John Gleason was born in South Korea and adopted by a Minnesota family when he was an infant.
"That was a big influence on how I thought about food, and about life," he said. "I really enjoy Korean food, but at the same time I love to eat American food, too."
That approach eventually led to the creation of Bap and Chicken (1328 Grand Av., St. Paul, bapandchicken.com), which focuses on Korean fried chicken (or "KFC," as Gleason calls it), bibimbap-inspired bowls, an array of fried chicken sandwiches and an assortment of playful novelties, including kimchi fried rice and Korean-style corn dogs.
"It's not fusion," he said. "It's who I am, and what I like to cook, and eat. It's a great introduction to Korean food. It's spicy, but it's 'Midwest' spicy."
The format has obviously struck a chord with diners, because the restaurant will be celebrating its second birthday on July 29.
The all-day party will include menu specials. Starting at 5 p.m., there will be complimentary sparkling Jinx Tea mimosas ("Because bubbles go well with fried chicken," said Gleason) and free birthday cake.
At 6 p.m., there will be a traditional drummer performance by Korean JangmiArts, and at 8 p.m. — and broadcast on Instagram Live via @bapandchicken — Gleason and his crew will reveal the winner of a raffle drawing.
The prize? Free fried chicken for a year. Specifically, a half-dozen fried chicken drummies every week, for 52 weeks. At $12 a pop, that's a $624 value. In-store registration runs through July 29; no purchase necessary.
Gleason's restaurant ownership dreams started in high school. His 20-year résumé in the dining industry includes stints in management at Izzy's Ice Cream and Masu Sushi & Robata, and he crisscrossed the country opening locations for the Romano's Macaroni Grill chain. For his own restaurant, he scoped out real estate all over the Twin Cities before landing at the Grand Avenue storefront that had been the longtime home of the former Grand Shanghai.
"I've always been in love with the neighborhood," he said. "I was familiar with that space from my years at St. Thomas, because back then, Green Mill [which is located on the next block] was in its heyday, and we always went there."
Last summer, in response to the pandemic, Gleason launched a food truck. It was a reversal of the more familiar process, where a brick-and-mortar location blossoms from a mobile kitchen.
"For me, it was, 'How can we still be creative, and be safe, and get our food out there, and keep the team employed?' " he said. "Back then, I knew that things weren't going to get back to normal for a while. If it hadn't been for the BapMobile, I would have had to furlough three or four people."
For Bap and Chicken's first birthday, Gleason also staged a party, but as per pandemic-related restrictions, the July 2020 festivities were held on a takeout basis.
"We made the best of it," he said. "This year, I'm happy that people can celebrate in person."