The story of KoJa Kitchen

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Haley Talbot/Staff

If you somehow missed it while you walked from Southside to campus, Telegraph Avenue has a new resident. KoJa Kitchen, an Asian fusion joint that serves up melanges of Korean and Japanese dishes on Southside, launched in Berkeley late last year. You may have originally known KoJa Kitchen as a single food truck that came to Berkeley with Off the Grid, a weekly setup of gourmet food trucks. Now, KoJa Kitchen has expanded into a full-fledged establishment due to popular demand.

Haley Talbot/Staff

The computerized menu at KoJa Kitchen. Haley Talbot/Staff

KoJa Kitchen serves a balanced non-vegetarian and vegetarian menu that includes the restaurant’s iconic KoJa — a sandwich of sorts with a garlic rice-patty bun — renowned Kamikaze Fries and the vegetarian Teriyaki Zen bowl. And the rumors are true: Once you go to KoJa, you will find yourself craving it for the rest of your life.

KoJa's beef bowl. Haley Talbot/Staff

KoJa Kitchen’s beef bowl. Haley Talbot/Staff

What seemed like just a simple food truck has a fascinating story behind it. How did KoJa Kitchen become so popular that it decided to take root in Berkeley? Eric Thai, one of the co-founders of KoJa Kitchen, talked to The Daily Californian through email about the Berkeley opening.

Daily Cal: Why did you decide to expand from a food truck to a proper establishment?
Eric Thai: Starting off as a food truck was great in building exposure for us since it allowed us to serve customers from all over the bay area. At the same time, there are unique challenges that are involved with running a food truck such as securing the proper health permits, business licenses and parking permits for EVERY location we serve at (as opposed to just getting one for a single location). Additionally, it is challenging to schedule employees for a mobile business since we are constantly serving at various locations (often on the same day) so there is a lot of logistical coordination that is involved. With these challenges in mind, it makes it difficult for us to scale our business, so we decided to try out concept as a brick and mortar establishment.

DC: Why did you choose to open up a location in Berkeley?
ET: Throughout all of the places we have served, we noticed a particularly strong following at Berkeley and since our Trucks were already based in the East Bay, it logically made sense for us to open our first restaurant in close proximity.

DC: What inspired the starting of the KoJa food truck?
ET: The inspiration and drive for KoJa Kitchen primarily came from the entrepreneurial opportunity to create a product that customers would love and share. Through various strategy discussions of potential start-up ideas, we identified a large market opportunity within the emerging gourmet fast casual dining industry. We were aware of the mature mobile food markets that had existed within Los Angeles and New York City, but San Francisco and the Bay Area had yet to begin when we first started in 2011. We experimented with a variety of fusion cuisines, but ultimately decided to combine Korean and Japanese as we felt the bold flavors of Korean cuisine and the subtle flavors of Japanese cuisine would be a good balance.

DC: Did you expect the food truck to be as successful as it was?
ET: Being successful is a very subjective term. We are very humbled with the amount of fans that support us, but at the same time feel that we can always improve. We don’t like being complacent with where we are and are always striving for ways to better ourselves and be a “successful” business.

DC: Do you still have a food truck? Does it still come to Berkeley?
ET: We currently have two food trucks and one brick and mortar restaurant. We used to serve at Off the Grid on Telegraph and Haste, but since our restaurant open nearby, we decided to stop that venture. However, we recently started serving at a new Off the Grid location at the North Berkeley Bart Station (1750 Sacramento St., Berkeley, CA 94702) on Sundays from 5:00PM-8:00PM. Hopefully fans of the truck can visit us there!

Starting with a passionate entrepreneurial spirit and taking advantage of the growing craze over delicious and fast dining, KoJa has risen to prominence, capturing the hearts and taste buds of many. The traveling food truck has become somewhat of an icon among speedy casual diners in the East Bay, and the restaurant in Berkeley has been met with equal amounts of love.

Contact Spandana Singh at [email protected].