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How Dooby's 32-year-old owner is shaping Baltimore's dining scene

Beneath a blue tent, eyes shaded from the morning sun by square Oakley lenses, Phil Han dishes out breakfast sandwiches to hungry patrons lined up for a taste of Dooby’s.

It’s the opening day of the Baltimore Farmers’ Market and Bazaar, and orders are piling up. As cooks hastily layer bacon, eggs and cheese on sesame buns, Han spears each sandwich with a toothpick before turning to the horde in front of his tent.

“Egg and cheddar for Caitlin,” he yells into the crowd, passing the steaming dish to a customer.

Clad in layers and a flat-brimmed hat, Han doesn’t make it obvious that he owns the eatery (and several others). He remarks that his crew of three doesn’t need him. But the modest restaurateur said he’ll never be too proud to jump on the line to lend a hand.

At 32, Han has already spent five years filling gaps in the city’s food scene. The proprietor of Dooby’s, Sugarvale, Sundays and two forthcoming eateries is equal parts driven and grounded, bold but calculated in bringing fresh dining experiences to Baltimoreans.

“What’ll always continue to drive me is that same level of personal interest, like, ‘Do I really want to do this?’” said the soft-spoken serial entrepreneur. “And I think when you find business owners that are doing the businesses that they really care about and are passionate about, you’re going to find a higher likelihood that they’ll be successful with those.”

The son of Korean immigrants, Han grew up in Lutherville-Timonium and went to the Gilman School before attending the entrepreneurship-centered Babson College near Boston. After graduation, he worked with plenty of bar and restaurant owners during a stint with an e-commerce team at Thrillist in New York, but it wasn’t until he moved back to Maryland that he gained firsthand restaurant experience.

As his father, David Han, considered retirement, Phil returned to the Baltimore area to learn the family business: Triple C Wholesalers, which supplies coffee, groceries and other staples to convenience stores. Then 25, Han was dating his future wife, Jennifer, and had trouble finding casual restaurants where they wanted to eat; Baltimore lacked the breadth of casual dining he’d become accustomed to in New York and Boston.

“If you wanted to go out on like a date, you were spending like $100 to $150 per date. And that was it, it was like fine-dining,” Han said. “We didn’t really have this subsector of like fast-casual really taking off yet or the idea of casual dining.”

Sensing the void, he wanted to open a more laid-back and lower-priced eatery — a space without pretense where customers could enjoy coffee, craft beer and cool vibes at an accessible price. But first he had to learn how to run a restaurant.

When he wasn’t training at the wholesale company, Han worked at Atwater’s in Catonsville.

“I could tell right away that he was enthusiastic, and the questions that he asked were questions about not how we make cup of coffee — he was asking how to run the business,” said Ned Atwater, Atwater’s owner. “I knew there was a little more to Phil than the average person.”

Han was never afraid to take on new tasks, Atwater said — an ethos that remains evident in Dooby’s and Han’s other projects.

“You can get really beaten down if you try things and they don’t work, and I think one of Phil’s great qualities is that he doesn’t let that get to him,” Atwater said. “It’s like a pitcher going to the majors too soon: You can get beat up, but Phil seems to be handling it really well.”

Inspired by Han’s childhood nickname, Dooby’s launched in 2013. Han took his time learning the preferences of Mount Vernon’s customers. It took more than a year for Korean influence to show through at Dooby’s; Han didn’t think Baltimore was ready for kimchi fried rice or pork buns when the cafe first opened.

“We want to kind of incorporate a lot of those flavors that I grew up with and let it shine in some of the food items that you have,” Han said. “But there still has to be this sense of familiarity with the food so that if you’re not expecting ethnic food, per se, you can come in here and be like, ‘Oh, a rice bowl with a little bit of Asian-ness in there? Cool, I dig that.’”

Han launched another experiment in 2015 with Sugarvale (originally a pop-up called “The Hatch”) around the corner from Dooby’s. The place has grown into an intimate and popular neighborhood bar.

Both exude the welcoming service Han said was part of his upbringing.

“Maybe this is part of Asian culture, where the sense of like constantly wanting to serve and being hospitable — I think that actually comes through, and it’s a very kind of genuine experience,” Han said.

He’s since helped pilot Light City’s Asian street food section, and he pitched the idea for the Harbor Market at McKeldin Square.

“Phil is just really good at seeing what’s happening in other cities and what’s working and obviously wants Baltimore to grow and be the best city it can be,” said Megan Campbell, event manager for the Waterfront Partnership, which operates Harbor Market. “He just is always willing to try. I don’t think Phil has has ever told me ‘no.’ I mean that’s evident with all the different things he’s doing in the city.”

Han’s pop-up doughnut shop, Sundays, saw a brief stint at Cross Street Market and will close this month. But by the end of the year, Han will add two more eateries to his repertoire: Noona’s Pizza in Mount Vernon, and a Bon Fresco location in the Candler Building downtown. The local chain was founded in Columbia by Han’s father-in-law, Gerald Koh, and has locations in Annapolis Junction, Beltsville and Owings Mills.

As Han opens the Baltimore cafe this fall, his wife’s brother, Albert Koh, also plans to open another in Rockville later this year.

“My brother-in-law and I, we kind of represent what could be the future of this company and we both want to see what is kind of the standard moving forward for what Bon Fresco would look like,” Han said. “That’s always been more of like a personal thing for me, of me wanting to at least show that side of the family what I think it could be.”

Han encourages his employees to pursue their passions, too. Dooby’s now sells the kombucha Han’s employee Lou Sitbon began making at home. And Noona’s Pizza was a natural fit because of his team’s experience making pizza.

When he’s not bouncing between the restaurants, construction site visits and meetings, the Locust Point resident is likely doting on his wife and their 14-month-old son, Oliver. He lights up when he talks about the toddler, and says playing with him makes him forget about the world of restaurants.

Most days, he tries to beat Jennifer home from her teaching job in Howard County to prepare dinner. He said he strives for equilibrium between work and home life, and that balance keeps his businesses and his family at their best.

“If you become too immersed in one thing, you can’t do either thing really successfully,” Han said. “I always want to make my wife and my kid my priority.”

After all, he said, his family will always be there; the restaurants may not be. He never intended to own a restaurant group, he said, which is why there’s no umbrella company that encompasses his ventures.

Han’s future could be in food — or maybe not.

“I don’t think that I need to be defined, necessarily, by what I’m currently working on,” he said. “So it’ll constantly evolve, you know. As we get to grow, we get to see and get experience with new opportunities, and if that leads us down a different path, then that’s totally cool.”

smeehan@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sarahvmeehan

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