Q & A with M Grill’s Manny Kim: Early Years, Feijoada, and Chicken Thighs

mgrill-brazilian

Everyone loves an underdog, right? And if you do, you’ve got to love Manny Kim and what the São Paulo native has made of M Grill Brazilian Steakhouse.

Imagine you’re back in 2003. Somebody is asking you to open a Brazilian restaurant in L.A.’s Koreatown. And forget the mantra of location, location, location. This was going to be a second story restaurant in a building with no frontage and no entrance on a major street in Los Angeles. But it gets better. The entrance to this restaurant would be hidden at the end of a hallway at the top of some stairs, located at the back of a building. That’s right, unless people were specifically looking for your restaurant, they’d never find it.

The secret of your success would be word of mouth. Not digital word of mouth, real word of mouth as in a person speaking to another person. It’s ridiculous, I know.

Remember this is 2003, Mark Zuckerberg is still blowing off the Winklevoss twins and Yelp? They just started in San Francisco and twitter is still years away from being invented. Social marketing is just another word for water-cooler talk. But it get’s even better; your concept is seriously flawed.

You’d tell them to go pound sand, right? Fortunately for all of us, Manny did the opposite and we all know fortune favors the brave (or stupid) but either way, M Grill is a gargantuan underdog success story.

What started out as a Brazilian à la carte restaurant in Koreatown has quietly earned it’s reputation among city insiders as the best authentic Brazilian Churrascaria in Los Angeles. In fact, business has been so good for M Grill that when the retail space next door became available last year, they expanded to double their seating capacity. Oink LA caught up with Manny Kim during lunch at M Grill to talk about the past, present, and future.

When did you come from Brazil?

I came right after high school and went to USC to study business. I was born in Korea but went to Brazil when I was one.

When did you decide you wanted to open a Brazilian Restaurant?

It was in 2003. I was sick and tired of the garment business. And I knew my friend Marcelo wanted to open up a restaurant. So I called him and asked if he wanted to sit down and brainstorm ideas. The idea evolved many times but the original idea was to create something like Kokekkokko, the Japanese chicken place in downtown but do it Brazilian-style in Koreatown. That’s why we had the bar set up the way it was and the grill behind it. It was supposed to be skewers. We wanted to create a place where people would come, hang out, have little bites and order from the grill while enjoying a beer or two.

What Happened?

The concept didn’t catch on. When people found out we were Brazilian, they automatically assumed we were all you can eat. We had to continually explain that, “No, it’s à la carte”. After a year of just really struggling to sell the concept, we decided to change it to what it is today. It evolved with what the market wanted.

Was it difficult to give up on your original concept? Was there any thought of giving up?

Not at all. I was fortunate to realize early that our concept wasn’t working and was able to make a quick decision. Listening to your customers is lesson #1 in business, right?

And after you changed to a traditional Churrascaria, did business improve immediately?

I think it took another 6 months to a year to get the word out. But we saw a gradual and constant increase in traffic. This is a small town. If people like your food, everyone knows about it and eventually they will try it. After that it’s up to you to make sure they come back.

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