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Monday, June 01, 2020

Re-Thinking the Kitchen

“FOR US IT'S BEEN about asking ourselves, how can we still show hospitality at such a weird time and place in our industry, when our traditional means of showing care and attention have been taken away from us?” So muses Jinah Kim, the owner of and unstoppable force behind Sunhee’s Farm and Kitchen, the Troy-based Korean restaurant that we profiled here.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
“Like every other New York restaurant, we’re restricted to takeout and delivery right now,” she says. “For our business it hasn’t been that bad. You hear about fine-dining restaurants that are being hit from 50 to 75 percent; for us, it’s closer to 30 to 50 percent. So it was easy to transition into that kind of a quick-service model.”

Kim opened Sunhee’s Farm and Kitchen on May 15, 2016, fulfilling a long-held dream – although it wasn’t, at first, of a restaurant: “I was thinking along the lines of a café or a farm, which then turned into the idea of a gathering place that would start out as a restaurant and evolve into a space where people would feel comfortable, and a place that could be a learning environment.”

To that end, she has been offering classes for immigrants, teaching English and computer skills among other subjects – but everything changed in March. “I think back to that initial week when the NBA suspended its season and things were getting really serious – and we were waiting in anticipation of what was going to happen next.” She describes a sense of vacillation between keeping the business open to continue an income stream, “but also to be able to take care of our staff and think of the well-being of our community.”

As her website makes clear, she’s offering a full menu for take-out, but there’s a variety of other services available. Free language classes in English continue, albeit with a different platform. “We started doing it on Zoom, with live, real-time instruction, with teachers who are on payroll – people who are on our staff, so they’re also handling restaurant operations, conducting outreach, and delivering care packages. And we’ve been seeing increases in our class sizes on a daily basis.”

She’s also providing food and supplies to needy neighbors. It started with a retail shop Kim opened, a “Korean bodega,” as she described it, that didn’t prove viable enough to keep open. It shut down a few months ago, and she moved its inventory to the restaurant or a storage facility. “It became a blessing in disguise because when we got to a point where we couldn’t buy new pantry items and merchandise, we looked at what we had in storage, and that’s how we got the idea for the Pantry Package Program.” There’s a registration form at this website page where your name and household info is collected, and Sunhee’s will make a contact-less delivery to that person.

“A lot of immigrant Americans have been put in a situation no one’s been in before, so we thought something a bit more anonymous would be helpful. Someone else can put in your name as a way of showing hospitality. And we make the package look nice and add a little note it. We wanted to add that level of human dignity.” She notes that it has been helpful to encourage referrals. “Sometimes it’s hard for people to ask for help when they need it, especially when they haven’t had to ask for help before.”

The restaurant remains open for take-out and local delivery Monday through Saturday, and the staffing reflects the individual needs of the employees. “I’m proud to say that we’ve kept 80 to 90 percent of our staff. The first thing we did when the pandemic hit was send a survey to our staff, asking about their individual needs: how much do you need for groceries, how much do you pay for rent – how many shifts do you think you’ll need to be financially secure? And we’ve done our best to take care of them. It’s been all about looking at our existing resources. We were already in a crunch for cash, too, but I think we got very creative.”

Kim started a GoFundMe campaign in early March, “because we were anticipating difficulty in paying staff, so because of people’s generosity we’ve been able to do things that we otherwise wouldn’t have had the finances to do. We’re learning that we have to diversify our revenue stream, so we activated our non-profit arm, through which we’re accepting donations to fund our Adult Education program.”

Jinah Kim | Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Born in Inchon, South Korea, Kim’s family moved to Framingham, Massachusetts, when she was three. This was where other family members had a jewelry store, although her father continued to move the family around the country before moving to the Troy area in 2001, where he founded a church and also started a jewelry shop nearby.

“I watched the struggle my parents went through,” says Kim. “As I grew up, I learned what was happening in North Korea, with people there fleeing or being forced to migrate, and the more I heard the more I realized I needed to learn more – and the more I wanted to dedicate myself to helping people.”

By the time she graduated from Shaker High, she had decided that she wanted to start some kind of business. “I used to call about available spaces back then. They weren’t expecting to see a high-school kid when I showed up.” She went on to graduate from Boston College, where she majored in International Studies. “Eventually, I was living in New York City, where I volunteered to teach beginning English. After about six months that turned into a full-time paid position, and I was also advising people on professional development and doing other career counseling.” This helped affirm what she wanted to do, but not where she wanted to do it.

“I was especially interested in Troy. People here seemed to be open-minded and receptive, and I wanted to be in a city – not out in a suburban strip mall.” Her parents bought a farm in Cambridge, NY, a bucolic area that’s been home to a revival of sensible farming, and this sparked the idea of opening a restaurant. Jinah’s mother, Chun Hee, runs the kitchen alongside her friend Sun Hwa. The name of the restaurant combines the names of the two of them.

As to an eventual reopening, “We discuss this a lot. We’ve been researching how other countries have been doing it. Initially, I thought it would be June 1, but what we’re planning to do is activate our outdoor space with the proper protocols, so you can feel like you’re in a restaurant, but also feel secluded and protected from other people.”

But she feels only encouraged in her ongoing mission of community and immigrant support. “Even before this, I was putting in my application to law school, and I looked up the root of the word ‘hospitality.’ It goes back to the Latin word ‘hospes,’ meaning ‘guest’ or ‘stranger,’ and means courtesy and generosity shown to people who are far from home. I thought, this is our mission! And I think there are numerous ways of doing that – we have to be creative, making people feel like they’re home, even when they’re not.”

 –, 21 May 2020

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