FOUNDER'S STORY WITH JINAH KIM: SUNHEE'S FARM AND KITCHEN
A conversation with Jinah Kim, owner of Sunhee's in Troy, NY. A popular restaurant and space for the greater immigrant community of upstate NY.
Jinah Kim is the owner of Sunhee’s Farm and Kitchen, located in Troy, NY. The restaurant opened in 2016, and has since expanded its space in 2018. Sunhee's is not only delicious food but also a safe space for the greater immigrant community. Here's Jinah's story:
After growing up in the Capital Region, going to school in Boston, and working in New York City - what brought you back to the area to open a restaurant?:
Initially, I was moving back to the area for a job at USCRI (U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants), I was still working in refugee resettlement and direct services. Long term, I had an aspiration to start my own business in my home region so it was a purposeful move, but I didn't know I was going to start a restaurant. I intended to scope things out, build networks, and it just happened that different pieces came together to begin creating Sunhee's.
Your family has been a part of the creation on Sunhee's, how have they been involved?
My parents have a farm 40 minutes away from Troy, so they are the source of some of the food we serve. We each have our own roles to play, when it comes to the ownership - it is led by me, the younger generation. I started Sunhee's but my parents are on board and have a like minded vision. My dad is a farmer, and my mom is a chef.
There's a big emphasis on being immigrant run and owned. You offer English language courses and computer literacy programs. How have these initiatives been received by the community?
From the beginning, it's been received well by the community. Like anything else, credibility and trust takes time to be built. Over the last 5 years, we've had to tap in and make long lasting relationships with the immigrant communities we actually want to serve. Word of mouth has been important for us, we don't do a ton of outreach - it's a lot of "my friend told me about this."
There's a power in how decentralized and nonsystematic our services have been. We have people from all different backgrounds, speaking all different languages with us. Our staff have been Togolese, Afghani, and currently 100% of our staff are women, which is fascinating especially through Covid.
These services have always been the same, but we've grown and have a better analysis on how to work with people. We started with one English class that I taught personally - now we have a paid staff, a non-profit arm of the company, and 3 levels of classes, a volunteer team, and host up to 20 people per class on Zoom.
You're a business owner and recently started studying law at Albany Law. What do you want to do with your education in law?
In all cities across the country, but especially here in Albany, we have a small handful of providers and attorneys who specialize in immigration. Federal immigration law is highly nuanced, and there's a high need for people who require services.
Having an attorney is a key need for being able to stay in the country or not. There are language barriers, families separated, people unable to get employed and stay here financially. There aren't many resources for immigrants here in the Capital Region, and the larger community is also not attuned to immigrant needs.
I've had a lot of staff members come to me seeking help, even for something like filling out an application. If those are done wrong, it can be detrimental to getting citizenship. I didn't have the proper credentials to help, which is what I'm going to school for.
Immigration rights is really important, and it's especially helpful to have someone who looks like you on your side. For Asians and Asian-Americans, I want to be a practicing attorney that my community can feel comfortable with.
Upstate NY gets a lot of visitors from downstate, people passing through on their way to the Adirondacks. But, there's so much more to the region than hiking. What do you think is missing from the narrative of what the Capital Region has to offer?
I think that's a problem, when there's a limited view and see things as homogenous. We're not a dense place, but we have a lot of different representations. We may not compete with NYC in numbers and demographics, but for that reason, there's a bit more innocence to the minority communities. Being a Korean-American, there's only a handful of us, so we feel strong when we are together. We want to be representative of our culture.
In Troy, specifically, there's a lot of potential for growth and new business. From a non-racial standpoint, there's a lot of opportunity to invest in - you can start a business easily, you can buy a house, it's affordable and growing. With that, and from a cultural and racial standpoint, there's a lot of opportunity for direction and empowering our communities. I think that's really exciting. We're not looking for major organizations to do it for us, we're all equally invested in seeing these changes happen because that development hasn't finished. Troy is going through gentrification right now, and we want to see the city transformed in the right way.
Inevitably, Sunhee's has had to react to Covid-19. How has your business fared throughout the pandemic?
Business-wise, like any other small business in the area, we had to be very creative and make quick adjustments. But I'd like to emphasize that we've been luckier than most. A lot of people have had trouble keeping staff, but everyone at Sunhee's has stepped up and worked hard for our business and I think our team has grown closer as a result.
It was harder early on, but now we've come to accept the pandemic. We're more resilient now and know how to handle these situations.
I recognize the privilege I have where my job is to take care of people. What is hospitality when it's not the way we thought it was supposed to be done. We dig deeper, we do to-go stuff, we focus on the packages and how it feels good, how it's presented to our customers.
Owning a restaurant and being in the food industry comes with its own sets of stereotypes. What has been challenging if anything, there?Restaurant work is back breaking, it's a lot of work. Of course, there is always criticism and expectations or a sense of entitlement, but it's a balance. People come, they spend money here, but I get to share a part of who I am through our food, space and service. I get to make the business into the things I believe in.
As your first 5 years come, what do you want to see in your next 5 years with Sunhee's?
Besides finishing law school, I'd like to get better at the things that we do, hone in on the systems we have already established.
We see ourselves growing through long term projects, and real estate projects. We recently purchased space in Troy that we are working on how to develop it to serve another need for our community. Perhaps a boutique hotel, transitional homes, or rental spaces.
I want to continue to collaborate with our community, especially among Asians, Asian-Americans. Once a month, a group of women hosts get togethers as the 518 Asian Alliance, and it has been really, really powerful to build that community of women, uplifting and empowering our voices. We want to be a part of it, invest in ourselves, and do what we do best - serve food.
Given your experience as a business owner and immigrant, what words of advice would pass on to those who have an idea but don't know how to start?
It's the same advice I'd give anyone thinking about their careers. There are two main things you have to figure out as a basis: What are you passionate about, and are you good at it?
Once you can answer that, look at your resources and know what to say no to. When I started my business, an important choice I had to make was: what my business wasn't going to be. I knew what I wanted it to be, and I didn't give into the temptation of what it could be. Establishing that mission and building around it is what led Sunhee's to today. Even if everything else changes, our mission won't.
Follow Sunhee's Farm and Kitchen on Instagram @sunhees95ferry and learn more at sunhees.com.