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Charley’s long a staple of Ohio State

Charley Shin, the owner of Charley’s and Bibibop, started his business in 1986 on 17th Avenue and High as a small sandwich shop. Credit: Amal Saeed | Assistant Photo Editor

In the summer of 1986, Robin Bennett walked nervously into the small 17th Avenue and High sandwich shop with her date, unsure of what the day would have in store for her.

As a reporter for The Lantern, she had been spending more and more time with the paper’s restaurant critic, Doral Chenoweth III, the son of Columbus Dispatch critic Doral Chenoweth II nicknamed “The Grumpy Gourmet.”

This was their first date, but it was also for business. They were going to review the new restaurant, Charley’s.

Located in an old Kinko’s, Chenoweth described the restaurant as being “approximately 500 square feet of restaurant” with green carpeting and brass railing separating the limited dining space from the kitchen in his May 8, 1986, review.

But Bennett didn’t remember much of that. All she remembered was being anxious, unsure what to be critiquing about the food, and trying hard to impress her date. That, and the lone employee working in the back — an Ohio State student, toiling away at the classic Philly cheese steak sandwiches.

“He was the only person in the restaurant,” Bennett said. “There was no cashier. Nobody else making sandwiches. It was just him and us.”

The student was Charley Shin, owner of the small sandwich shop. Shin had opened up the restaurant in March 1986 while studying finance, real estate.

He debated dedicating 100 percent of his focus to the restaurant and abandoning his remaining two quarters at the university, but decided against it.

“I juggled a little bit, but it was worth it,” Shin said. “I’m so glad I got done with school and got that diploma.”

The juggling paid off. Thirty-three years after opening the doors to his small sandwich shop, Shin is a millionaire, with nearly 600 stores opened in 46 states and 17 countries.

But his journey to becoming the owner of one of the leading sandwich chains in the world did not begin in 1986. Instead, it began nine years earlier.

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Shin and his sister immigrated to the United States from Seoul, South Korea, in 1977. His mother, Young Pak, had arrived in the U.S. almost two years earlier after she had been invited by Shin’s aunt. He joined his mother in the states when he was in the seventh grade and lived on the East Side of Columbus.

Adapting to the U.S. was a gradual process. He began attending Johnson Park Junior High although he spoke very little English.

“I was so bored. I was so sleepy,” Shin said. “That was basically it because I didn’t really understand much of what was going on.”

In the next few years he began to pick up on the language, and as Shin grew up around U.S. culture, he began to develop an adoration for Ohio State University. By the time he was ready to graduate from Columbus Alternative High School, there was never any second thought: He would attend Ohio State.

Despite knowing what college in which he wanted to enroll, Shin said he entered unprepared for college life. He believed it would just be a continuation of high school and was shocked by the coursework when he began attending classes.

On top of classes, Shin had to work to help support his family. His mother ran a Japanese restaurant near campus where he helped when he could. He also worked as a dishwasher at another restaurant. Federal and state grants paid for his education and his books, which Shin said helped put him through college.

One day, his mother slipped and fell, and working at the restaurant became more of a challenge. Shin convinced his mother to sell the place, but the money eventually ran out. So he convinced her to invest in him and the vision he had for his own restaurant.  

He called it Charley’s.

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The inspiration for his restaurant’s menu came from an unexpected detour on the journey to visit his aunt and uncle in New York City when he got lost on the winding streets of Philadelphia.

“The road in Philly is ridiculous. It still is like that. Once I’m on the wrong path, it’s impossible to turn around,” Shin said.

There he encountered his first Philly cheese steak. He had never considered opening a Philly cheese steak restaurant, but the idea stuck.

He wasn’t much of a chef. Sure, he had cooked from time to time, but he didn’t exactly have the best experience upon which to build his restaurant. So Shin went to a butcher shop and asked for thin slices of rump roast. He bought some provolone cheese and hoagie rolls and cooked up some sandwiches for some friends on a frying pan.

His friends enjoyed the sandwiches, and the idea took off.

At first, the restaurant had limited options: a grand steak, a pineham (pineapple and ham sandwich), a crown steak, and ham and swiss. All with a side of french fries.

“The one negative item about the restaurant is that Charley’s offers no alternative to ordinary white bread for the seven-inch, regular-sized sandwich buns,” Doral Chenoweth III wrote in his review.

The restaurant wasn’t well labeled either. It was just called, “Charley’s,” with “Philadelphia Style Sandwiches” written below the title. Shin instituted a small change: an awning that said “Charley’s Steakery,” back-lit and covering the storefront in 1987.

Charley’s took off. Within a month of the slight change, sales had doubled, and they never slowed, Shin said.

Shin opened a second restaurant in Lancaster, Ohio. Then another in the Columbus Convention Center.

“Second restaurant did better than the first one, third one did better than the second one, fourth one did better than the third. It just started to really build,” Shin said.

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Just after the third restaurant opened up, Shin went to lunch at a Japanese sushi bar called Otani. There, he met a man who he said looked like Ernest Hemingway. His name was Barry Zacks, and he was the founder of Max & Erma’s, another Columbus-based chain.

They began to have some small talk about each other’s restaurants. Zacks said he had eaten at a Charley’s half a block away from the new Max & Erma’s he had recently opened. Shin began to pick the successful restaurateur’s brain, wanting to know what he did to expand his company.

The two eventually met for dinner where Zacks answered all of Shin’s questions, and when Shin offered to pick up the tab, Zacks refused.

“He said I could buy dinner when I become a millionaire,” Shin recalled.

The advice Zacks gave to Shin drove the future vision of his company. First: target shopping malls, where there is a captive audience.

Second: always cook the food in front of the customer like Shin had already been doing.

“Third, your business is a cash business, and you will have a great temptation to keep some for yourself, but don’t do that,” Zacks had said. “Report every dollar you have and pay your taxes and you will be glad you did when you go to the bank to borrow money.’”

Having a mentor like Zacks at such an early, pivotal stage of Shin’s growing business proved to be momentus. Shin said it’s what helped his company take off, and since then he has strived to do the same for other young entrepreneurs seeking a mentor.

Shin said his faith also helped him along his journey. Shin said he has worked at every step of the way to honor God.

“And that basically should state why we come to work,” Shin said. “I share this with anyone who comes to join our company. We want to do our work in the excellent level with integrity and something that we should be proud of because that’s what God respects.”

His faith is what later drove him to open his second chain of restaurants in Columbus, Bibibop. Shin had no desire to open up another restaurant, but said through a series of events, he realized, ‘Oh my gosh, God wants me to open an Asian, quick-service restaurant.’

At that point, he didn’t know what he was supposed to do. But he developed the idea, and in August 2013, he opened the first Bibibop on Fifth Avenue. He did not even wait for it to succeed before opening a second one, three years after opening the first.

“I knew it was going to be successful, and it just took off from there,” Shin said.

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Robin Bennett graduated from Ohio State in fall 1987. Shortly thereafter, she married Doral Chenoweth III and moved with him to the Carolinas before returning to Columbus.

When she did, she saw the chain had grown since her fateful first date with Chenowith.

“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this place is way fancier than where that first little restaurant was,’” Robin Chenoweth, now a communications specialist at Ohio State’s College of Education and Human Ecology, said. “I also was just kind of impressed. A whole, whole lot of restaurants don’t make it.”

Now, with a location on High Street across from Ohio State’s campus, after a three-year absence, Charley’s is back.

“Ohio State is where we all began 33 years ago, and it’s great to be back at Ohio State,” Shin said. “We always wanted to come back, and we just found the right location, and we came back.”

For Shin though, he never left. Shin still lives in Dublin, Ohio, with his wife, children and his mother, and though he doesn’t work the kitchen anymore, he still oversees the strategic planning of the company and helps his franchises run successful shops.

And even with Shin’s vision of the chain reaching 1,000 locations by 2022 and 3,000 within the next 10 years, Charley’s headquarters has remained in Columbus.

Columbus has always been home for Shin, and Ohio State has always been home for Charley’s.

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