes in January 2006. He also owns a restaurant in Rockville, Md. He wouldn’t divulge the rent he pays on his prime GW locations, saying only “it’s a lot,” and “what would be expected in the District.”

The University is attracted to Park’s types of stores because it offers what students want, said Tracy Schario, director of media relations. A food survey conducted by GW Dining Services showed that students wanted a dining option that provided a healthy yet home-cooked feel, she said.

“The buffet options allow students to eat what they want,” Schario said.

“It’s less expensive than J Street and better,” said sophomore Emma-Jane Spalding, who usually chooses to eat Gallery’s sushi. “I eat here one to two times a week.”

Despite his success at GW, Park’s profits fluctuate enormously through the course of the year due to the cyclical nature of a university. Close to 85 percent of the consumers use GWorld, he said, and during GW vacations, the stores’ profits fall on average 75 to 80 percent.

“You have conversations with the wall,” Park said of how he passes time during school breaks and over the summer.

J.M. Lim – Park’s “mom’s cousin’s brother-in-law” who immigrated to America two years ago – has invested in the family business and now owns 25 percent of the Gallery grill, which may explain Lim’s long hours at the job. He works seven days a week from 9 a.m. until 11 p.m. He sees his daughter, 15, and son, 13 at night when he returns from work.

Lim easily calls out orders for sandwiches such as “23rd Street,” “Cowboy” and “East Jefferson.” Yet he did not have any experience cooking American food prior to working at Gallery.

“We have some McDonald’s, Popeyes and Burger King (in Korea),” Lim said. “I just have experience with eating it, that’s it.”

Park offered Sung Lee, a friend from church, a job at Gallery Gourmet Market when Lee lost his job as a satellite engineer. Lee, who calls his 40 to 50 hours per week at the Market “part-time,” does engineering consulting on the side.

Lee’s youngest son, who is in the military, returned from Iraq in August. His oldest son has a full-time scholarship to University of Michigan Medical School and hopes to become a doctor one day.

Lee hopes so too. After all, “he is my retirement plan,” Lee said.

Park, for his part, plans to continue expanding his businesses with the opening of a new deli in Reston, Va., this month. Sitting assuredly as he watched students file in and out of Ivory Tower, Park said, “I’m still young.”

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