Oja Wins Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year Competition

Oja restaurateurs standing at their booth in a guest vendor fair

Oja, a Korean-inspired restaurant owned by Chef Kwai Butler, has won the inaugural Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year competition sponsored by Linn Area Credit Union. The competition took place at NewBo City Market on March 24 and 25.

“Linn Area Credit Union is thrilled to congratulate Oja and owner Kwai Butler on being named the LACU Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year. The credit union is proud to help fund Kwai’s dream of starting her own business, and to further the mission of NewBo City Market,” said Andrea Brommelkamp, Business Development Ambassador at Linn Area Credit Union.

The competition featured educational seminars and networking on the first day, as well as a guest vendor fair the following day where the finalists sold their products and services to the public. The eight finalists participating in the Emerging Entrepreneur competition were graded on a series of criteria that included their business plan, booth display, and sales. Each finalist then presented a business pitch in front of a panel of judges from Linn Area Credit Union and NewBo City Market.

“It was really special to be a part of this competition,” Kwai said. “Being selected as the winner really means that I now have the opportunity to make my dream a reality, and I am going to utilize all the resources available to me so that I can make Oja a success.”

As the winner of the Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year competition, Chef Kwai will receive a rent-free space at NewBo City Market for the next year, courtesy of Linn Area Credit Union. She will also receive one-on-one business development mentoring from NewBo City Market and the credit union.

Oja is slated to open in NewBo City Market in June and will introduce Cedar Rapids to authentic Korean-inspired dishes like kimbap, bibimbap, kimchi fried rice, and bulgogi wraps.

Kwai was born in Chicago but grew up in South Korea where her mother taught English at a local university. While in high school, Kwai became interested in the culinary arts, taking classes at a local culinary school. She returned to the United States after graduating from high school and moved to Cedar Rapids, where her grandparents reside. She earned a culinary arts degree from Kirkwood Community College in 2018 and began working at The Class Act, the restaurant located inside the Hotel at Kirkwood Center. While there, Kwai planned and executed the restaurant’s Seoul Passport Menu.

Then the 2020 pandemic changed everything. With the restaurant and hotel shut down, Kwai found herself furloughed and contemplated pursuing a second degree in graphic design. The pivot proved to be a blessing in disguise as she has been able to combine her culinary skill along with her design ability, creating her own menus and marketing materials.

“Korean cuisine has become increasingly popular in the U.S. and is something people want to experience. The essence of Oja is fresh and colorful,” said Kwai. “Just like my food.”