FuseBOX, the popular Korean-fusion restaurant on Magnolia Street in Oakland, will close on Sunday. Co-owner Ellen Sebastian Chang said it had been a wild ride but that they needed to be out of the premises by Thursday, April 28. Sunday, April 23, will the last day of service for the restaurant.
“It’s time to move on. We don’t want to be in that space any more,” Sebastian Chang told Nosh on Thursday. “But we brought a lot of magic there.”
Writing to customers by email and on social media, Sebastian Chang said: “We had a wild ride of it from opening with only three days of lunch along with closing for our daughter’s soccer games to having dinner seven nights a week and closing sometimes cuz well “shit happens” to being blessed with so much support from our family of friends and the amazing press we received out here on the street of Magnolias,” she wrote.
Ellen Sebastian Chang and Sunhui Chang opened FuseBOX in a tucked-away space in a then largely industrial area of West Oakland five years ago. Sunhui Chang’s original blend of traditional and innovative Korean-inspired cooking quickly drew a loyal customer base and earned praise from critics. In an early review, Luke Tsai at the East Bay Express noted with admiration how affordable the food was, “in spite of the fact that Chang sources high-quality ingredients and makes just about everything from scratch.”
Chang’s pickling skills were particularly appreciated by customers — his personal slogan is, after all, “I bleed kimchi.”
FuseBOX’s five-year lease was almost up and, Sebastian Chang said, there was some “lease jockeying” involved in the discussions to renew it. “We weren’t expecting to be out so soon,” she said.
However, Sebastian Chang stressed that both she and Sunhui were fine. For the past few months Sunhui has only been coming into the restaurant with his daughter to make kimchi, she said, as he has been working with María Blanco at the Undocumented Legal Services Center at UC Davis.S ebastian Chang herself, who has a theater background, has ongoing art projects.
“We’re blessed and so grateful that we got the attention we got [at FuseBOX],” she said
“We need to stop romanticizing the notion of the small, family-run business”
A key factor in the couple’s decision to shutter was the economic climate of the Bay Area which makes it almost impossible to run a small business sustainably, Sebastian Chang said.
“We need to stop romanticizing the notion of the small, family-run business,” she told Nosh. “It takes an incredible level of work to survive in one of the most expensive places in the country. You can’t do it if you’re not independently wealthy because of the cost of living here and the cost of running a business.”
The pressure to scale is intense, Sebastian Chang said.
“To survive you have to keep expanding. The economic climate demands you are expansionist — it’s a demanding and voracious system. There’s no possibility that two people can say we just want to be good in this one little corner of the world. The whole culture is built on empire building and growth.”
The Changs were in the process of trying to expand the Magnolia Street space — to create more indoor seating which, Sebastian Chang said, was particularly needed in the winter months (the restaurant has a patio area). However multiple delays were proving frustrating. The pair did not want to open more FuseBOX restaurants, however. And their commitment to community, diversity and authenticity influenced their decision to turn away an invitation for Sunhui to audition for the TV show “Chopped.”
“I mean no disrespect to the show, but food is not a competition or a spectator sport,” Sebastian Chang said. “Had we chosen to do it, it would have made our business explode even more, but we didn’t want to go that way.”
In any case, Sunhui doesn’t like being in the public eye, she said. “It’s hard for him — he just wants to cook.”
Referring to the Bay Area housing crisis and how it is affecting the local restaurant industry, Sebastian Chang said four of FuseBOX’s servers had been evicted from their homes. And she expressed frustration at not being to pay her staff more.
“The minimum wage might be $15 but what’s the point if the servers and cooks can’t afford to live here?” she said. “Who can afford to live on $15 an hour in the bay? We feel like shit because we can’t pay them $50 an hour to have a decent life in the Bay Area.”
“The moment I tasted green mango pickles, I fell in love”
In an interview with Nosh in 2013 Sunhui talked about his upbringing and how it influenced his tastes. Born in Korea, his early memories include watching his mother, who came from a small coastal town in South Korea, preparing spicy fish stews. When he was seven, the family moved to Guam where the local cuisine featured fish, coconut and citrus. It was there that Chang became passionate about pickles. “Kids would bring jars of pickles to school for lunch and everyone would fall all over them. The moment I tasted green mango pickles, I fell in love,” he said.
Chang moved to Berkeley when he was 17 and he attended Berkeley High and UC Berkeley. He ran a catering business before opening FuseBOX with his wife Ellen, who took on the general manager role. Sunhui said he was initially hesitant to focus on Korean food for the restaurant — the demand from his catering customers had been for traditional European dishes — but Ellen, and his daughter SunIm, told him he needed to express his deep roots and knowledge of Korean cooking and “that the public is now ready to embrace Korean cuisine.”
FuseBOX’s eclectic menu over the years included dishes such as Kusshi oysters with yuzu kosho mignonette topped with kiwi and Pink Lady apple kimchi; spicy chicken wings; and steak with chimichurri sauce. When Nosh visited a few years ago, we went “omakase” — letting our server determine the course of the meal.
Ellen Sebastian Chang said FuseBOX is selling everything in the restaurant “that’s not bolted down” and encouraged customers to come by after Tuesday, April 25. “Come visit and buy a beer glass or a t-shirt or a fryer,” she wrote.
This story was updated after publication after we reached Ellen Sebastian Chang for comment.