I can't imagine him without a smile on his face, and I can't imagine leaving his shop without a smile on mine.
He is Roger Park, enthusiastic proprietor of Watt Express—more commonly known as Roger's. Every business day, Roger serves up all kinds of goodies from his tiny snack shop/mini-restaurant, located on the first floor of our three-story Watt Industries office building. We at REASON have been wanting to write about Korean-born Roger for a long time, and this month's cover story on Asian-Americans' success offers the perfect excuse.
A trip to Roger's is a great way to refuel for work (or to procrastinate). Chef Rogée, as his menu calls him, sells everything from candy, chips, and pop to homemade sandwiches, salads, and frozen yogurt. But Roger's is no sterile convenience store. When you walk in, Roger greets you by name (often preceded by "Dr.," as in "Dr. Lucy"); he knows everybody in the building. Italian, German, French, or Spanish music is often playing, with dark-haired, bright-faced Roger frequently singing along, dancing, and playing maracas. He wants to know how you are ("¿Como está?") and how your day is going. If you don't have enough (or any) money for your purchase, that's okay—you can pay him next time. (Trusting customers, he says, is "why they keep coming back.") He makes a joke or two and wishes you Bon Appetit.
The international flavor of Roger's is the product of the 31-year-old owner's worldly upbringing. He spent his first nine years in Korea. But because his father "wanted to see the world," Roger and his family went on the move: first to Paraguay, next to Brazil, and finally to Los Angeles in 1970. Along the way Roger picked up Korean, Spanish, Portuguese, and English.
After graduating from UCLA with a degree in economics, Roger tried his hand at various jobs, working first in the operations department of a bank, then as an interpreter and right-hand man for an optician. In 1983, his aunt asked him to help his uncle at Watt Express, which his uncle had owned for three years. Roger's flair for the job was soon evident: sales picked up as more customers started coming in. Seven months later, his uncle took him aside. "I've decided to go back to Korea," he said. "And I want you to take over the business." Roger obliged.
He now has two employees of his own, Juan and Antonio, whom he gives "100 percent trust." Communicating in a colorful mixture of Spanish and English, the three share all the responsibilities of running the place, in keeping with Roger's management philosophy that "everybody has to do everything."
Though he obviously loves his work, Roger has set his sights even higher: "My dream ever since I started here was, someday I'll have a full-service restaurant, where I can use my culinary expertise."
And his expertise in dealing with people. "They say I have a character, which I think I do, but not a real funny character. I just always feel good about being here, regardless of if I'm making money or not. That counts second. I'm interested in making people laugh and making their day go by fast. Just to enjoy life. I really like America, I thank God I'm here, and someday I'll be one of the world-famous restauranteurs."