How An Immigrant Woman’s Dream of Sharing Korean Culture in America Led Her to Build a Korean Food Empire

Ina Jungin Lee, the owner of Bibimbar in San Francisco's Financial District, is a Korean immigrant who has built a mini-empire of restaurants, bars, and other Korean food businesses in the city.

By AHN Editor

April 3, 2023

In her interview with SF Eater, Ina shared that her goal is to spread Korean culture through food and drink, and she has brought her entire family from South Korea to join her in achieving this mission. She has been putting in work for more than 10 years, creating vegan kimchi and serving soy sauce crab to any and all interested.

Image Source: SF Eater

Ina was born in Seoul, and she credits her mother with helping her develop an early affection for food. Back home, the family owned a restaurant, run primarily by her mother, and Ina was inspired by the way her mother took care of everyone while maintaining an active social life.

San Francisco seemed little in comparison to New York or Seoul when she first arrived. Fortunately, she was able to obtain a visa and a position at Lexicon Branding in Sausalito, a company that helps brands such as BlackBerry and Febreze with product naming. However, by that point, her family’s restaurant in Korea was failing, so she sent all of her money to her relatives in Seoul.

For five years, she was contemplating just how financially broke and emotionally broken she was, until she realized that she wanted to take charge of her own life and have her own restaurant.

Ina took over Bibimbar in 2012, and in the years since, she has built a casual Korean dining empire in San Francisco.

Image Source: SF Eater

Her first acquisition was Bibimbar, a subterranean restaurant concealed from view of the city. BoBop, a snack bar on Valencia Street, and Korner Store, an Excelsior hideaway for house music and soju, are two of her other eateries. Her restaurants are popular with both San Francisco’s Korean population and those who are just discovering Korean cuisine.

Ina faced a lot of challenges in her journey, including concerns about her visa status, but this didn’t stop her from achieving her goals. Later on, her family joined her businesses too.

Featured Image Source: SF Eater