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I took a nearly $90,000 pay cut to work in food – now my restaurant makes more than $1.8 million a year – NBC 6 South Florida

This is a special Gen X episode of CNBC Make It’s Millennial money series, which profiles people around the world and describes how they earn, spend and save their money.

Ji Hye Kim never considered a career in nutrition. The 46-year-old’s family emigrated from South Korea to New Jersey when she was 13, and she spent her early adulthood looking for ways to stay in the US.

Every decision she made revolved around one question: “What should I do to maintain legal status?” she says. For example, going to university meant she had to extend her student visa. And every job she wanted required a green card to be sponsored.

Kim attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and after graduating in 2002, got a job in hospital administration in New Jersey. Although the job sponsored her green card, she eventually obtained her citizenship through marriage. Her husband worked at her alma mater, so Kim returned to Ann Arbor in 2007.

“This was the first time in my life that I could ask myself, ‘What do I want to do with my life?’” she says.

While considering her next step, she saw an opening for a cheesemonger at Zingerman’s Delicatessen. The job would entail a significant pay cut, from her previous salary of about $105,000 per year to a salary that paid about $16,800 per year. Still, she had a good feeling about it.

Indeed, it was at Zingerman’s that she found a passion for the food industry, and in 2016 she partnered with the deli to open her Korean restaurant, Miss Kim, in Ann Arbor.

It took a few years for the restaurant to find its footing, including figuring out how to pivot indoor dining operations during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, but Kim remained persistent. Miss Kim posted revenues of $1.89 million in 2023 and made a net profit of $101,553 for the fiscal year of August 2022 to July 2023. Kim also paid herself $70,000 in 2023.

This is what it took to build the company.

Growing up with mom’s ‘kimchi from scratch’

Kim was originally hired to work in the specialty department of Zingerman’s, which sold artisanal foods such as sourdough bread and fresh-pressed olive oil. While there, she learned the stories of where the food she sold came from: families who have been making balsamic vinegar for generations, cheesemongers whose cheese is aged in caves by monks.

“I started wondering if I had Korean food or Asian food and I could tell this story… what would that look like?” she says.

Young Kim.
Thanks to Ji Hye Kim

Young Kim.

Kim also started missing her mother’s home-cooked Korean meals. When Kim was growing up, after working all day at the nail salon she owned, her mother “still found time to make her own kimchi from scratch,” she says. Korean food in Michigan didn’t quite fuel her craving for home-cooked food.

But in 2010, Kim heard about the Zingerman’s Path to Partnership program, an “entrepreneurial program where any staff or non-staff member can apply to become a partner at an existing business or create a brand new Zingerman’s business,” she says. She and a fellow Zingerman employee decided to set up a pan-Asian restaurant.

Driving a ‘little hot dog cart’

Kim and her partner met with Zingerman founders Paul Saginaw and Ari Weinzweig in 2011 to present their idea. “They responded very positively,” she says, telling the two to write a vision statement for their company.

Kim and her partner decided to start a street food cart called San Street, selling dishes like soft tofu and avocado and bibim gooksoo. Zingerman’s offered several types of support, including human resources and the physical cart itself, which Kim describes as a “little hot dog cart” rather than a “super fancy food truck.”

San Street's food cart.
Thanks to Ji Hye Kim

San Street’s food cart.

It was located outside in a downtown parking lot dedicated to food carts, with their kitchen a block away. Kim’s partner left the company after the first season, but Kim continued to drive the cart for a total of four seasons, from April to October. She worked 80 hours a week, “breaking even and making a very, very small profit by the end,” she says.

Between seasons, Kim designed a kind of “curriculum” for herself in the food sector, she says. She worked at several restaurants, starting as a line and preparation chef at Zingerman’s and on stages at Korean restaurants such as Hanjan in New York.

Throughout the process, she decided that she wanted to specifically sell Korean food with her business. “That’s where I felt I had the most exposure and passion,” she says.

Following Korean tradition by using Michigan ingredients

By 2015, Kim felt like she had learned everything she could, from driving the cart and working in different facilities. It was time to open her restaurant.

Funding came from several places: She leveraged Zingerman’s line of credit to get a $480,000 small business loan from a local bank, secured a few hundred thousand dollars in loans from Saginaw and Weinzweig’s holding company, Dancing Sandwich Enterprises, and management consulting firm ZingTrain . , and made her own investment of $150,000. In total, construction and early operating costs were just over $1 million.

Miss Kim opened in November 2016. Kim owned 50% of the company and Zingerman’s founders each had 25% (during the pandemic she bought an additional 1%). The idea was to create Korean dishes with local Michigan ingredients such as beets, asparagus and corn.

In Korea, food is highly dependent on the region of the country it comes from, sometimes even on the season. “Being true to where I am in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in southeast Michigan, is kind of like following the philosophy of Korean cuisine,” Kim says.

Learning to turn

Despite the food truck’s success, opening a restaurant came with its own challenges.

First, customers didn’t always feel connected to Miss Kim’s menu, which initially served Korean dishes from Kim’s own childhood, such as tteokbokki with gochujang and Chinese cabbage kimchi. But Kim realized it was “just part of Korean food, and it’s incredibly subjective and personal.”

Kim began doing in-depth research into the cuisine of her home country, which dates back as much as 150 years. That led to the introduction of new dishes, such as braised pork shank with five spices and tteokbokki with cheese, which she said helped with sales.

According to Kim, Miss Kim brought in $699,877 in revenue for the fiscal year from August 2016 to July 2017. In 2022, the restaurant turned a profit, and during the fiscal year of August 2022 to July 2023, it brought in $1,833,096.

Miss Kim's turnover over the years.
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Miss Kim’s turnover over the years.

Another challenge was adjusting to the influx of staff and customers at certain times of the year, since Ann Arbor is a college town. “Our turnover really depends on the semester schedule,” says Kim.

The pandemic brought its own hurdles: Indoor dining was closed in March 2020. Kim had to get creative to keep the company running.

“It took us less than a week to reopen, and we only reopened as a takeout restaurant,” she says, adding that “we tried meal kits, we tried takeaway cocktails, we tried big family meals instead of individual dishes.”

Ms. Kim remained a mostly take-out restaurant until the vaccine was available to ensure it wouldn’t have to close again. It is now back to offering indoor dining.

Abolishing tips

Today, Miss Kim is profitable and thriving, with total revenue of $1.89 million by 2023.

Here’s a look at the restaurant’s expenses in 2023:

The cost distribution of the restaurant in 2023.
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The cost distribution of the restaurant in 2023.

The largest cost item is labor, which totaled more than $570,000 in 2023. Mapping labor costs was also an early challenge for the company.

While the U.S. minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, the tipped minimum wage for servers who also earn tips is $2.13 per hour. If an employee’s minimum tip plus tips equals the local regular minimum wage, the employer only owes them that small tip minimum. This may vary by state. For example, the tipped minimum wage in Michigan is $3.93 per hour, and the regular minimum wage is $10.33 per hour.

But Kim didn’t want her employees to be dependent on “the weather or customers’ moods,” she says. When Miss Kim first opened, “we decided we were going to eliminate the tip credit and pay people a living wage.” Everyone was paid $14 an hour and no tips were given in the restaurant.

However, customers complained. “They wanted to leave tips because tipping culture is so prevalent in the United States,” Kim says.

Fried tofu from Miss Kim.
Zach Green | Marisa Forziati | CNBC Make it

Fried tofu from Miss Kim.

Ultimately, the restaurant settled on a hybrid model: Everyone’s starting pay is now $12 an hour with various opportunities for raises, and everyone collects the tips.

A “stressed workforce is less likely to provide excellent service to our customers,” Kim says of the philosophy. “And employee happiness and longevity have a direct positive financial impact on our business.”

‘Maybe we are on the right track’

Kim looks forward to continuing to grow the company. “We’re very happy to have broken the $2 million mark (in sales) this year,” she says.

Miss Kim’s unique dishes have also received recognition. In 2024, Kim received her fourth James Beard nomination for Best Chef, and in 2021 she was named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs.

“When I get these awards it’s a little disorienting and I’m grateful,” she says. “And it’s confirmation that maybe we’re on the right track.”

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