Q & A: Seoul Garden

Seoul-Mates Greg and Hye Suk Obermier put in more than 60 hours a week at their authentic Korean restaurant, Seoul Garden, named after Hye Suk’s home city. Photo by Scott Holstein
Seoul GardenTrue love meets authentic cuisine as one family’s Korean dreams are realized in their Fort Walton Beach restaurant By Daniel Mutter

In 1976, Airman First Class Greg Obermier stepped outside of Kunsan Air Base in South Korea and into a small local restaurant for dinner. He came in hungry, but he left in love.

“Hye Suk was working as a hostess in the restaurant,” Obermier recalled. “She spoke very little English and I spoke very little Korean, so I had my friend do the interpreting for us.”

The two fell in love, and on June 5, 1977, they were married in Seoul, the South Korean capital. Over the next two decades the Obermiers had two children and moved around to Air Force bases in New Mexico, Germany, Arkansas, and Hurlburt Field in Fort Walton Beach. After Greg Obermier retired from the military in 1998, the family moved back to the place they loved best — Fort Walton Beach.

Nowadays, the couple can be found working more than 60 hours a week to help Hye Suk live out her dream of owning and running her very own authentic Korean restaurant. That restaurant is Seoul Garden, named after Hye Suk’s home city.

Greg Obermier recently spoke with Emerald Coast Magazine writer Daniel Mutter about his and his wife’s courtship and what it’s like sharing the family’s love of Korean food with the people of Fort Walton Beach.

What was your first date like?

I had to get her mother’s permission to even go out with her. That was challenging, to say the least. If her mother had told her we couldn’t go out, that would’ve been the end of me. It’s traditional in Korea that parents are the rulers of the family.

Why did you decide to move from New Mexico to Fort Walton Beach after you retired?

The economy down here was good at the time, good cost of living, we loved the beaches, we loved the people down here, and there was a pretty good-sized Korean community. The kids really loved it here, and they had lots of friends. It was pretty easy — blue water or red sand. We’d take blue water any day.

How did the restaurant get started up?

Hye Suk always wanted to have her own restaurant and had worked a lot in restaurant kitchens in New Mexico and Germany. Also, the timing was right. The building was previously a Korean restaurant, but we found out that the owner had just moved out and it was available. It also had some of the equipment already in it, so that saved us a little bit of the money on start-up costs.

Any advice for first-time small-business owners in the area?

Since this was our first restaurant, there were a lot of lessons learned in the first three years. We really haven’t done a lot in advertising or marketing. We’ve been relying a lot on word of mouth, and I guess the philosophy in a lot of places in Korean culture is that if the food is good, it will stand on its own. People do come for the food and of course they will be back, but that’s a hard way to get new customers. Definitely if we were to start again, I would’ve put more into marketing up-front.

What kind of customers do you usually see?

We get a lot of military around lunchtime, especially people who have actually been to Korea. They come in because they miss the authentic Korean foods they have over there. Because we are right on Highway 98, we get quite a few customers who stop in that are on their way to Panama City or to resort areas. Most of our customers who go to other local Korean restaurants always come back to us. So we don’t worry too much about our competition.

Most of those restaurants have survived because they have a full bar. We serve beer and wine, but that’s about it. The bar thing is a whole other avenue, and it’s not what we wanted to focus on. We want to stay family-oriented. And we do — a lot of families come in with kids.

We also have some regulars who come from as far as Mississippi and Mobile, Ala. About once a month, they come down just for the day. They might go around and shop a little bit, but their biggest reason to come here is to eat at the restaurant.

Seoul Garden 
234 Miracle Strip Pkwy SW
Fort Walton Beach, FL 32548
(850) 243-0195