Imagine a world full of corn dogs.
Think innumerable personal configurations — scores of sauces and seasonings, not to mention the variety of meats and cheeses that can be found inside these deliciously crispy concoctions.
Could it be the classic pairings of ketchup and mustard or the adventurous sweet mayo, teriyaki and honey butter? Is the batter just panko-crusted, or does it have potatoes on it? Perhaps it’s infused with squid ink?
Maybe on the inside, there’s a long pull of mozzarella cheese, with the choice of chicken, veggie, pork or beef for the meat. Perhaps, however, you want to scrap the sausage altogether and just go with oozing chocolate instead.
That’s exactly what Jane Khau had in mind when the Winnipegger opened the new Chung Chun Rice Dog store on Jefferson Avenue in the Maples.
"There really is a world of possibilities," Khau told the Free Press.
It’s a food trend that has taken the world by storm. Celebrities, bloggers and social media influencers have garnered millions upon millions of views on videos reviewing the over-the-top, deep-fried hotdogs wrapped in rice-flour batter, inspired by the streets of South Korea.
Chung Chun Rice Dog itself is a Korean brand that has gone global, with more than 200 stores worldwide — in countries including Australia, the United States, China, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines.
"That’s why I wanted to bring this trend here in the city that I grew up in," Khau said. "As a foodie myself and a person who loves to travel for food, when I found out there was a franchise that we could potentially bring here, I definitely jumped at the chance."
Khau and her husband Eric Lai applied to open a store last year, just shortly after Chung Chun launched as a brand in 2019. Their new shop is now the first in the Prairies, with other Canadian stores found only in Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia.
And in the short period that the fast-food joint has been open in the city, since it soft-launched a few weeks ago, there have been lineups outside every single day, from start to closing hours.
The Chung Chun shop is sharing retail space on Jefferson Avenue near Adsum Drive with Asia City Express, a Winnipeg favourite that sells fusion food and bubble tea.
"To me, that’s the best part," said Khau. "I get to have this franchise in the same location that I sort of grew up in, because I’ve worked right at Asia City since I was probably 16."
In many ways, the restaurant business runs in Khau’s blood. Her dad, sister and many other family members are affiliated with the industry in one way or another.
Getting here hasn’t been so easy, however. "The pandemic has definitely made life much, much harder," said Khau.
"As any restaurant owner will tell you, we’re already the type of people that rarely get to take any breaks — working 12-hour days, seven days a week, and bringing that work home. Now, COVID-19 has brought a completely different set of challenges."
At Khau’s new shop, those challenges include not just a delay in getting to launch, but the operational complexity that comes with going above and beyond Manitoba’s public-health orders to keep her staff and customers safe.
Chung Chun has installed a giant sneeze guard on its seasoning station, with cleaning every 15 to 30 minutes. There are Plexiglas barriers, sanitizer stands and the option to get takeout dips for those who prefer not to use the in-store dipping experience as was originally intended.
It also meant having to make the difficult decision to scrap indoor dining.
Initially, when the province had eased dining rules, Khau did allow customers to eat inside at the large seating area that snakes around the store. But because her staff had to constantly police people for physical distancing, she said it just isn’t feasible until the threat of COVID-19 dampens.
"A lot of our intentional, Korean-street-style experience does get lost with the pandemic. It’s just absolutely heartbreaking because we’ve all put our sweat and tears into this," said Khau.
"I have to say that none of this would be possible to manage, though, without my staff. They’ve jumped at every chance to help...
"And you already know how hard it is trying to tell someone who doesn’t want to wear their mask."
But come rain or shine, Khau is determined. And she hopes this trend will last at least until Winnipeggers get their fill.
"I’m just taking it one day at a time," she said. "For now, how about we all just enjoy a delicious corn dog? We’ll all figure out the rest later."