More than just (really good) food: Dragonfly Sushi & Sake Co. ownersKevina Lee
Dec 11, 2012
Hiro Leung (left) and Song Kim (right)
Photos courtesy of Dragonfly Sushi & Sake Co.
The following is an extended version of the interview in our Vulnerability/Strength issue.
Since graduating from the University of Florida, Hiro Leung and Song Kim have become the visionaries for one of the most successful dining experiences in downtown Gainesville.
With Dragonfly, you brought to life the concept of the “modern izakaya” restaurant. How did that come up? What is that concept?
Hiro: Basically, it’s a Japanese pub. Kind of like a Japanese gastropub version, where you get a lot of tapas style dishes, so when you go into the restaurant, you don’t feel like you have to eat a full meal. What you’re doing is you’re getting a little bit of small appetizers in tapas style. You get to open up your palette to different flavors while complementing it with great drinks. If you go to Japan, you have a lot of these Izakaya houses, where everything is like little dishes. If you’re really hungry, you end up with 10 dishes. If you’re not too hungry, you end up with maybe one or two dishes. Izakaya is about having fun, eating around the table, enjoying a whole bunch of friends, and eating small dishes in the passing time.
Song: It’s the whole sharing idea, too. Especially when you’re company among company, family and friends, associates and whatnot. Asian people, they love to eat; when they come to the table, it characterizes the whole “unity of the family” essence. It encourages sharing, exploring, and that’s where communication and all the good things happen—at the table. So we wanted to bring that here to Gainesville.
And how did you guys come up with the concept?
Song: During our standard tenure at UF, we worked in the Japanese restaurant industry together. That’s where we got our background. We really enjoyed what we did. We had a lot of opportunity to explore and get to know the business. That led us to start talking, listening to guests and customers, seeing what they wanted, what was missing, just knowing that there could be more in Gainesville.
Hiro: When we graduated, we wanted to do something. It could have been anything. It could have been the drycleaners, even. It’s a matter of, when you have passion and drive, the end product is probably going to be the same. I think the main idea was that, after we graduated, we were kind of like the modern-day merchant. We went somewhere else, got some ideas, and we decided to give Gainesville something that was missing. Eleven years ago, I don’t think there was anything around here that combined having a good time, the atmosphere, the food, the quality and the cleanliness—put it all together in a box and say, “Here is a restaurant.” Some people have one and not the other; they’re always compromising. So, we took a chance and built a small restaurant.
When we graduated, we wanted to do something. It could have been anything.
Hiro: We decided to open up a restaurant in the cheapest location. Cheap isn’t necessarily good—we learned that the hard way. Our long-term plan was to just survive tomorrow.
Song: It was literally a shoebox. That’s what we called it. The idea, the design did literally come out of a shoebox. It looked like the space we were going into, so we had this shoebox and Hiro—he’s artistic, so he made a little model of how the restaurant would look like. When we put it together, all the paint, all the color schemes that we liked, we kind of looked at it and were like, “Oh my God. What is this?” But we did it anyway, and we learned a lot. Trial and error. It was definitely a roller coaster ride. We always stayed hungry, we always stayed passionate about what we do. We had a great team take us from back then, all the way here. We wouldn’t be here without all the hands, new and old, that went into making this business a success.
Can you tell us a little more about what you do?
Hiro: Well, you see the ping pong table there. [points to ping pong table in the office]
Song: We’re wannabe pros. [laughs]
Hiro: To sum it up, I think the past, present and future is important for a growing company. Song does a really good job working on the present, and I try to work on the future. And the past is obviously in the past, so we take what we’ve learned and try to apply it to our present and future. That’s pretty much a one-sentence description of what we do. If we go into detail, I think we go from scrubbing toilets to changing lightbulbs to bringing in a team to dream about what could happen tomorrow.
If we go into detail, I think we go from scrubbing toilets to changing lightbulbs to bringing in a team to dream about what could happen tomorrow.
Song: There’s a lot that goes into it. Hiro is very creative and likes to push and keep on pushing. He’s sort of the dreamer. He conceptualizes things; he’s always learning and keeping his mind exploring and looking at new and better things, where to take our concept, how to grow, what direction, where to go and whatnot. I like to be more of the realist. I see what’s dealt in front of us and how we need to utilize the pieces that we have—not just keep it there as is but how to integrate our growth and nurture our team so that we can grow together. It’s a lot of dynamics; there’s a lot involved. We realized a long time ago that it’s not about going as fast as we can. We gotta enjoy the ride and look at all the other people that are helping us and making sure that they’re okay and we’re able to take it as far as we can together.
What were some of the most difficult obstacles that you had to overcome while bringing this concept to life?
Song: I guess the learning curve. We felt we knew enough just to get started, but when we did get started, we realized that we didn’t know anything. Just to get off the ground, fortunately we had a lot of good help, mentors that were able to guide us and tell us how to do things correctly. But just going through that whole process was pretty difficult and pretty challenging. It’s something that we feel we’ll never have a grasp on. Challenge is good. It keeps us in check and always pursuing excellence. It’s something we welcome. I think we’re pretty good at adjusting and being open-minded and knowing that we don’t have everything figured out. So, if a problem pops up, I think we’re in tune enough to move on from that challenge and grow.
Was there any instance where you felt you were really close to give up? What kind of struggle did you have to go through?
Song: We did run into a situation where the whole restaurant flooded. The pipes blew up, and all the water pipes were on the ceiling so it came down. We couldn’t open for business, our families came down with grand opening gifts and they were welcomed with water gushing out of the restaurant.
We couldn’t open for business, our families came down with grand opening gifts and they were welcomed with water gushing out of the restaurant.
Hiro: The first three or four years were probably the toughest. We’d look at each other and say, “Man, what did we get ourselves into?” I think it’s just with any growing business; we were too young and naive to think that it was going to be simple and easy. Although those moments were frustrating at times, if I was down, Song would be like, “Hiro, snap out of it.” Having a good family and support system to give you that sense of encouragement is very important.
How did you guys meet? What’s the story?
Hiro: The first time I ever saw him was at the dorm at UF. He was my roommate’s friend, so he was always hanging around that area. He seemed like a cool guy. We struck up a few conversations but it wasn’t until years later that we developed a friendship and a business friendship. I don’t think we were necessarily close friends before we started the business, but we became better friends after.
Song: Back then when we were in school, with all the organizations on campus, everyone is pretty close-knit. I don’t know if it’s as big as it is now or as campus-known. But back then there were always things going on and we were always running into each other at different functions. We had a similar group of friends, so I think that led us to finally say, “Alright. Who are you?” I think it was the tightness that UF was able to provide, that Asian identity as a group that not only helped us but helped everybody to meet other Asians and realize that everyone is on the same boat, same things in life. Hiro was always somebody I respected as a person. He’s a little different, because, you know, he’s from Hong Kong. [laughs] He had this flair, you know, the Hong Kong flair. But we just clicked. Ever since then, we were able to grow as friends, and we realized that we shared similar values and that led to business ideas and how to go about business and create that environment. One thing just led to another and we took that opportunity to pursue it.
Hiro: It was definitely the Asian associations we were involved with that helped out a lot. You’re not aimlessly just at school in a sea of students. Everybody has a need for community. I think I went from the Japanese Student Association to CASA to KUSA and back to JSA. It doesn’t matter who you are or what background you have, I think at the end of the day it’s the people you share the same values with that push you closer together. I ended up more so in KUSA and I’m not even Korean.
Song: Back then, we were still forging our identity. We were around when AASU began. We originally wanted it to be called the Asian Student Coalition, but when it came down to that decision, “coalition” sounded too much like a movement, radical; so we changed it to AASU. That’s when we started doing more things as an umbrella organization. It’s definitely grown. It’s just taken off since the days that we were involved, which is a great thing. We’re very proud to say that we were there. The groups were always there—the independent groups—but to be there when AASU formed I think was probably the best thing that could happen to us Asian groups collectively because it brought everyone together doing similar things, more awareness and collaboration.
The groups were always there—the independent groups—but to be there when AASU formed I think was probably the best thing that could happen to us Asian groups collectively because it brought everyone together doing similar things, more awareness and collaboration.
I was about to ask you what your college experience was like. It sounds like you guys did a lot for the community.
Song: We were normal students. We participated in the various outlets that were there for us as independent students not living at home anymore. Definitely participating in community efforts was something I never did back home, and now that we’re out there in the community, we’re representing.
Hiro: Hanging out with different diverse people was really nice. I joined the rugby team one time because I did rugby in Hong Kong, and church. I think I started focusing a lot on working; I started thinking about part-time jobs and bringing in some income while going through school to pay for the bills. That sort of led to, “Wait. What are we doing after we graduate?”
What were your majors in college?
Hiro: I did marketing and economics, a little business. I originally went into architecture and design, but I think I once had a seminar, and I must have been talking to a really uninspired architect and he just told me not to go into it because it was so miserable. So I walked out saying, “Maybe I should just go to medical school like a model Asian.” Trying to do all the math and science, I was like, “Man, this is not fun.” So I thought maybe I should go back into design. But I think in the midst of thinking, I stopped at business.
Song: I listened to my parents and tried to pursue law, medicine, accounting—forget accounting! But, yeah, that didn’t work. I did that for a couple of years and ended up doing interdisciplinary studies, focusing on human resource. I did minors in business administration and sociology. It’s self-search—you figure out what career you want to do, and hopefully you’ll find what you’re passionate about early so you have a longer life to do what you enjoy doing. School brought us up to realize, “It’s okay. We don’t have to be that way.” We’re Asians, we should be proud Asians. Let’s be a voice in the community. We don’t have to keep to ourselves. We have a lot to offer, a lot to showcase. So go ahead and choose medicine if it’s medicine, if it’s business, if it’s art, architecture or not—be who you are, never lose your roots. Incorporate that in what you do and just be yourself, and you’ll enjoy success.
School brought us up to realize, “It’s okay. We don’t have to be that way.” We’re Asians, we should be proud Asians. Let’s be a voice in the community.
There are so many college students right now who still struggle with the notion of, “My parents want me to do this, so this is what I’m doing.” How did you find out exactly what you were passionate about and how did you take it from there?
Hiro: I left from Hong Kong and Japan at an early age, so I had a lot of freedom since early high school. My parents gave me advice on what to do and what not to do but I was never given too much structure, so I had to go out and figure it out on my own. My dad said, “Hey. I went to a fortune teller—I spent a lot of money, by the way, Hiro—and the fortune teller told me that, you and your brother, one of you is going to be a doctor and the other one is going to be a lawyer.” And so I tried to fit that model because I wanted to impress my father, so I went to the library and picked up all these law books. Picked up more than I could read. So I ended up carrying as many books as I could carry and took it home, just to show my dad, you know, I’m going to be a lawyer. Or a doctor. Whatever side had all these books. And I never opened them. That’s when I realized, you know what, maybe that’s not what I like doing. I ended up doodling and drawing and doing all these things that were more creative, but I had to do it in hiding because I know Asian parents don’t appreciate the drawing side. They want to make sure you’re doing all these hard jobs or a job that can secure paying bills.
Song: Trial and error. I would do it but not be really into it, to make my parents happy and whatnot. That’s when we lived under the same roof. When I came here, I went with what they said but the grades obviously told a different story. [So it’s all about] the freedom to explore, being able to take classes, have control of what you’re doing, being surrounded by friends that have great value and that you get along with, really having that strong support group. Hiro actually got me a job at a restaurant, so if it wasn’t for that, I don’t think I would have had a playground—an area where I felt there were so many different things going on, where I enjoyed everything and little aspects of everything. It’s this arena that allows me to do what I really enjoy doing.
How do you feel about making this decision toward this career path now? Is there anything you would change, looking back?
Song: Jokingly. But there’s so much there to accomplish that we’re not ready to quit. If we are, we’d be honest enough to bring it to the table and comfortable enough to bring a plan together to get out of what we do. We enjoy what we do. It’s what keeps us wanting to do more and more.
What do you envision for yourselves in the future?
Hiro: Definitely to surround ourselves with more talented people that will add value to the company. That’s the short-term vision that we have. But other than that, to just keep doing what we’re doing on a regular basis and have a good time doing it.
Song: Professionally becoming better, nurturing our staff to become better with us. We envision having a balanced life, whether it be family or marriage, other priorities in life. We want to have that family; we want to have that social life as well. We envision great things, both personally and professionally.
It sounds like work isn’t even just work to you. It’s actually fun.
Hiro: If we’re taking it to the next level, if we’re expecting the restaurant do really well, it takes a lot of work and a lot of effort. If it takes that much energy and work, why not have fun with it? To have the support system, the family that believes in the same thing you’re trying to achieve—that’s important. In a way, their separate because they’re not the ones that go to work. But in a way, you carry that work home with you. When you’re stressed and when you’re happy, you want to share those things. With your cat or your dog. There’s nothing more gratifying than, when you’re upset, your cat comes over and gives you a headbutt. When your cat appreciates all the things that you’ve gone through, and you go home, that makes it that much more worth it.
I’m guessing you have a cat.
Hiro: Oh yeah.
You said you deviated from what your parents originally wanted you to do. How did your parents feel—how did they react to it?
Hiro: I didn’t really deviate too much because I moved to the States when I was a little younger and they stayed in Hong Kong and Japan so it wasn’t too bad. At first they were like, “Are you sure that’s what you want to do?” But I think deep down inside they knew that if they supported what I wanted to do, that I would succeed and be happy. It was just the fortune teller story for me.
Song: To some extent, I knew they were disappointed only because of the struggles they had when they came over. My parents lived here in the States, so coming here and having to survive in a culture they weren’t familiar with… they had a gas station business. … I think they knew how hard it was and didn’t want me to do that. But I’m an observant kid, so I see all the hard work. I know deep down they were a little disappointed that I didn’t take that route. But they were supportive anyway. They were there, and they had to trust us in that they helped us enough to be able to see us grow and make mistakes and succeed as adults. I think success is how you define it, how you perceive it.
My parents lived here in the States, so coming here and having to survive in a culture they weren’t familiar with… they had a gas station business. … I think they knew how hard it was and didn’t want me to do that.
What is something you would say to college students who have the same vision of creating and developing their own concept?
Hiro: I’d say go for it. Learn from everything you can, take action, network, keep your plan, get to know as much as you can about the field you’re getting into. But don’t go unprepared. If you want to succeed, don’t go blindfolded. Make sure that you study the industry before you get involved. I think we were lucky back then. I think Gainesville is a forgiving city because we made a lot of mistakes. We learned from it, we recovered and tried not to repeat it over and over. My advice is to take sure you plan, plan and plan again and plan again. You have to be funded really well because if you run out of money then your dream will evaporate. You’ll just be building castles in the air.
Song: Listen to your inner self because you know what you enjoy doing. You might not know exactly, but you have pieces of what you like doing. Figure out what you’re passionate about and, like Hiro says, plan for it. Planning sounds easy but it’s not that easy. You have to be very specific and smart about how you go about planning it and making sure it’s realistic, it’s not some fantasy. That goes back to making sure you know who you are and what you’re capable of doing. Don’t be afraid to fail. I think as Asians, as most people, you know failure is bad. It is if you keep on failing and you allow yourself to keep failing. If you fail, then okay, you’re young and you can recover. The sooner you realize that, you can get there quicker. Success comes from failure, so go ahead and try what you want to do. Surround yourself with a good support system. It’s not an easy road. If you’re working with partners, make sure you find someone that shares the same value system that you respect and can communicate with. Life is short, so don’t be afraid to just act on what you want to do. The key to that is you want to be disciplined to actually get through all your plans and execute on that. We’re still growing in life. There’s a lot to learn.
Hiro: They say it’s “FDA.” You need to have extreme Focus, extreme Discipline and the final A is Action.
Song: I know those are just words, but if you animate it: Focus starts in the head, Discipline come from the heart, and Actions come out of your hands. Everyone is capable of going through that motion.
That’s good stuff. Is there anything else that you would like to talk about?
Song: One of the challenges that we face being in a college town is we understand that the majority of our staff are younger, are students, and they’re trying to go through life and figure out what they want to do, that this is just a means for them to get through. But we see this as an opportunity.
One of the things Hiro and I have realized is that we have to make an impact on all the lives of the people that come through our doors because they are family, and once they’re accepted into our family we want to help them as much as possible. We come up with some principles, the bushido, it’s just our way of giving staff information on how to live their life. We try to apply it in the workplace and the beauty of that is that they can take it outside the workplace, and no matter what they do, they can succeed in life. There’s five points we focus on: passion, integrity, professionalism, enjoyment and teamwork. If they apply it here, then great, we’ll have an awesome work environment and we’ll succeed as a team restaurant. If they happen to leave, graduate and move on in life, they can always take those principles with them.
That one day they just came into the store needing a job, not knowing exactly what they wanted to do, and through the tools and resources that were given to them, they wanted to make something of themselves. That makes us proud.
We’re constantly in that phase of bringing in new people, teaching them and guiding them in the right direction. Some of the great success stories is that we had staff that came in through our doors who of course have made us who we are today but we can also say we have impacted their lives. We had one of our servers actually win The Apprentice, and she’s working in her own multimillion dollar real estate company helped through Donald Trump. We have chefs that have gone to work for Charlie Trotter, who is a famous chef. Now he’s touring all over Europe under famous chefs. We have others who have gone to culinary school and have become bigger and better. Those are the great success stories that one day we’ll look back and say we had an impact in their lives. That one day they just came into the store needing a job, not knowing exactly what they wanted to do, and through the tools and resources that were given to them, they wanted to make something of themselves. That makes us proud.
Those are the stories that we take and we share with the rest of the team because it’s not just a job. If you dedicate your time and energy and effort into what you do, you’ll see things. You’ll see opportunities. You’ll make opportunities. That’s something that, in hindsight, the space that we create—it’s an arena where people can come in and make a living but also learn the valuable tools about life and how to become successful, whether with us or even without us, as long as we made an impact in their life. That’s what it’s really about. We don’t want to forget about our people because they helped us get here, to get to this point. But we want to further their lives, too. It’s not just about our journey and where we want to be. After 11 years, we don’t want to say, “Look at us. We’re going this way.” There are so many more success stories that really define what Dragonfly is about. That’s something that we see happen every day, and we keep in contact with people who have gone on to further and better. That’s what it really comes down to. That’s what we’re proud of. We created this concept but it’s more than just food.