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Austin’s Chi’lantro lands big investment on ‘Shark Tank’

Jae Kim swam with the sharks, escaping unscathed — and $600,000 richer.

The owner of Chi’lantro, a fast-casual Korean barbecue restaurant with four Austin locations and a fifth scheduled to open by year’s end, managed to woo a high-profile investor Friday night on ABC’s “Shark Tank,” paving the way for future expansion.

On the hit show, representatives from startups – including a number from Central Texas over the years – pitch their products and services to a team of “sharks,” including Dallas billionaire Mark Cuban, in hopes of landing some much-needed cash.

Kim says he applied to be on the show three different times before getting a call from producers this year. Each season, as many as 50,000 people apply for a spot.

To say the experience was stressful would be an understatement, Kim said.

“I walked in there, the cameras were rolling and once they said ‘go’ I completely forgot everything I was planning to say,” he said. “I was just talking – babbling really – because that’s me. And when it was over, I was like, ‘Did I even answer your questions?’”

Barbara Corcoran, head of New York real estate firm The Corcoran Group, liked what she heard and handed over $600,000 in exchange for a 20 percent equity stake in the company.

“Barbara is the perfect person for Chi’lantro’s growth,” Kim said. “She values the culture of Chi’lantro and sees and trusts my vision to grow our company into a billion-dollar company. Barbara grew her company from having nothing, so she was able to relate to how I continue to grow my company today.”

Kim said he plans to use the money to expand Chi’lantro across Texas and beyond. He said he never imagined he’d be in this position when he got his start running a food truck in 2010.

“I pretty much maxed out my credit cards,” Kim said. “It was a leap of faith. I’m not a chef, but I’ve always loved being around the food industry. It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do.”

The early going was hit or miss. A food truck parked in the Warehouse District was popular with late-night club-goers, but another location at Dobie Mall near the University of Texas campus was a dud, with sales of just $7 the first day and $14 the second day, Kim said.

“Austin is the most competitive food truck city in the nation,” he said. “I knew that from the beginning. That’s why I wanted to be here.”

After working lots of 20-hour days, opening early and closing late, Kim said he slowly transitioned to brick-and-mortar locations.

“The goal all along was ultimately to be a sit-down restaurant,” he said. “That’s always what we wanted. That’s what most food truck operators want.”

Those sit-down locations – plus a catering operation – appear to be working. Kim now has 100 employees and said Chi’lantro is on track for sales of $6 million this year, continuing a trend of 25 percent year-over-year growth.

“Our mission is to be the world’s leading Korean barbecue brand,” Kim said. “I want to share what we’ve created with the world.”

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