Growing up in the slums in the Philippines, Jenny Segalowitz knows all too well the importance of food. This is why, when she was presented with an opportunity to start her own business in Abu Dhabi, the first thing she thought of was a restaurant.
"I had eight siblings and we used to come home from school, drop our bags and head out to find food. We'd sell anything, from garbage to vegetables, in exchange for something to eat," Segalowitz recalls of her childhood living on the fringes of Las Pinas city.
"By the time I was 10 years old, I decided to work as a housemaid in someone else's home just so I could get regular food to eat and be able to buy my school uniform."
Segalowitz is the woman behind Mukbang Shows Restaurant, a Korean barbecue and seafood restaurant fast gaining popularity for its unlimited meat servings for a set price. The restaurant, which first opened in Muroor Road in Abu Dhabi in January, recently opened a second branch in Electra Street. A third is scheduled to open in Dubai in January.
The restaurant's name is inspired by mukbang, or eating show, which originated in South Korea and in which a host consumes various quantities of food while interacting with the audience. Hugely popular online, it's now a global trend alongside other South Korean exports K-pop and K-beauty.
While a range of la carte dishes are available at Mukbang Shows Restaurant, its stand-out offering is the live barbecue concept where customers can grill their own food with a variety of raw unlimited meats on offer. An Unlimited Korean BBQ, accompanied by more than seven side dishes, starts at Dh59.
"You will feel like you're in Korea when you come to our restaurant," Segalowitz, 41, tells The National, adding that customers can also change into traditional Korean dresses or hanbok while dining.
"When we opened the first restaurant, we didn't expect it to be this successful. Our first branch had about 14 tables and there were long queues outside. So we decided to open the second, bigger branch, with 21 tables."
Segalowitz, who previously worked as a business development manager at a food company, says she and her husband, Doug Segalowitz, who is also her business partner, saw a demand for Korean restaurants in the UAE capital.
"There were very few restaurant like ours and at our price," she says. "Also, we opened right when Covid-19 lockdowns were being eased and people were craving to travel and explore and Mukbang Shows offered that perfect escape."
Despite the restaurant's immediate success, Segalowitz, who first came to Abu Dhabi in 2003, says she never forgets the long and painful journey it took her to get here. And it's that same determination and hard work coupled with "lots and lots of prayer and gratitude" that influences how she runs her restaurant.
"I was 22 when my father died and we all had to fend for ourselves. So I worked at Dunkin' Donuts to pay my way through college because I was determined never to go hungry again," she says.
In 2003 someone offered Segalowitz a waiter's job in Abu Dhabi and she jumped at the opportunity.
"I was earning Dh1,000 a month and I remember I used to kneel down in the toilet every break time and pray for a better life," she says.
Segalowitz had worked for two years at the restaurant when she met her first husband. It was also around this time that she discovered she was good with money.
"I began to invest in small businesses. I also began investing in property and within a span of a year, I had three apartments. And after a few years, I was taking care of 12 apartments."
But as her professional life improved, her personal life suffered as her husband, who had turned to alcohol, became increasingly violent. Fortunately for Segalowitz, he would soon lose his job and was forced to leave the UAE. The couple, who have three children, then got a divorce.
"I raised my kids all by myself and by 2016 the property market was not doing well and I had to let go of a lot of my business," she says.
By 2019, having sold most of her businesses, Segalowitz decided to move back to the Philippines with her children.
"I was doing OK and I had enough savings, so I gave myself until the end of the year," she says.
But as fate would have it, Segalowitz met her husband Doug, a New Yorker, that August through common friends. Doug shared her entrepreneurial zeal and the couple decided to pool their resources to open Mukbang Shows Restaurant. Doug's friend, James Gaujardo, also stepped in as an investor and became the restaurant's business manager.
After a bit of a shaky start owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, Mukbang Shows Restaurant is now a roaring business. Besides the coming Dubai branch, discussions are taking place for a fourth branch in Abu Dhabi. Franchising is another aspect they are looking at, with enquiries already coming in from across the Gulf and even from Egypt.
Segalowitz, who married Doug in February this year, believes their restaurant's success is a manifestation of years of prayers, and the belief that, with hard work and lots of faith, anything is possible. And she has even bigger plans for Mukbang Shows Restaurant, which has already begun to partner with organisations in the Philippines to help put slum children through school.
"I came from nothing," Segalotwitz says. "That's why my plan is to not just be a business. Just like someone reached out to me and changed my life for the better, we want to make a difference to people's lives. We want to continue that channel of blessing."