Eric Shin Is One of DC’s Greatest Modern Renaissance Men
The Principal Percussionist of the NSO, former software engineer and successful restaurateur talks music, business and creative strategies
When he was little, Eric Shin, now 41, dreamed of being a software engineer. Then, he had high hopes of performing in a top orchestra as a percussionist. Or maybe he could open a Korean restaurant, following in his parents’ footsteps.
Lots of us have phantasmical ideas for the future — this first-generation Korean-American from Atlanta made all his childhood dreams a reality. Shin ran a software engineering and web design company in high school, now works as the principal percussionist of the National Symphony Orchestra, and somehow found the time to start SeoulSpice, a fast-casual Korean restaurant with five locations in and around DC. We talked to him about how he pulled it off.
InsideHook: How did you acquire so many random skills?
Eric Shin: I grew up wanting to be an engineer, but I was also pretty into music. I went to CIM (Cleveland Institute of Music) for my undergrad, and then The Juilliard School for my master’s in percussion. I dropped the software engineering, and it was all hands on deck for music. My first year at Juilliard, I got a job at the Honolulu Symphony, and then my career brought me to DC at the NSO.
But then you suddenly became a restaurateur?
Shin: I became sort of the tour guide for all my friends to try Korean restaurants. You go to the good ones, and they barely speak English there. It’s intimidating. My parents used to own a Korean restaurant growing up, and I thought it would be cool to open a restaurant to share the flavors and the culture of the food. My wife and I love cooking, and we thought, ‘Why the hell not, let’s give it a shot.’ We opened SeoulSpice in 2016. It was very successful, and we really weren’t prepared for the success. There was a line going around the block. The fire department was called because the line was so long.
How do your musical skills translate into your entrepreneurial skills?
Shin: I’m able to tackle problems creatively. When Covid hit, the initial reaction of almost every restaurant was, ‘Let’s close our doors and wait.’ I couldn’t do that to our employees. We saw an opportunity. There was no toilet paper or paper towels at the supermarket, but our restaurants and suppliers had tons of toilet paper: It was a supply chain issue. We got all of our employees to deliver toilet paper and essential items to people in our community. I built an online store overnight where you could order toilet paper by the roll or cleaning supplies, and they’d be on your doorstep within 24 hours. It allowed all of our employees to stay on the payroll, and we never laid anyone off or reduced anyone’s hours. Some people would order just one roll of toilet paper, and we charged $1 per roll, at cost. We were getting tons of these orders. We were also selling pantry and grocery items, and family meals. At the time, we were the first restaurant in the United States to do that — definitely the first in DC. Our customers loved it, and they were ordering family meals along with a few rolls of toilet paper.
It also gave us an opportunity to help other musicians out. There were people at the NSO who were furloughed, and we were able to provide them with jobs. We were basically operating a little Amazon out of these little Korean fast casual restaurants.
Are you still going to continue with music now that you have a ton of restaurants to manage?
The NSO is my passion, it’s what I love to do. Drums and food are my life. Plus my wife and three children.
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