COVER STORY

The Bite Stuff

Five alumni startups that are disrupting the food industry.

by Rebecca Shapiro Published Fall 2016
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Song figured that if his college friends liked Korean flavors, plenty of others would, too, especially when packaged as the quintessential street food: the burrito. Despite having enthusiastic taste buds, though, Song had no culinary experience. But after taking a community-college crash course chiefly geared toward immigrant line cooks, and then forming a partnership with a chef, he developed a menu modeled on popular fast-casual restaurants like Chipotle. Diners would pick a format (burrito, rice bowl, noodle bowl, taco, or salad), a protein (bulgogi marinated in soy sauce, pork shoulder or chicken marinated in gochujang, or tofu and shiitake mushrooms marinated in a bean paste and gochujang blend), and toppings (cheese, salsa, fermented black beans, and a variety of vegetables and kimchis). 

Even in the depths of the recession, New York rents were too high for Song to open a restaurant. Instead, he teamed up with a high-school buddy (both were graduates of Manhattan’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School), who, like Song, was having trouble finding a white-collar job. With a little help from family and friends, they were able to pool their resources and buy a used food truck, which was then a novel idea. 

“Now it seems like there’s a new food truck on every corner,” Song says. “But when we first started, six years ago, it was just hot-dog carts and street meat. We were really in the first wave.” 

Song and his partners also figured that a mobile business would help them attract more customers. 

“At the time, if you wanted Korean food in Manhattan, you had to go to Koreatown, on 32nd Street,” he says. “That’s great if you happen to live or work near there. But we wanted to be able to make several stops in a day and catch people in different neighborhoods.” 

Korilla BBQ officially launched in 2010 from a parking spot on 55th Street and Lexington Avenue, in Midtown. Song was shocked when he opened the window to see a line stretching down a full city block, to Third Avenue. 

Song soon racked up several wins at New York’s Vendy awards for street vendors, did a short-lived stint on the Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race, and even had a cameo on Sesame Street. All that recognition brought a loyal following and enough capital to take the business to the next level. 

Today, Song can still be found roaming the city in the company’s truck (he posts the route daily on Twitter and Instagram). But now he’s more focused on the wheels-free locations: several are in the works, and so far one is open, in the East Village. With two full stories of fluorescent-orange façade slashed with Korilla’s signature black tiger stripes, the building is bold, fun, and a little unconventional — just like its founder.

MISHA DAIRY

Kamilya Abilova ’13GS grew up in Almaty, Kazakhstan, a city of apple-tree-lined streets and snowcapped mountains. Her house was busy — Abilova is an only child, but her father was one of eight, and there was a steady stream of visiting aunts and uncles who needed to be fed. “We had two refrigerators,” Abilova says, “and one of them was just for quark.” 

Most Americans have never heard of the oddly named quark. But across Central and Eastern Europe, quark is a beloved staple — a cultured dairy product similar to yogurt, but without the tart taste. Abilova’s family would mix it with sour cream and homemade jam and eat it as snack.

When Abilova came to New York to study at Columbia, she was surprised to find that quark was not readily available. “I would wander the yogurt aisle at Westside Market after class,” Abilova says. “There were plenty of options, but nothing tasted quite as good.”

Nothing was as satisfying, either. Quark, which is actually a cheese (like farmer’s cheese, or a smoother cottage cheese), has nearly twice the protein of most yogurt.

“In Kazakhstan, no one thinks about things like protein and fat. But when I started learning a little more about the nutritional benefits of quark, it seemed like something Americans would respond to,” she says.

Abilova found a compatriot in classmate Daniyar Chukin ’11CC, who had grown up in Kyrgyzstan, just across the mountains from Abilova. Together, they began taking steps to establish Misha Dairy, which makes what they call “new American quark.” 

“We were lucky that our primary investors were family and friends, because we were definitely in a state of blissful ignorance,” Chukin says. “We thought we’d be able to launch the company in six months. But just developing the product took a year and a half.”

Abilova and Chukin started by consulting with an Illinois dairy producer who had spent time in Europe and was familiar with quark. He helped them tweak the recipe for the American consumer, making the texture less grainy and reducing the fat content. 

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