by STEVE HAN | @stevehan
Simon Bai speaks Dutch and Creole. His Spanish is also “all right,” he says. MEGA 94, Miami’s local Latin music station targeting its massive Central and South American immigrant population, is his car’s default radio station.
One of the reasons this 33-year-old, South Florida-based entrepreneur opened Bao, an Asian-themed bar and restaurant in Ft. Lauderdale, earlier this year was that he grew frustrated with feeling “so not Asian,” even though he’s a full-blooded Korean. “I wanted something to tell me I’m still kind of Asian somewhere, you know?” Bai says, as he sits across the table from me at his bar. “Like, I wanted to do something Asian!”
Born in Brazil, Bai was raised in Suriname and settled in South Florida after he graduated from Penn State with a degree in mechanical engineering in 2003.
“I’m a little screwed-up in the head,” Bai says, laughing. “I’m not Surinamese, technically. I’m not Latin, technically. I’m not Korean, technically. I don’t know what the hell I am. I’ve lived in the U.S. as long as I lived in Suriname. So, am I American then? I don’t know. I won’t consider myself American until the friggin’ immigration gives me a green card.”
Green card or not, South Florida is where Bai, who’s in the U.S. on an investor visa, feels at home more than anywhere else in the U.S. After finishing college, he landed a job at Motorola, which had a plant near Miami until 2004. That’s when Bai took the entrepreneurial route and started a frozen yogurt and cupcake business amid the nation’s Pinkberry craze. The business took off, Bai says, and that’s what shepherded him into the hospitality industry. He ran a wine bar and then a sports bar, which he sold last year to start Bao.
Opened this past February, Bao (which could mean “treasure” in Mandarin and also refers to a popular bun in Chinese cuisine) is located by the waterway on the strip of Las Olas, Ft. Lauderdale’s hip and bustling shopping and dining district, where even those cruising on a boat could pull up for a cocktail by the water.
What’s more impressive is that the bar, built using wood from the Munguur tree, complemented by Indonesian teak furniture, was mostly designed by Bai himself. He transformed what used to be an old Chinese restaurant into an attractive nightlife destination in only six months.
“I’m the restaurant vulture, the restaurant rehabilitator, or whatever it is,” Bai says. “I always try to find failing restaurants, see if there’s an opportunity, and I’ll go and redo everything. When you grow up in a third-world country, you grow up without resources. So that’s how I approach everything. Every restaurant I buy, I basically gut it.”
Bai’s father, who picked up Portuguese during college in Korea, first moved to Brazil in the 1970s, when an American seafood company with offices in Brazil hired him to communicate with Korean fishermen and ship captains. After Bai was born, his family moved to Suriname, where his father started his own business, exporting shrimp to the U.S. and Japan.
Sensing that the only way to ensure quality education for their two children was by sending them abroad, Bai’s parents sent him and his sister to Miami in 1998. Bai has been in the U.S. since, but still visits his hometown of Paramaribo several times a year to reunite with his friends—with whom he shares fond memories of going “stray dog hunting.”
“We had packs of stray dogs,” Bai recalls. “That’s how third-world it was. But I loved the place. That’s home, where anything is possible.”
Even in Suriname, Bai grew up in a traditional Korean household—attending piano lessons and taking taekwondo throughout his childhood—but today, he only speaks broken Korean (his first language is Dutch and second is Creole). He remarks that this reporter is the first Korean he’s met in person this year, aside from his sister who came to visit him a few months ago. But he proudly says that his upbringing in Suriname, where resources are vastly limited, helped him develop the business mind that inspired his growing hospitality empire.
“I look at different start-ups and I’m like, ‘Why are these guys so spoiled?’” Bai says. “They do rounding, funding and raise all this money. They kind of operate comfortably. I operate like I’m going out of business every single day because, then, there’s that fire up my ass, and I just run. That’s what I do.”
At Bao, Bai’s fifth project, the kitchen is almost fully exposed to the dining area, so that anyone at the bar could watch its executive chef, Mark Rivera, make both authentic and fusion Asian cuisine. Bai and Rivera both take great pride in using high-quality ingredients.
“South Florida’s dining destinations kind of suck,” Bai says. “It’s more geared towards tourists and volume, as opposed to quality. That’s what we’re trying to change. Everything is actually cooked. Everything is fresh grown, which is new. In California, you have more opportunity to go from farm to table. I’ll give you an example. It’s extremely hard to find wild sockeye salmon. We literally seek it. That’s why we also run out of a lot of things. That’s our biggest complaint right now. Grass-fed beef, for instance, they run out of them. We literally seek farms, fisheries, to provide us with better ingredients.”
Bai is even willing to leave money on the table by refusing to serve sushi and pad Thai, just so that they could protect the brand they’re trying to build with Bao.
“If you go down the strip here, there are four Asian restaurants,” says Bai. “They do what sells—California rolls and pad Thai. I don’t even know how much money we lost because we don’t have sushi. The idea behind that is so that people don’t pigeonhole us as ‘that other Asian restaurant.’ When they talk about us, whether it’s good or bad, I want them to say, “Oh, let’s go to that crazy place where they don’t have your typical Asian dishes.’”
The next goal for Bao is to expand its boundaries. Bai is already in negotiations with two other locations in South Florida, where he hopes to run “express” versions of Bao.
“The current version [of Bao] is fine dining,” Bai says. “We’re a dinner destination. So I’m pushing that lunch aspect, lunch and light dinner. We’ll take the current menu and dumb it down to fast food. You look at the Chipotle model, they’ve got an amazing model, so we’re trying to be the Asian version of that.
“This is my first Asian concept,” he adds. “I wanted to do something Asian [because] I’m friggin’ Asian! I’m trying to go back to my roots.”
Photo by CandaceWest.com.
This article was published in the October/November 2014 issue of KoreAm under the title “Finally Friggin’ Asian” Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the magazine issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).