Owner, Inga’s Subs and Sandwiches
“Customers come first, no matter how big or small.”
Inga Kim owns and operates Inga’s Subs and Salads. Conveniently located on the edge of the LSU campus at 254 West Chimes Street, the shop caters mostly to students and has been voted Best Sandwich by the Student Media Association. “Campus advertising is by word of mouth,” she says. Now that some of the campus is closed to automobiles during the day as part of LSU’s push to become a pedestrian friendly campus, Kim reports she is getting more professors since they have to walk to lunch. Inga’s features sandwich trays for parties, events and tailgating and takeout orders by phone or fax. She stresses quality control; everything is always fresh in the restaurant. One of their specialties is warm potato salad, which is not available all day since it only keeps for four hours.
When she was in her early twenties, Kim, her parents and two brothers came to this country from South Korea. “My father worked in the housing department for the US Army and from that experience he decided to have our family immigrate for the business and financial opportunities in this country and for his children’s future.” With her aunt sponsoring them, the family settled first in Boston and found it not too different from Seoul, a big city with a similar climate. But living expenses were too high there. Her father had friends in Louisiana who encouraged them to move south. They also tried Houston, before eventually settling in Baton Rouge.
When asked how she felt about uprooting herself and leaving all her friends in Korea, Kim says, “I didn’t have a choice. My father said go and I went.” Her sister was already in the U.S. Her mother, who was born in North Korea and educated in Japan through college, had never considered South Korea her home. Kim and her father eventually became U. S. citizens, but her mother never did. Though she had taken six years of English in school, Kim was very shy back then, but she met people at her work places and found most Americans friendly and welcoming. She has taken business and accounting courses to support her business/career. “I attended LSU for three semesters but never finished.”
Kim got her start in sandwich shops when her father opened a Blimpie’s sandwich shop in 1984. “The family needed an income and the restaurant business was the easiest to get into.” She says they never considered starting a Korean restaurant (there are still none in town.) “The Blimpie Franchise was a business opportunity and we took it.” In 1994 when the company changed the rules for the restaurant chain, her father retired and moved to Seattle. “Inga’s came about when Blimpies’s tried to expand in BR. They wanted us to change the menu, and I knew my customers wouldn’t put up with that.” The old Blimpie’s was torn down, and when the new building was finished, it opened as Inga’s. The location has changed three times since its inception, but has always been near the LSU campus.
One of Kim’s chief goals is to keep the prices affordable for students, her main clientele. She tries to do cost cutting research, checking other shops’ prices, but this can be difficult and time consuming. “Corporate and Franchise restaurants can control prices since they buy in bulk, which makes it hard for small businesses to compete.” The business is doing well enough that a second location at 1750 Brightside Lane is now open. Inga’s is open from 10:30 AM to 10:00 PM Monday through Saturday, but she is really on call for the shop 24/7. “It’s the nature of the business,” Kim says. She employs fifteen people. “We do have some good managers now, but I still work lunch at the Chimes Street location.”
Kim sees herself as an away-from-home mom to the students who frequent her shop as well as those she employs. In her 24 years in business she has interacted with a lot of students. One of her responsibilities in managing the shop is teaching the students who work for her a basic work ethic–they are expected to come to work on time and do the best they can. She tells them to make sure the customers get the service they deserve. She likes mentoring the students.
Her two sons, one a recent graduate from LSU and the other a sophomore there, have worked in the shop as they’ve grown up. “It was manageable to do the shop as a working mother; my mother was their babysitter when they were little.” Her oldest son graduated in political science and is now a soccer coach for BR Soccer Association and the Baton Rouge Capitals, our minor league soccer team. The youngest is in mechanical engineering. “And yes, they still help out when I need them or when they need extra money.”
Kim would like to see the new governor take Baton Rouge and Louisiana to the next level educationally, both at the college level and in vocational training “People need jobs and training particularly in basic job skills and work ethics.” She would like to see libraries used as they should be. “Too many of the students I meet think they have to buy books instead of using the library, which is a free service for the public.” Currently learning to knit, Kim is interested in the many knitting books the library has in its collection.
She likes Baton Rouge, particularly the weather, and has thought about retiring here. But she misses the mountains. “There are mountains in Korea and public transportation to take you there.” Kim’s favorite place to vacation is Oregon. She and her husband (he came into the shop for a sandwich and ended up with a wife) enjoy backpacking in the mountains there.
Besides her work and family responsibilities, Kim has worked with the CASA program for the last three years and is an active member of the Northgate Merchants Association, which she helped form with other retailers there. The North Gate area of LSU, also known as Tigertown, is the historic shopping and entertainment district right off campus, popular with generations of LSU students, faculty, staff, and fans, according to the association’s website-http://northgatesoflsu.com.
“The North Gate Merchants Association is committed to improving the business, residential, and social climate of the North Gates area of LSU. Our goal is to enhance the aesthetic qualities and the accessibility of the neighborhood, while preserving its diverse and historic character. We also strive to strengthen all links to LSU and nearby communities, in order to better attract university students, faculty, and staff, as well as others throughout Baton Rouge who enjoy spending time on or near the LSU campus.”
Inga Kim’s story is a uniquely American one. No longer that shy young immigrant, Kim has grown into a confident businesswoman. She considers herself a people person –“I like people and they seem to like me.” The success of Inga’s Subs & Salads is rooted in her strong work ethic, her entrepreneurial spirit and her credo of excellence in customer service. A true American success story, she’s made at good living at a job she loves, sent her kids through college and impacted the lives of many young people through her business and her volunteer work with CASA.