It takes guts to leave the career you know to open a restaurant, and true dedication to survive let alone make it a rousing success. That's precisely what John Prigogine did in opening OLD BOY in Brussels with his business partner Xavier Chen. While their journey hasn't been quite as dramatic as its South Korean action thriller namesake, it's certainly had its twists and turns. When the pandemic hit, it took an even greater resolve than what they had to muster in the early survival days. Luckily, John knows what it takes to reinvent. We spoke with him at the one-year mark of his restaurant opening, then again this summer to hear what it took to give his restaurant concept another look to make sure the Bruxellois could come back for another taste.
When COVID-19 hit and you had to close, was it a sure thing you'd be back or was it ever in question?
So this is what happened. The rumor had been confirmed. All restaurants would have to close for an undefined time. We pretty much knew this would happen and we were ready for it. We cleaned up everything, emptied our fridges and dispatched all the food we had. We said goodbye and went home. At this point we didn't know when we could reopen, and the social distancing rules applying to restaurants in Belgium were not very encouraging. Specifically in our case: a small, 29-seat restaurant, with 15 seats at the counter and 7 tables of 2. If we were to keep a distance of 1.5m between each table, we'd be left with roughly 3 tables of 2 and 6 seats at the counter – so 12 seats total. The math was simple. Considering our functioning costs and our average ticket, it wasn't looking good. So yes, in the beginning we thought we'd never be able to open again. We hoped to reopen, but it required a little thinking and changing the way we had been doing business for a year and a half.
How did you spend most of your time while you were closed?
When the lockdown was announced, we closed both our businesses: OLD BOY the restaurant and LIL BOY the takeaway. LIL BOY could have stayed open, but we decided to close down for a while, doing the right thing at that time. So here I was, forced unemployment, stuck at home. Xavier my partner was covering all the paperwork that followed the closure and I basically had nothing to do. Day to day I'm more the field guy, being around OLD BOY, working closely with the kitchen, the front of house staff, communications…so with the restaurant closed I had a lot of time for myself (I have no kids) and I have to say I did enjoy it a lot. I did relax, play video games, cook a lot, continue to work on new projects, and of course thought of how to keep OB alive (at least on social media) and how we could possibly get OB back on track.
What did it take to get OLD BOY back?
After about a month, Xavier and I decided it was time to get LIL B back open. Takeaway was of course booming, and we wanted to be back. The question was to find a way to get OB back on track too. LIL B is OB's takeaway so we didn't want OB to do something that LIL B was already doing well. So we came up with a different concept for OB until we could reopen OB this past June: OLD BOY AT HOME. Every week we designed a menu including a marinated meat or fish with two choices of vegetables on the side. The vegetables were pre-cooked and just needed to be reheated at home following our instructions. The meats were marinated and sold raw, also with instructions on how to cook them properly at home. On the side we also sold packs of natural wines, and we continued with our playlists so people could really get that OB feeling at home—cooking and dressing up their food while drinking our wine and listening to our sounds. This was a great success. We were busy every week. We even launched BAOS and WONTONS DIY kits that people could buy on top of our menus. We were selling like crazy.
Looking back at when you first opened, what gave you the impetus to start OLD BOY?
I love to cook, I love to eat. I was always trying to understand and think about why this place or that restaurant was working well and what was missing in Brussels. So I had it in mind for a long time. I studied business in Brussels at the Solvay Business School, but I always had this thing about food. I had wanted to go to Lausanne, a famous school if you want to work in hospitality, but my parents weren't really into it. They thought restaurant life was too hard. When I was working for Sony, I felt like I was one of those guys working in a big company and not meaning a lot, even though I was moving up the ladder. I felt a bit bored because even if I was working for a good company, it was always the same job movie after movie. The only thing that kept me motivated was working on a restaurant concept. Eventually, it became real because we actually found a place for the restaurant. So I had to decide if I was going to quit and try to launch this restaurant or stay in Sony forever. So I quit and opened OLD BOY.
Tell me about the concept. What did you feel Brussels was missing?
In Brussels, there are a lot of things that can still be done. There's competition of course, but I've always felt we were really behind in terms of concept. Xavier is half Taiwanese, I'm half Thai. We've traveled to Asia a lot. We've also been to London and the U.S. and we saw the kind of places that existed there in terms of Asian restaurants. What you have here are very traditional Asian restaurants—the style of food, the vibe, silly music or no music at all. The old school Asian restaurant. We wanted a restaurant where you would eat good Asian food and the vibe would be nice. We always had in mind those guys from Momofuku in New York, and how there was no place like that here.
What's the experience like?
At OB, we only have a menu of roughly 10 dishes. Of the 10 dishes there are three signature ones that are always on the menu. The rest of the dishes change with the season, what we want to cook, and what vegetables are available. So there's a seasonal component to our menu that was very new for any Asian restaurant in Brussels. Also the idea of sharing food. At OB, sharing is essential because we send every dish one at a time, one after the other. And this was completely new.
New for Brussels?
Definitely in terms of an Asian restaurant. There were already a couple of sharing-style restaurants here, but more French or Scandinavian. It's been a trend for a while, it's happening everywhere else. But for us, it's really a souvenir of how we eat when we're in Asia. Everyone shares everything at the table. It's essential to the experience.
With this new life venture, how has Cowboy fit into it?
When we opened the restaurant, we decided why not buy a Cowboy because we really liked the brand. We thought it looked super cool. Of course it's all black and stylish. It's modern. I live with the bike 10 minutes from the restaurant and it's so convenient. I actually lock it at the entrance. A lot of clients come to the restaurant and they see the bike and ask me about it. I'm not going to say I did my research comparing every electric bike. I just wanted an electric bike and I thought the Cowboy was cool and that's why I bought one.
What do you like most about the bike?
I was pretty amazed about the electric assistance of the bike. But what I like about it is it's a bit sporty. It's an electric bike that still requires you to cycle.
When in your life have you felt the most like a cowboy?
When I decided to quit my job at Sony and invest nearly all of my earnings into the restaurant. I didn't have a business plan and I'd never before worked in the food industry. I was comfortable, earning a good life, working 9 to 5...but we had just found a location for the restaurant and had to decide if we signed the lease it meant quitting my job and going all in because it was going to get real, real fast. Opening the restaurant was definitely a cowboy decision in my life, and it's the best decision I've ever made. It was a bet, but it was something I always wanted to try. It meant I would become independent, be my own boss, and start working in an environment that I love.
Were there any moments after you opened the restaurant that gave you second thoughts?
It was very tough in the beginning. Xavier and myself were working at the restaurant, arriving at eight in the morning. We were doing the cleaning. Then we were both working as servers. We were our own servers because we wanted to play it safe on our costs and we knew our concept. At noon the service opened, taking orders, serving dishes to the customer, cleaning the tables, dressing the tables again. So usually we finished cleaning everything from the first service half past 4 or 5. Then we had to be ready to open again at 7 in the evening. It was so intense. We were only just waking up to go to the restaurant after sleeping a few hours and then doing everything ourselves.
A labor of love. I'm sure your customers have appreciated your dedication though? That it's your restaurant and it's personal.
Exactly. I think the fact that we were so involved, that's what people like too. Even now, we have a great team. The restaurant can function without us. Even so though, I'm always there checking that everything is going well. It's necessary in this line of business, I think.
I think you'd do well in New York. Give those Momofuku guys some competition.
[laughter] I can't imagine how someone has the balles to open in New York. I think of the rent and the competition. If it works it's great, but it could be so tough.
It is indeed. Whenever I end up back in Brussels, I'll come by for a meal.
Perfect. I hope to see you one day at the restaurant.