Common Thread Mike Pak of @Koreatown

Community builder, entrepreneur, a longtime friend of HUF, and unofficial mayor of Koreatown in Los Angeles, Mike Pak has a penchant for making shit happen. A decade ago Mike’s interests in fashion, art, music, and culture had him fixated on Koreatown, eventually leaving his home in Virginia on a mission that’s led him to not only embrace the neighborhood’s culture but to grow it. More than just physical moving to LA, Mike wanted to fully embrace Koreatown and immersed himself in it through both his prolific non-profit work and through LOVE HOUR, the burger-focused restaurant he co-founded in the hood he loves.

With such a deep resume and love for his neighborhood’s vibrant culture and history, HUF caught up with Mike to talk about his DIY approach and passion for Koreatown.

Photos by Eduardo Medrano and Tina Hernandez 
Koreatown crew in the Spring 23 Collection

Can you tell us about starting the Run Club and how that was a real jump-off for all your community activations?
What we were able to build with the Run Club is so unique and special to this day. When we were starting, we realized it was bigger than us. The people running would come and tell their stories, they would talk about their alcohol problems, or how they had just broken up with their girlfriend and that’s why they started running. The community part just opened our eyes to more things we could do. We're just super grateful. Fast forward a couple of years later, our good friend Jimmy Han (who owns a few restaurants and bars here in Koreatown) liked what we were doing and reached out because he wanted to do something in food—a new concept. We both love burgers and knew that was the direction would be. We developed LOVE HOUR which is a smash burger concept and launched it four years ago as a pop-up. We were invited to Coachella by our seventh pop-up, and it’s been a rollercoaster ride ever since. Having never worked in the food industry, I was learning the business and just how to be an entrepreneur in the space as we went along.

How did that lead to the other community initiatives you operate?
It made me think about the bigger picture. We had this free run for the community but we’re also business owners within the neighborhood, so we want to provide for the people living and working around us. So how do we directly help the community? During the pandemic, I was drinking with some buds and talking about the houseless issue here in LA. It’s a big city problem that doesn’t seem to get addressed enough and we wanted to have a hand in helping our unhoused, so we took initiative and decided to do something. At first, all we could really do was provide lunches. We were ambitious, doing three days a week packing brown paper bag meals and delivering them on our bikes. We’v been doing that for over two years now and every Sunday we offer 200 hot meals to our unhoused at the local church.

The dynamics must be so different between volunteering, putting together the free runs, and operating a restaurant. Was that hard to navigate?
It's interesting you say that. To be honest, I don't really tend to think about it as much. I wake up every day knowing I have to go and do something. It’s also my personality—I’m like the class clown slash “I don’t give a fuck” kinda vibe. I realized it was so serious after the Run Club—it opened so many doors in whichever industry or organization we wanted to start. It’s all grassroots and intertwines together. It’s been easy to start new things because we already have the infrastructure and then the people to support us because we’re all interconnected. With something like bicycle meals, we see the same people every week. I see them more than I see my family. I see the Run Club more than I see my family. People throw the word family around loosely but we literally see these people five or six days a week. They almost become your siblings at a point. You know people’s issues, you know their good and bad days. We’re still trying to grow it to touch more people.

And you just started a new program?
Yeah, just two weeks ago we started Excel the Youth which is our youth mentorship program for kids 6 through 15. We went directly to LA County and spoke to the supervisors from the library system. We connected with Pio Pico library, which is the Koreatown branch, and reached out and said, ‘Hey, we have time, we have friends that want to give their time to help these kids who might not have anyone to talk to.’ We started off with a photography class and now it's really just creating things that we want to do that are fun with our friends, but it all has to do with the neighborhood. There’s a lot going on, and there's a lot of new projects we're working on, but the number one thing is being consistent in everything while also having the right people to help and run it.

I want to go back to you mentioning how these ideas came together during the early days of the pandemic. For a lot of people they really reframed their views of their neighborhoods because everything felt threatened. Did that have an impact on you in a similar way?
You nailed it. Especially spending time alone during the pandemic. I had a hard time because I really like being around people. Being isolated made me a bit sad and depressed, but it made me realize I need to serve people. That was my mission when I realized that. You didn’t know when things were going to be OK again but planning ahead, getting together, and just starting small was key. All these ideas came from being isolated, for sure.
Having all this knowledge now and knowing how to network to make things happen, what can you bless others with who want really move on their ideas?
You have to have humility and due diligence to just start it. That's why everyone has the hardest time starting something that they want to do or see happen in their life. If I have an idea, if I can’t act on it in those first 10 seconds I won’t do it. With the houseless outreach… I wanted to do it but I wasn’t moving on it, so I got to a point where I thought, ‘Fuck it. Enough. I’m going to do that shit Monday.’ I said that to myself on a Friday, started it the following Monday and it’s been two and a half years. Just do it. Fuck it! It’s all word of mouth. It’s never going to be easy but I know I have this long-term play and no one’s gonna outlast me. It’s a work in progress and I lose my mind every fucking day and every week and I like to hang out and party, so it’s finding a balance. At the end of the day, I still have this thing in my head that I’m never doing enough then I talk to people and they say, ‘Dude, you’re spread too thin,’ but that motivates me—I always want to do more.

I like that. Businesses start in spreadsheets but ideas start with your friends and doing it.
It’s never going to be perfect. When we started the kids program it did amazing on social so I was thinking, ‘Fuck, there are gonna be a hundred kids there. How the hell are we going to handle that?’ Zero kids showed up. No lie, zero. Who fucking comes to the library? There were some kids there in a tutoring program and we scooped up those 15 kids and made it happen. [laughs]

What was it that drew you to Koreatown and what keeps you there?
Running through Koreatown is like a fucking jungle. Cracks and fucking uneven pavement—people doing their thing, maybe someone pulls a knife on you. It’s how unexpected things are that keeps me going when it comes to runs. It keeps you on your toes. When it comes to food, it's the best food neighborhood in LA, in my opinion. Korean barbecue is kind of the gateway into Korean food and that introduces the nightlife, the karaoke—the actual food we eat day to day. You start thinking about who the people are within the community through all of it. Through nonprofit organizations, there are a lot of things you can do—whatever your interests are, there’s something that can fit your life, and you can just reach out and lend a hand and build your own community that way as well. It's just really tapping into and finding out who you are as a person and how you can lend a hand within the neighborhood.