Whistle Pig Korean
Established in 2014 by husband and wife team Ross Franklin and Emma Woods, Whistle Pig Korean is one of only two Korean restaurants in Bozeman. The active couple met while teaching English in Korea and ended up in Bozeman so Ross could attend Montana State University. Emma, who was born in Daegu, Korea, and professionally trained as a chef in Cape Cod, MA, needed to get out of the banking world and do something much more creative, with the full support, and nudging of Ross and his growling stomach. Their love for the outdoors and for feeding people make them the perfect duo for Bozeman’s Downtown Food Scene. The three of us masked up and chatted at the restaurant while the kitchen projected the most amazing flavorful aroma.
Angie Ripple: How was Whistle Pig Korean conceptualized?
Emma Franklin: The way it started was that I was making Korean food for Ross at home all the time, in Denver, just because that was what we were craving after Korea, and we were playing around with the idea of opening up our own place. I was doing banking and I hated it, and the only jobs I’ve ever truly loved were working in restaurants, so we decided to move in that direction and Ross was always super supportive of me doing anything creative and getting out of the business office lifestyle because I was not happy with it.
Ross Franklin: It was wearing on her for sure. We were in Denver because we had just gotten back from Korea, teaching English, and so we had decided to make it back to the states and recoup back in Denver and see what we wanted to do next, and after that I came to college up in Bozeman. And I know your husband Brian through all the music. I played music all through college and was really a part of the Bozeman community, and then I left to go to Korea to teach English, and while I was there, I met Emma, and I always wanted to get back to Bozeman. It just has that draw you know, of the mountains, it has absolutely everything a big city has to offer, and it has more trails than you can imagine, it’s more wild than you can imagine, it’s the perfect place for us to start growing from. And that was seven years ago when we started. When we moved to Bozeman, [Emma] got a job at Chickpea Cafe which was a restaurant here [in this location].
EF: So, I was working as a kitchen manager there and we were, in our free time, working on the business plan. If we were to do this what would it be like? Whenever there was a new building up for lease, we’d look around and we were toying with the idea. And then the owner of Chickpea had to move back to Ohio for family reasons, and she knew I had been wanting to open up a restaurant and asked if I wanted to take over the lease and move on in here.
RF: I was blindsided by the opportunity, honestly, because we were about ready any way to go on our own.
EF: So, we were like let’s do this, and we did not want to let the opportunity slide by, so we just starting doing it.
RF: Luckily, we have had this awesome location, and now Bozeman is growing around it really fast.
EF: The structure for the original Whistle Pig was based off kimbap shops in Korea. They are kinda like fast food and fast service, but that’s where a lot of people end up eating most of the time because it’s really quick and easy. There was one cute little one near Ross’ apartment in Korea that we’d go to; it was run by a wife and husband. It was always so cute. The wife did most of the cooking and the husband would take your order, and he would try to help out and we loved it there and I wanted to have that same feel, a little Korean restaurant that does all the things, that was our model.
AR: What makes Whistle Pig unique in the Bozeman Food Scene?
EF: It’s definitely trying to stay true to authentic Korean foods while utilizing all of the produce that Bozeman and Montana have to offer and try to incorporate it into the cuisine. We use all local eggs, meat; we started using mushrooms that are locally grown from Spore Attic, which is really fun because mushrooms are really popular in Asian food, so it was finally getting access to mushrooms that are normally very difficult to find, so getting to play around with all that, but trying to keep it with the authentic Korean, but adding in the Bozeman flare or feel to it.
RF: We do punk rock shows here when there’s not the pandemic; we do them on Sundays when we’re closed. We like to hire a lot of musicians and artists, we’ve been lucky to have comedians work here, and a lot of people who are here in the community in an artistic way, and we’ve always been able to ride that connection to the core of Bozeman’s art and culture scene, and I think that separates us from a lot of the restaurants where they might be owned by people who are a little bit less connected to that kind of stuff.
AR: What do you want people to experience when they walk through your doors?
RF: The original concept was that we wanted as modern and as authentic of a Korean experience as you can get, and so we model our restaurant off of what Korea is like right now. We don’t have gongs and a lot of old school Asian decor in here because they don’t either. We wanted it to feel as if you walked off the street in Korea. Normally, we have K-Pop music playing that’s live and vibrant, and then the smells are super fresh and different and penetrating, and the coziness and the warmth of the food ties it all together, making it a complete experience. Especially for a cold location, you know?
AR: What do your regulars keep coming back for?
EF: We have a lot of vegan and vegetarian regulars that I think really enjoy that most of our menu can be made vegan for them. Because most restaurants you get one option. Here, everything starts vegan and you can add stuff to it that would make it not vegan. I think consistency as well. Hopefully, every single time they come in, it will be the same atmosphere, the same level of customer service, and also the same quality of food. “Oh, I had this last time and it was amazing, get it again ok, it’s exactly the same.” I think that that consistency is really important for a restaurant.
RF: One or both of us is always here, and I think that really keeps a through-line from the day we opened until now consistency-wise.
AR: What do you enjoy most about being part of the Bozeman community?
EF: What I really enjoy, as a minority, is being able to see a lot of our regulars of Asian descent and it’s nice to see them. Every once in a while, we’ll look around and our entire dining room is Asian; this is amazing! It is definitely a warm, comforting feeling for me that we have this space and environment that is welcoming for them, that they want to come and eat food at, and building those relationships with our regulars as well, we’ve had some that have been coming since they were fourteen years old with their parents and they still do. They are in college when they come back and watching that progression and growing with the community in a way is really fun.
RF: I would say absolutely, the music, culture, just the community that surrounds different arts around Bozeman. There’s a community around comedy, a community around music, there’s also the community around skiing, there’s just a lot of community in Montana in general - a lot more than I think people recognize. In Bozeman, you run into everyone at the grocery store, everywhere on the trails, you see everyone all the time, you see the people you’re feeding. I just really enjoy being a part of that.
AR: How has it been running the restaurant through the pandemic?
RF: The pandemic has been interesting because we’ve had to switch to takeout and delivery, and that’s not an area we were focusing on at the moment the pandemic hit. We were focusing on dinner service, we painted the walls, we were making it more cozy with a nice dine-in atmosphere. We are now slowly opening it back up, and I would say the same amount of people are eating here for sure; it’s just that they’re not dining in and buying booze and appetizers. At the moment, we are excited that we still have the support of our customers.
AR: Do you have anything coming up that you would like the readers to know about?
RF: Coming up, Whistle Pig will be voted Best Restaurant in Bozeman; that’s something you can look forward to. [Laughs] We really appreciate Bozeman Magazine. You and Brian have helped create a huge art community around and I know the pandemic has been the same challenges for you guys, but I hope it’s been good because Bozeman is getting through this.
AR: Thanks for saying that. It’s a lot of crazy work we do.
My mask continued to smell of Whistle Pig’s amazing menu for days after our interview, and my cravings for the Bibimbap I enjoyed at home after our visit still have not subsided. Get Whistle Pig Korean on your Bozeman Food Scene to-eat-at list for 2021 NOW!