top of page

Why Does Kei Concepts Keep Changing Concepts?

Updated: Feb 22

Our culinary columnist questions recent alterations in the Kei Concepts family of restaurants.



I’ve followed Kei (pronounced “Key”) Concepts restaurant group since its first brick-and-mortar, Sup Noodle Bar in Buena Park – my favorite of the concepts. Over the last decade (but especially in the last five years), the group has experienced rapid growth. It’s this constant state of change, transformation and downright hustle that has kept Kei Concepts afloat. 


To the typical diner it may not appear as though Kei Concepts has struggled until only recently, when Gem Dining in Fountain Valley paused operations. Irvine’s Kin Izakaya would follow suit a few months later. Was the restaurant group experiencing financial difficulties, internal issues or something else? The best way to understand the ebb and flow of Kei Concepts is to go over the past 10 years with CEO/Executive Chef Viet Nguyen for perspective.


2014 - 2019

Kei Concepts has technically been around since 2014, when Sup (“Soup”) Noodle Bar appeared off Beach Boulevard in Buena Park. The group that originated with partners Neo Du, Ivy Ha and Nguyen would begin to experience slow yet steady growth with this modernized pho concept, followed up with The Vox Kitchen in 2017, as well as a short-lease Sup storefront in Cerritos.

  

What most customers don’t know is that Kei Concepts experienced a single failed concept early on. Until only recently, the restaurant group was transparent on its corporate website about referencing this eatery named Pango Asian Taqueria. I attended a community presentation in November 2022 hosted by Kei that made a point of referencing Pango. As a Mexican-fusion spot, I suspect that the style of food in an Asian neighborhood may have been ahead of its time and the restaurant wasn't attracting its target demographic – it only lasted a few months before the group called it quits.


The corner space Pango occupied is now where Fountain Valley’s The Vox Kitchen is located. The majority of Vox’s seating was on the patio until Vox announced expanded indoor seating (having taken over the neighboring storefront) near the end of 2023. Fortunately, the Chinese-Peruvian menu of Vox appeals to the Little Saigon community.

 

Gem Dining launched in Fountain Valley in the summer of 2019, adding progressive Southeast Asian dinner in an upscale environment to the Kei Concepts resume. Gem was also the first Kei concept to offer alcohol.


In October 2019, one more brand would open; this time the group brought the bubble tea bar brand The Alley overseas from Taiwan to Orange County and opened its first U.S. location in Fountain Valley as a franchise.


The dining room at Gem. Photo courtesy of Kei Concepts
2020 - 2023

Once the pandemic arrived in early 2020, Kei Concepts surprisingly went against the flow and continued working on more concepts while franchising another brand. The team was determined to keep its teams gainfully employed just as other businesses were shutting down. 


The July 2020 opening of Nep Café’s Vietnamese brunch under the same roof as Gem proved to be profitable despite being forced to only serve customers outside. 


Once its lease ended, Cerritos Sup closed shortly before Irvine opened its Sup doors (for to-go orders only) in August 2020. 


The following year Rol Hand Roll Bar (Huntington Beach) opened its doors in August 2021 and Kin Craft Ramen (now Kin Izakaya) in September 2021, proving that diners were still craving something new, even during a time of uncertainty.


In addition to the Nep/Rol/Kin concepts which focus on Asian flavors, Kei Concepts even went so far as to have a Dave’s Hot Chicken franchise as part of its portfolio for a period of time beginning December 2020. 


June 2022 would see the launch of Ini Ristorante, an Italian-Japanese fusion destination that would prove more successful than its previous tenants. Diners wanted more full-service experiences and less take out, so Kei opted to relinquish the two franchises and refocus efforts on its own brands.


A 10,000-square-foot EMC Seafood in Irvine would close during the pandemic, allowing Kei Concepts to take over the space and continue growth in the same plaza as Sup Noodle Bar and Baekjeong Korean Barbecue (which is not a Kei restaurant.) This time, Nep Cafe would be open in the daytime while Kin Izakaya took over at dinner with a soft opening of both brands in August 2023.


Popular dishes at Kin Izakaya included: PHOTO 1: Beef sukiyaki. photo by Anne Marie Panoringan, Culture OC; PHOTO 2: Truffle uni and Wagyu beef; PHOTO 3: Date and walnut cheesecake with matcha ice cream and kuromitsu (black sugar syrup). Photos 2 and 3 courtesy of Kei Concepts

 

During September 2023, the team at Gem decided to "pause operations with no plans for a reopening announced yet. It was a necessary adjustment to secure Nep’s longevity in Fountain Valley (Nep was operating as a daytime-only, outdoor-only concept when it began – but it was still utilizing Gem‘s kitchen), Du would summarize the reasoning with a single word: “Operations.”


Nguyen would provide additional context. “Operating two distinct dining experiences within the same space presented significant challenges, particularly in terms of space constraints. These limitations made it difficult to introduce new menu items and fully express the unique identity of each brand,” he said. 


2024

Clearly, Kei is not satisfied with the status quo. The new year has brought new ideas, and that includes shuttering a popular location in order to focus their offerings.


Recently, Nguyen and Kei Concepts began promoting another new concept, Kei Supper Club – a “portable” prix fixe concept that regularly changed themes and could be outsourced and served beyond a Kei Concept location as private catering. Served on Friday and Saturday evenings in Fountain Valley, it is temporarily housed in the former Gem space until Nep undergoes the dinner conversion and becomes an all-day concept. 


Opting to make the supper club only two nights a week was purposely done. “The exclusivity of the dining events fosters a sense of anticipation and specialness, making each supper club evening a sought-after occasion,” Nguyen said. The limited seating for February dates would sell out the same day they were released. 


On Feb. 20, it was announced that the supper club would pause before offering future dinners in order for the group to go over the feedback received, find inspiration and a new theme. The limited dates and seating would return when the kitchen was ready again. A prix fixe concept with limited availability – unless booked as private catering? If this sounds a little confusing to you, you’re not alone.


Back at Nep, the adjustment of having an all-day concept (and not just brunch) is transitioning in Irvine first, as Kin Izakaya recently left the building that it shared with Nep. I expected Kin in Fountain Valley (the original location) to undergo the adjustment before Irvine, but it wasn’t the case. “The hiatus of Gem Dining in Fountain Valley provided the right push for us to initiate this all-day initiative with Nep Irvine, leveraging the resources we had in place,” Nguyen said.


Did you notice this fun fact?

All of the Kei Concept restaurants (except for their original, deceased concept Pango), are three-letter names: Sup, Vox, Nep, Rol, Kin, Ini. Even their future concepts, Kei and Sea follow this trend.


The Future

Upcoming commitments include drink bars of the zero-proof variety, including The Sugarcane Press and Kei Coffee House (scheduled to open in summer). Also Sea Dim Sum and Seafood is planned for the same Fountain Valley plaza as Ini.


The biggest undertaking for Kei Concepts (in my opinion) was announced mid-January: The Vox Kitchen at South Coast Plaza. Under construction at the former Mezzet space within the home store wing of the plaza, Vox’s future beverage program will focus on mezcal, tequila and pisco-based cocktails. Other distinct details include an exclusive, weekend brunch menu in development. “We’re optimistic about the positive impact Vox will have on the area, enhancing the dining options and overall experience for visitors,” Nguyen said.


Kei Concepts embraces change easily compared to other businesses. And while it may appear to be juggling more than it can handle, the thought processes and commitment (and let’s not forget creative marketing and social media teams) to its concepts will send it further than critics expected.


It’s too early to tell how well an all-day, Nep-only dining room will do as a replacement for Kin Izakaya. Even without its original ramen component, Kin possessed a vibe that is difficult to replicate in any neighborhood of Irvine. It also had an evolving selection of cold and hot specialties that were diverse enough to please many appetites. It was also a popular place to dine in a great location in Irvine, which makes it a peculiar decision. 


As one of my five favorite places to dine last year, I expect (hope?) the new dynamic now in place fosters additional praise.


Related Posts

See All

Comments


Copy of Med. Rectangle_ Subscribe.png

Support for Culture OC comes from

Copy of Med Rectangle_ Advertise.png
Copy of Med Rectangle_Donate.png
Editor Picks

WHAT's COMING?

Get ready to rock out to the timeless hits of Elton John, such as "Tiny Dancer,” “Rocket Man,” “Bennie and the Jets,” and many more!

Support for Culture OC comes from

24-04-08 Carousel PAC SYMPH - EltonJohn_DigitalAd_400x255.jpg
bottom of page