James Choi

In this heartwarming podcast episode of The UnderDog, James Choi shares the pivot points that defined his entrepreneurial journey. Despite pressure to follow a conventional career path, James followed his passion for Korean cuisine and created Perillas, a fast-casual restaurant concept. Discover how James’s commitment to his team and innovative thinking helped Perillas not only survive but expand during the toughest of times. Get ready to be moved and motivated by a true underdog story!

James Choi is a second-generation Korean immigrant who defied the odds and his family’s expectations to become a successful entrepreneur. He is now the owner of Perillas, a restaurant that came from the desire to bring Korean food to the forefront of fast dining, and a personal quest to create a business that reflected his values.

Key Takeaways:

  • Health Struggles: Dealing with a cancer diagnosis right after graduating from seminary was a significant personal challenge. It required resilience, a strong support system, and a positive mindset to navigate through the treatment and recovery process.
  • Unemployment: Facing a year and a half of unemployment after graduation and unsuccessful job hunting was emotionally challenging. It required a shift in perspective to see it as an opportunity to pursue entrepreneurship rather than a setback.
  • Transitioning to a New Industry: Moving from seminary to the tech industry and later to the food business involved a steep learning curve. Adapting to new environments and industries requires humility, a willingness to learn, and the ability to make good decisions consistently.
  • Financial Constraints: Starting a business with limited capital posed financial challenges. This required creative solutions, such as utilizing shared kitchen spaces and gradually building the business organically.
  • Pandemic Impact: The COVID-19 pandemic led to a sudden halt in revenue for Perilla. Adapting to the new circumstances involved quick thinking and the strategic introduction of meal kits to sustain the business during a challenging period.

As you listen to Pamela’s conversation with James, you’ll find yourself rooting for him, not just because he’s the underdog, but because his story resonates with the part of us that believes in the power of authenticity, the strength of community, and the courage to follow one’s passion against all odds.

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Click To Read The Transcript

James Choi’s Journey of Perseverance Through Life’s Challenges

Pamela Bardhi: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the Underdog podcast. Today I have an incredible guest here with me. James, how are you, my great.

James Choi: I’m great. Thanks for having me, Pam. Excited to, share a little bit about what I’ve been up to and the journey that I’ve been on.

Pamela Bardhi: I am so excited to have you, my friend, genuinely. I remember we first reached out, we connected via the Bigger Pockets podcast, and then finding out that you were local, I went to your restaurant and I heard your story there, and I’m like, what? I’m like, James, you need to be on my man. Like, you are amazing. I love your story, your tenacity, your grit, and just your passion for all the things that, you know, me previously, being a restaurant owner in the past, I know how hard it is, and the things that you’re doing in the space is really incredible. And I can’t wait to hear your story, my friend, seriously and genuinely. And I think the world needs to hear it, too, which is why you’re here.

James Choi: Thank you so much. I greatly appreciate.

James: When you were growing up, what did you want to be

Pamela Bardhi: Course, of course we’re going to reel it all the way back now, because I want to know where it all originated from, James. So, for you, what did you want to be when you grew up as a kid?

James Choi: That’s a great know. My parents are immigrants from South Korea, and so I’ve always grown up as, like, a second generation Korean. And I always kind of was a little envious of all my friends, at school that were not from non immigrant families. Ah. Because they always feel like they had the guidance from their parents to kind of set their career path, or even with schoolwork, even, like, homework, they had guidance there, and I feel like I kind of had to figure everything out, right? But that also bled into how I was shaped and formed as well.

And so, growing up, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to be. But my parents, they own a small business, and they’ve been small business owners for pretty much their entire time in America after working a couple of jobs here and there. And so I wanted to follow in their footsteps, but they did not want me to go that route. They said that I had to go to school, study really hard, get my degree, get a good job at a corporation, and climb that corporate ladder. That’s pretty much what I set out to do. But, deep down inside, I can’t say that that’s what I really wanted to do.

Pamela Bardhi: Absolutely, and I can resonate with that a lot, too, James, because that’s exactly what my parents told me when I went to undergrad. They were know, Pam, we don’t want you to work as hard as we did, go out there, get a job, and all of that stuff. So it’s so funny, like, we have that parallel with our parents. It’s like, well, they came here for us to do better, right? It’s like the business world has transformed so much since even they started their businesses, like, all of this stuff, but, like, oh, my goodness. And so when you were a kid growing up, aside from what they were saying, in your heart, what did you want to be?

James Choi: I really wanted to do business. I really felt like that’s where I should be, but that’s just not the direction that Mike was trending on at that time. And so a lot of twists and turns, but kind of a slow spoiler. I ended up where I should be.

Pamela Bardhi: I love that. I love that we’re going to dive into that full story for sure, but I just love it. I absolutely love it, and so you wanted to be in business. That was like me being a kid. I’m like, I want to grow up. I want to be successful in business. I want to be super rich. And the reason why I wanted to be super rich was for the simple fact that I wanted to have more impact in the world, because money in the right hands changes the world. So it’s very similar to you, my friend. It’s like we come with this mentality that we want to make this world a better place than where we found it, and business is such a powerful and influential way to really do that. Right?

James Choi: It really is, and I agree with that, too. And that’s why I’m trying to work really hard to build my sphere of influence, and I know that having a platform helps, when we think about how the world works and how people perceive things and whatnot, it helps to have that platform. And so if we want to get the message across, if we want to get a certain message across, if we want to have a certain impact, we do need to have that platform, because that’s what builds credibility. Whether that’s right or wrong, that’s a different story. But in the eyes of society and people, that’s kind of how they start to trust and listen to you. Right? So it is very. Absolutely.

Pamela Bardhi: Absolutely.

James, you went from accounting to finance. That’s incredible. And from that point, how did you transition

And, James, I’m curious. So aside from your parents or they may have been the main sphere of influence for you growing up, who or what inspired you the most?

James Choi: Kind of growing m up, honestly, they were the main influence, and so I’ll just start getting into my career path then. So I went to school and I got my degree in economics. I went to the University of Connecticut, and then I just wanted to go into finance after that. And so growing up in Connecticut, I went to Yukon there, and then after that I went to Boston for my first job and I started working at State Street. I feel like everyone works at State street.

Pamela Bardhi: It’s such a big corporation.

James Choi: Yeah. And so I started there as a fund accountant. Very humble beginnings. But that’s what jump started my career here and that’s why I moved.

Pamela Bardhi: That’s incredible. So you went from accounting. Okay, fascinating. So State street. And then after State street, what happened?

James Choi: I started my job. This was in 2007, and right around that time, as you know, we had like a recession, the economic downturn, and crashed. There was no movement in the companies. They were like hiring freezes, and so I was pretty much just there for like three, four years. And after that I broke into the consulting industry, and so I was doing a management consulting for healthcare at a small boutique firm, and I did that for a year. I was actually flying out to Seattle from Boston every week because that’s where my client was.

Pamela Bardhi: Wow.

James Choi: Yeah.

Pamela Bardhi: Was it Starbucks? You said Seattle.

James Choi: So it was a chain of hospitals. a pretty prominent chain of hospitals. Basically. We were, we were just, in short, plain, simple words, we were just trying to figure out ways to save them money on their expenses.

Pamela Bardhi: Interesting. And from that point, how did you. Because I know where you’re at now. The audience doesn’t yet, they will. So after that, after your world of consulting, what transpired after that?

James Choi: So after consulting, I did that for about a year. And I was at a crossroad and I was planning on going to business school to get my MBA because that’s what I felt like would be my next step on, progressing my career path. But a little curveball. I ended up going to seminary and I thought I was going to be a pastor, and I know that’s a big jump, right? But I just felt like there was just more to this world than just work and making money, and I wanted to figure that out. As we were kind of circling back, make an impact in some way. And so that’s what I did. I went to seminary to potentially be a pastor, and that was going to be a three year journey.

About midway, I met this professor who was teaching what they called faith at work, and that’s basically a fancy way of saying, like, what does God think about the workplace and business? And so it’s merging faith and business together that really intrigued me. I read a couple of books about people that led corporations like CEOs, small business owners, et cetera, and it inspired me and it really spoke to me, and I felt like this was where I needed to be. And so I actually rerouted my path and changed my course to focus on workplace theology and ethics is basically what I was learning and concentrating on.

Pamela Bardhi: That’s super cool.

You mentioned spirituality and business, and that, I think, is something powerful

You mentioned spirituality and business, and that, I think, is something that’s crazy powerful. Crazy powerful. The most successful entrepreneurs that I know are the most spiritual.

James Choi: Oh, is that right? I’m not surprised. I do believe that there is a design to how we should conduct business practices as well as any other practice, whether it’s healthcare, law, teaching. And there’s a good way to do it in a way that creates value, and there’s a, I guess, quote unquote bad way to do it in a way that extracts value, even though you might be maintaining the same goals. Right. And so the approach is really important.

Pamela Bardhi: Absolutely. Tell me more about that theory and that practices. That’s fascinating to me. Yeah.

James Choi: So, it’s really a matter of being people centric, in my opinion. It’s understanding that it’s not. Yes, in business, we want to make money. If we’re not profitable, we cannot sustain a business that is extremely important and that should be one of the top goals. But I don’t believe that it should come at the expense of everything. Right. And so what I mean by that is a lot of times what bothered me in corporations and my experiences, experience with certain leadership was that there were a lot of people in those positions that were not fully equipped to be in those positions, and that’s not necessarily their fault.

It just could be the fact that they were not given the tools or training necessary to do it well. Right. But at the same time, when you’re in that position, it is a big responsibility and burden that you carry to make sure that the people under your care, that you’re treating them well and that you are taking care of them as a leader in that workplace and as that role, it’s not something to be taken lightly. Right. And I think that’s why a lot of times you could have a good job, but then you can also have bad experiences because of your surroundings and the people that you might be encountering. Right. That can really make things miserable.

Pamela Bardhi: Absolutely.

Most successful entrepreneurs have the ability to give and receive, right

And the whole business realm is such an interesting thing, and if you think about it, though, it is a very spiritual thing. Right. Opening yourself up to abundance, ability to receive. Right. So the ability to give, it takes a lot of heart to do both.

James Choi: It is not easy. It is not easy to do it well. It is not easy, exactly.

Pamela Bardhi: And if you think about it like the most successful entrepreneurs is like, you have the ability to give that you also have the ability to receive, and both can be very difficult to do and to train yourself if you’re not like a healed person, meaning. Right.

James Choi: Absolutely. It takes a lot of humility and security to be able to do that and withstand everything that might come at you. It’s difficult to make good decisions consistently over long periods of time.

Pamela Bardhi: Totally. It’s so fascinating. I could talk about that stuff all day, all day long, because I think it’s magical, though. And the best business owners, you know, or really go by these principles, they really care about the business that they’re conducting and who they’re serving and what they’re doing, and it’s more of a mission than it is just to make money. Right. That’s why the most successful entrepreneurs last, and it’s such a scary statistic of how many businesses actually fail because most people go into it. I’m going to make money. Well, it’s like. But you’re forgetting about the whole purpose and passion side of things. Withstand it. All right?

James Choi: And I think we inherently know this because every business has a mission statement and a value statement, and why is that the case? Because we know that that’s what resonates with people. But at the same time, now, there’s also sometimes a disconnect between having that and fulfilling that. that’s the gap that I wanted to bridge together in business, and that’s why I went the track that I did.

Pamela Bardhi: I love that.

After graduating from seminary, you got diagnosed with cancer

So tell me more. So after this, what transpired in your world?

James Choi: Yeah, so after three years, I graduated, and you would think I went on to go start an amazing business and was really successful. But what happened next was a flood of different challenges just coming into my life. So after graduating seminary in 2016, I got diagnosed with cancer literally the week before my graduation, and it was devastating. Long story short, I got through it, with the support of amazing friends and family. And, I am, as far as I know, 100% in the clear, so all is good. It’s been eight years. Eight years, and they say typically five years is a big milestone. And after that, you should be pretty good, but always keep an eye out for anything that might occur. But all is good there.

And after that, I was gung ho and super eager to go into the workplace and just make a change with everything that I learned, and I thought that the tech industry did a good job of trying to identify these values and try to fulfill them in their workplace. And so I wanted to go into that industry and kind of help support and continue to grow. That. Long story short, it was about a year and a half of numerous applications, hundreds of interviews, final interviews, and nothing stuck. So for about a year and a half to two years, I was unemployed after that, and I just got to a point where I realized I’ve always wanted to start business, a business. 

And what better way to change and shape a culture than to start my own thing, right? That’s where I get the most, I guess, influence that I can. There’s no red tape, there’s no bureaucracy. I can kind of create it from the ground up, and so I thought there was no better time than to try starting one there, and I’ve always wanted to. I’ve always felt like, ever since college, that Korean food was underrepresented, and I thought that there’s Chinese cuisine or Japanese cuisine, and you can go into a sit down restaurant, but you could also get takeout. Fairly easily accessible for those cuisines and many other asian cuisines, but for some reason, korean food was not.

And you had to go sit down at a restaurant, order, take about an hour to eat, and it wasn’t very easily accessible to the masses in, like, a convenient way, and I felt like it should be, and I couldn’t see any reason why it couldn’t be. And so I thought that there was a gap in the market, and I wanted to start a business revolving around that concept. The issue is, I have no food experience. As you know, I was in finance and consulting, and then I went to seminary, and I can’t start a fast casual korean food restaurant, and so I started to work for a fast food company, and I worked there for a year, just learning the operation as a normal team member, making near minimum wage. It was a crazy, humbling, very valuable experience for me.

Pamela Bardhi: So you started working for somebody before you went into your own genius. Of course you want to model and then basically practice and create for yourself, which is amazing.

James Choi: Well, it wasn’t a Korean fast food restaurant. It was just a fast food restaurant, like a fast food chain. And I was just learning the operations of what a fast food restaurant looked like, or any fast food, like, just figuring out how to cook kind of operations, and systems did they use, how do they order food? What are their cogs, cost of goods sold, what kind of percentage makes for a good profit, how much is rent? All these things I learned.

But the most valuable lesson that I learned was just learning how to be one of the people that I may be employing in the future. Knowing and understanding that the experiences that they go through on a day to day basis, the challenges that they might have, what may make things easier for them, what may make things more difficult for them. And just to be one of just a normal employee that starts a hire for my company, that was just a very eye opening experience for me, and that’s kind of shaped me, to where I am today as well.

Pamela Bardhi: I absolutely love that.

What was your first step in starting your own business

So I love that you got this experience and you went in and such, like a deep dive. Like, you just went in and just started working and kind of saw all these things. And so what was your first step in starting your own business?

James Choi: Yeah, that’s a great question. So I had to work with what I had, and I didn’t have much. Again, I was going through my, I guess you can say, illustrious career. Then I went to seminary, then I had cancer, unemployment, and worked at a fast food restaurant. And so you’d have to imagine I don’t have much saved at this point, and I don’t have access to much capital, so I can’t start your traditional restaurant. That would take hundreds of thousands of dollars minimum to even build out and start and launch, and so I again looked to other companies or industries that did things in a bootstrapped way and scaled.

And so I kind of took cues from the tech industry again, and I was like, wow, these companies, many companies just start very small, and they gradually build their way up after testing their concept, proving their concept, and kind of just ironing out kinks. And so I started to do some research on how I could do that for the food space, and lo and behold, they have commercial kitchens, like shared kitchen spaces, where you can just go in, rent kitchen space in time, and so I thought, great, they already have everything built out. I don’t need to build anything out. I can just go in, start utilizing all their equipment.

I might pay a little bit more to rent the space, but I get to do it in like, a case by case basis. Whenever I get orders, whenever I need to. And so I started there, and now kind of figured out my production facility. I also had to figure out my product, and so we were just testing what they call a pirimpap bowl. It literally translates to mixed rice. It’s a Korean dish with the base of rice, your protein, mixed veggies, and so once we figured that out, then we were ready to launch. We just needed some capital, and so I got some small seed funding from friends and family, and I started the company, perillas, in June, of 2018, for $15,000.

Pamela Bardhi: That’s incredible. That’s incredible, and you were able to start in this commercial kitchen, which is amazing. And it’s kind of like, they say it’s a new concept, but I’m just so thankful that they even started doing it in the first place, because, I had two restaurants by the time I was 21. The build out was extremely expensive, and there’s no way I could do it with $15,000. $15,000, I think, is what I paid the architect. That’s incredible, because the barrier to entry, and had you not have that option, like perils, wouldn’t be what it is today.

Foundation Kitchen started with 15 square feet in a commercial kitchen

So how is it that this access and opportunity is coming for entrepreneurs, especially in the restaurant space? Like, oh, my goodness, so you started it with 15K in the commercial kitchen. What happened next? How did it go being.

James Choi: So the place is called Foundation Kitchen. They’re located in Somerville, and they have a new facility now. I think it’s in Charlestown, technically, or Chelsea. Charlestown now. It was exactly what I needed. You just go in, you rent the space, and you just start cooking. You rent some walk-in space in the fridge, you rent some dry storage space, some freezer space, and everything has a cost. That’s how they make money. But at the same time, we get to kind of just pay for what we need. And, funny story, I try to be as diligent as I could in starting this. We had our first order, and I got everything that we needed, checked all the boxes, all the ingredients, all the materials, all the equipment that we need, like a rice cooker, not like the big stuff like stoves.

And then when it came to fulfill that first order and cook everything, I realized we didn’t even have, like, a spatula or tongs or anything like that, and I thought that the shared kitchen space would have them. And now my wife, at that time, my girlfriend, she was helping me, and she was just using a spoon to cook all the meat and whatnot, and it was just humble beginnings. Humble beginnings. But these make for great stories, and so, bless her, she has been a rock in this journey as well. It was crazy, but we got the orders rolling. We targeted catering for offices. This is pre pandemic, and then also pop ups at breweries.

And those were like, I did those because obviously we don’t have a retail space, and it doesn’t make sense to do third party apps like Uber Eats or Grubhub, because we have to stay open to get orders right. And time is money in a shared kitchen space. You have to be really efficient, and so catering is all preorders, and I know exactly how much to make. I don’t need to figure out, oh, we need to set aside 30 servings for lunchtime. Everything’s already known, there’s no waste, and everything’s efficient in cooking because we’re just doing it all at once and pop up. It’s almost like we’renting out store space at a brewery, and they’re bringing in all the customers, and we just get to sell our food, and that’s how we start to get a name for ourselves.

And then that’s how we got it launched. Yeah, and then about three months later, we saw this opportunity to go into bow market. It’s a small marketplace in Union Square, Somerville, and it just has a bunch of food and retail shops, but they’re really tiny. What we rented out was 150 sq ft. It’s really small, and there’s not much cooking you could do there. But we didn’t need a place to cook because we could do it at the shared kitchen space. We just needed a place to start selling our food. And so the rent was, if you calculate it by a square footage basis, it’s astronomical. It like, rivals Harvard Square.

But because it’s so small, the overall number that we’re paying and expense is very manageable, and so I just did some calculations. I popped up at the brewery that was in the marketplace, and I kind of just saw how many people came by, and I thought, okay, if we could make this amount of sales, just judging by actual numbers that I’ve seen, x amount of days in a month, then I can make it work. And so I signed the lease, and we just got started, and it was a pop up space, and so they kind of built everything out for us, and we just had to go in and start selling our food, and that’s how we gained some more traction, in September of 2018.

Pamela Bardhi: Oh, my goodness. I love that. I love that. And then organically, it just basically grew from there, which is incredible. Incredible, and then Covid made its way in 2020.

How did you pivot in an environment where most people were failing

And how did you pivot? The one thing that amazed me about your story is that you were able to pivot and survive and thrive in an environment where most people were failing.

James Choi: I can’t say it was something super special about me, but it was based on framework that I really had in starting this business. And I really wanted to do my best to mitigate risk as much as I can, because I feel like I kind of see business as a game that we’re all playing. The longer you’re able to stay in and play the game, the more chance you have to succeed, and that means in order to stay for as long as you can, you need to mitigate risk as much as you can, because if you’re over leveraged and you’re vulnerable, you’re going to get knocked out. And if you’re out, you can’t win. You don’t have any chance of making it, and so that’s why I try to scale everything organically and slowly and kind of bootstrap my way.

And so after the year pop up, we didn’t have a space anymore, but it was okay because our catering business was growing really well at that point, and as you said, 2020 Covid happened, and our revenue literally the next day, we shot to zero. We had nothing coming in. Everything that was already scheduled was cancelled, and it was very devastating. It was very devastating. And about after a day of just sulking and just feeling bad for myself, my wife said, all right, now it’s time to get together, get your act together, and, we got to figure this out. She was right. I pulled myself up from my bootstraps, and I said, all right, what can we do? Logically, I was just thinking through it, and our customers did not go anywhere.

All the customers that we were serving at bow market, at pop ups, and through catering, they’re all still around. They’re just not in the same places that we have been serving them in. They’re at home now, and so I was like, how can I get my product to them in their home? And so we start to roll out meal kits. In many ways, it’s just a really small version of our catering package. It didn’t make sense to just deliver one bowl, but four. That starts to make some sense, and so we would do four servings each for one family meal kit, and we started delivering them, two times a week, and it started growing, and that’s what sustained us and helped us get through the pandemic.

Pamela Bardhi: That’s incredible. Well, it’s almost like innovating how you were going to get the product to them based on the need. Right. Which is really, and it sounds like you’ve strategically gone through every area of your business. Like, every phase that you were at, you were like, how am I going to find the customer? What is it that they need, and how can I get it to them with the least amount of risk possible?

James Choi: Right. If you break it down simply, that’s what you need to figure out is how do you get your product or service to the customer in the most efficient way. Right. And if we can figure that out, you start to have a chance of growing them and.

Pamela Bardhi: Absolutely, absolutely. I love that. I love that, James.

During COVID, a lot of companies had to shut down

My goodness. And now, just because I want to get everyone up to speed of where you’re at now, where is Pirellas now after that post, Covid, what happened?

James Choi: So just really quickly, for some context, during COVID a lot of companies had to shut down, and there were a lot of vacancies, but at the same time, that also created a lot of opportunities. And so we jumped in on those because I always thought that no matter how bad things can get, everything’s always sick. Coal, especially the economy, and it’s not always going to stay down forever. At some point, it’s going to go up, and so I thought that if we can get in and if we could just hold our breath and hang on to when this is all over, we’ll be in position to ride the wave up, and that’s what we did.

And so right now, we have our big base of operations in Brighton, and that’s a retail store, production facility. Our catering operations goes out of there. We have a small location at Boston Public Market in Boston. We have a small location in Logan airport, Terminal C, because Boston Public market has a location in Logan, and we’re inside there as well. And then this month, we just launched catering operations in New York.

Pamela Bardhi: And that’s not easy to do in the restaurant business at all. Most people can’t even handle one location.

James Choi: I have a wonderful team. I have an amazing team, and so all credit to them, they have been great. They’ve been with me. They have worked really hard, and I just do my best to make sure that they’re taken care of, that they have everything that they need, and that they enjoy being in the environment of perilous.

Pamela Bardhi: I love that. Well, it’s more of like a mission. Right together that you guys are all walking through this together, and I love that you said your team. That is incredible.

James, in building this business, what have been some of your biggest challenges

And, James, like, kind of, in building this business, what have been some of your biggest challenges that you’ve faced on a personal level? Right. Because we know entrepreneurship is never an easy thing. Right. So, what have been some of your personal challenges, and how did you pivot from them or learn from them or kind of learn, how to work with them? Right.

James Choi: Hiring and labor is always one of the biggest challenges. So, labor and capital are two of the biggest challenges, always in sustaining and growing a business. It’s not easy finding good people and then keeping them and then making sure that we can get capital to grow m have enough cash flow to sustain, especially during the pandemic. It’s what made it really difficult. And so I would say my biggest challenge has been the two, three years of COVID I think there was a moment where I was legitimately depressed because I felt like I was just putting up fires every day. I would explain it as I feel like I was getting punched left and right, and I feel like I was in a boxing match is kind of how I tell the story.

I feel like I was in a boxing match. I always felt very confident that we were going to make it. It wasn’t a matter of, is our product good enough? Because it went through enough time and testing, and we got enough feedback to know that we had something sustainable, and it was still hard. Nonetheless, even though I knew or I knew we had a great shot of making it through, I still didn’t enjoy getting punched in the face every single day and having to deal with all these, things going wrong and business being really slope and just figuring out how to make it to the next week, because I wasn’t even paying myself for the majority of it, so that we can keep our team intact as best as we can.

And I didn’t want to limit their hours too much, and I didn’t want to cut their pay, and so that’s kind of one of the values that I brought from my time in seminary of just as a leader, I need to bear that burden, of responsibility, of taking care of my team. And obviously, you have to merge that with making sure that you can stay in business. Right. Because, again, if you shudder and you close, you can’t take care of anybody. But at the same time, I feel like I need to lead by example, and that’s why it’s so hard, is because we’re all so inherently selfish and self centered that to kind of put yourself last is very difficult to do. So that has probably been by far the most challenging times that I’ve been through in business.

Pamela Bardhi: Absolutely, and I mean, every entrepreneur understands, right. Those are the two hardest things to really have access to in order to scale, in order to get to kind of the next level. But it sounds like with you, with your risk mitigation and all of that, you were kind of really able to study it and kind of almost mathematically put a number on it at times to make sure that your risk levels were there. And that way you could kind of beta test it before kind of diving in completely, which I think is incredible. And, James, it’s no easy feat. What you experienced in the health realm, too, as an entrepreneur is also incredible.

James Choi: I think it’s prepared me, going through those moments really prepared me to have the resilience of what I had to go through in being an entrepreneur. And I think had I not gone through that, I don’t know what I would have done in the past five years. Having gone through the hardship of starting and running a business, especially through Covid in the food space, it was very difficult. But at the same time, I do think my previous experiences helped me be resilient during those moments. For sure.

Pamela Bardhi: Absolutely, James.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you’re starting business, Pam says

And for any entrepreneur or aspiring entrepreneur, anybody who’s listening through your experience, what would be your biggest piece of advice in business based on what you’ve experienced?

James Choi: I think it’s very easy to get overwhelmed when you’re starting business. Like, you got to thinking about so many different things, and no matter how much support you get, no one can quite understand the weight that you kind of bear fully unless they are an entrepreneur themselves. And it’s not a knock on anybody. It’s just you just need to go through it and experience it to really fully grasp just everything that comes at you and everything you need to think about. Right. I’m not a parent yet, but I would imagine it’s like parenting.

You can kind of get what it’s like to be a mom or a dad, but until you go through it, you don’t fully know. Right. I think that’s the same for entrepreneurship. And so to combat that, I always try to break things down as simply as I could and just take things one step at a time. What is the next step that I can do or the next thing that I can do to propel this forward? When things get really difficult, I just allow myself to do that one thing and I’m done for the day, and that’s good enough. But if you just take one step at a time, and then take that next step and take that next step.

Over time, you look back and you’ve walked a long way. And what’s the saying? They say, like, how do you build a house? You build it one brick at a time, and when you kind of look at the end goal and you’re trying to figure everything out from the beginning, very overwhelming, right. And it could be very daunting, and then you start to get paralyzed, and I think that’s where a lot of people kind of might have difficulty overcoming, especially when the time gets tough. What is one thing that I can do to move this company forward? And that’s it.

Pamela Bardhi: I love that. I love that, James, that’s incredible. One step at a time. We underestimate how powerful those small steps are in order to lead to those big steps moving forward. Right. Even if you take one step per day, small step, by the end of the year, that’s 365 steps.

James Choi: That’s right. If you’ve walked a certain distance, all it is, is the cumulation of many steps, right. And so as long as you can just keep going forward one step at a time and just break it down to that one thing, over time, you’ll be good. It really is a marathon, Pam. It’s not a sprint. It is a marathon, and that is one of the biggest things I had to overcome as well, because I’m a sprinter. I love, ever since I was younger, I was an athlete, everything was sprinting for me.

I couldn’t do long distance. I loved starting new things, and I would go just right off the bat, dive headfirst into it, and I realized, in business, you can’t do that. I mean, yes, you can start that way, but you have to realize that it’s a marathon. You have to continue going consistently over time. You can’t just go crazy in the beginning. You’re just going to burn out, and you won’t last.

Pamela Bardhi: That’s the absolute truth, and I’m much like you where I’m like, all right, let’s go. And sometimes it’s like the business teaches you lessons so much, and it’s fascinating.

How did you come up with the name Luz with an S

Oh, my gosh, James, I love this. I love your personal story embedded with your business story, and I think it’s so, oh, one thing I didn’t ask you was like, how did you originate with the actual name?

James Choi: I could ask this a lot.

Pamela Bardhi: Yes, I forgot. I’m like, oh, my God, wait.

James Choi: Quite frankly, there’s no deep meaning behind it. A perilla without an s parilla leaf. You can call it sesame leaf. It’s from the mint family, and it’s in Korean cuisine. Sometimes it’s presented as, like, a side dish. Sometimes use it along with lettuce as, like, a wrap in Korean barbecue. So it has association with Korean food. But if you’re familiar with SEO search engine optimization, it’s how you get kind of on the first page of Google when someone searches for something.

It could be pretty expensive to get that set up. I didn’t have funds. Perillas with an S is not actually a word, and so if someone were to search that, I wouldn’t have much or any competition, because it’s not a word. No one would use it. And so we would just pop up on the front page of Google, and that’s where Luz with an S came from.

Pamela Bardhi: That’s so awesome. It’s a Google, keyword.

James Choi: Yeah. so I approached it very, just, like, practically.

Pamela Bardhi: I love that, James.

What would your older self tell your younger self based on what you know now

Oh, my gosh. And this is my favorite question. I always save the best for last, because it truly is, like, the best question. So what would your older self tell your younger self based on what you know now?

James Choi: What would my older self tell my younger self based on what I know now? Go for what you want to do and you enjoy. Time is too precious to be doing something that you don’t want to do, and you’re just going to be miserable. And we live in a time and age where you could be successful and make a good living doing just about anything with the technology that’s available and the access and globalization and everything like that.

And so I really believe, go do what you really enjoy doing. Don’t worry about what other people want you to do, what other people say or think about, because if you do what you enjoy doing, you’re naturally going to get good at it. Because you’re naturally going to want to spend time doing it, and I think you have a higher chance of succeeding and being happy doing that.

Pamela Bardhi: I absolutely love that, James. I love that. It’s so true, though. It’s like, once we step into our purpose, it’s almost like everything else aligns, right? When we do the things that we’re meant to do that we were afraid to do, it’s like everything starts coming. You’re like, oh, why didn’t I say yes sooner? Damn it.

James Choi: Yeah. I really believe everyone is blessed with certain skills and talents, right? And you know what they are, and so to live someone else’s dream and to be placed in a situation where you’re not utilizing those skills and talents is going to be like pulling teeth. But when you’re in a place where you’re utilizing your gifts and you’re naturally going to have interest there, most likely you’ll succeed, you’ll excel, you’ll do well, and you’ll be much happier.

Pamela Bardhi: I love that. James, you’re so right. And it’s almost like you think about it, it’s like being in the ocean and you’re going against the right, right. You’re going to get smacked right no.

James Choi: Matter how good you are.

Pamela Bardhi: Right, and if you’re going with the. If you step into it, you’re like, all right, I accept. I’m just going to take it all in, and then you start moving with the waves. It’s, like, effortless. You just flow. It’s like, okay, this is cool, but resisting is going to create that whole experience. And, I mean, even with me, I’m like, I didn’t listen for a while. There were things. There were pivots in my world. I’m like, yeah, I’m not going to step into that.

James Choi: It takes some time, and sometimes you need to kind of journey through different paths to figure out what really works for you, and that’s fine, but if, you know, just go for it. Just go for it.

Pamela Bardhi: Absolutely. Oh, James, you are amazing, my friend. It has been such an honor to have you here today, and I know there’s people listening that are like, where can I find James, where can I find, like, where can we find you? And stay updated in your world, James.

James Choi: You can find us on Instagram at perillasfood. That’s perillasfood. Perillasfood. And also, perillasfood.com is our website, so please go check it out. We just did, like, a rebranding process. We’re going to get some new pictures on there, and so it’ll be updated shortly. But right now, it just had some older things, but, it’s still accessible. You can still find all the information that you need. We’re pretty active on Instagram and social media, and so definitely reach out. if you want to reach out to me personally, feel free to reach out to me at James. J-A-M-E-S. Choi. Choi. Six on Instagram. Feel free to just, hit me up, send me a dm. we’d love to chat and get connected.

Pamela Bardhi: Amazing. James, thank you so much again for being here, my friend. Ah. Oh, man. I’m excited to see where it all goes in your future. This is only the beginning.

James Choi: I hope so. We’ll see. Pam, thank you so much. It’s been wonderful. Had a really great time sharing my story.

Pamela Bardhi: Thank you so much for being here. James, you are incredible, and I adore your story, man, I just can’t wait to see where it goes. It’s going to be a mix.

James Choi: Thank you. Thank you, thank you.

Underdog is a weekly podcast featuring advice from underdogs

Pamela Bardhi: So that’s it for today’s episode of Underdog. Catch us next week. Always dropping on Thursdays. And remember, if you’re interested in real estate or want to learn how to create more money and magic in your life, check out meetwithpamla.com and let’s chat. Sending you so, so much love. All we know is all the time.


Tune in to the episode to hear the rest of my incredible interview with James Choi. If you found this story worth your time and made changes in your life, we’d love to hear from you! Subscribe and leave a review. The Underdog Podcast host is none other than Pamela Bardhi. She’s rocking the Real Estate Realm and has dedicated her life as a Life Coach. She is also Forbes Real Estate Council. To know more about Pam, check out the following:

If you’re interested in elevating your life 10x, and owning your power, Pamela invites you to join her for a 15-minute call to set your goals straight and get clarity. Start building your game plan now: meetwithpamela.com