Parachute, Eater Chicago's 2014 Restaurant of the Year and a finalist for the 2015 James Beard Best New Restaurant award, was oh-so-close to never existing at all. After working in kitchens around Chicago for years, with Beverly Kim's Top Chef finals appearance mixed in, the husband-and-wife duo were nearly resigned to giving up their dream of opening their restaurant after being unable to find the right, affordable space during a two-year search. At the end of their rope, a chance meeting when Kim yelled at the owner of a shuttered bakery in Avondale from her car turned into the right space that they term their "last shot." The rest is history.
Kim and husband Johnny Clark talk about the amazing circumstances surrounding finding the space, what owning their first, and family-run, restaurant has been like, the many accolades, and changes along the way.
It must have been a whirlwind year for you both. How has the life of busy first-time restaurant owners been?
Johnny: Busy is a good thing for everybody. The life of running a restaurant, especially a small restaurant -- because we're the bookkeepers, we're the handy man, the cooks, the chefs—is a 24-hour job.
Beverly: The first year you're running a business, you're setting up the systems because you can't really explain it to anybody else until you create it yourself. Thankfully, we have a really great support staff and really great managers and cooks. We started with nearly half the staff we do now—doubled our staff. The first month or two months, we were just very hesitant...it's kind of frightening to open a restaurant; it's a risky business. We were concerned with, first of all, food.
Has business grown? You were busy right from the beginning.
Johnny: We were doing better than what we thought we would from the day we opened. We just hoped to get 40 people in the door, to at least fill our seats once a night. We had lower expectations; we just wanted to survive. It was like slowly opening a valve and now it's fully open. We've completely opened our reservations. I think we're twice as busy as we were when we opened. You can easily become a workaholic if you're not careful.
You have so much family working there. You said in a pre-opening interview that you didn't want to compete with mom-and-pop Korean restaurants, but it almost feels like you own a mom-and-pop Korean restaurant.
Beverly: There's a feeling of security when you go somewhere like your mom and dad's. I feel like the people who work with us or who come and eat, there's that feeling of security. We run it like a family business. It is a family business.
Johnny: For us it's stayed that way. It hasn't changed the way we operate. I don't think we have the same flow of business as some mom-and-pop restaurants; we have to be as professional as a corporate restaurant because of the amount of business and the expectations that people have of us, we have to be very organized and very professional at the same time. As much as we're relaxed, I think we definitely equal that outlet of professional behavior and service.
Why did you pick that location? Did it worry you that people might not travel to that stretch of the city?
Johnny: It was the end of a long road. We had been searching for what seemed like forever, probably two years. Nothing ever seemed to fit in our budget. How can you not open a restaurant for $200,000? It's so much money. Everywhere we went, it was dead end after dead end after dead end. The location wasn't good, or the location was good but too expensive, or people wanted too much money for their junk. This was the last shot.
I rode my bike past here one day. I was working at Lula (Cafe) as a prep cook in the morning just to get by while we were searching for a restaurant and rode here after work. Basically, I was looking for something in Logan Square. We lived nearby, we liked the neighborhood, we know it, it's a good place to be if you're trying to do something progressive, I think; we just couldn't find anything there. We kept getting further and further out. I just kept going one day and was going to go home, took a right down Elston, and I passed this place, it was a bakery that looked like it just shut down. I couldn't find anybody and we kind of gave up on it.
Then Beverly drove by it one day out of a random occurrence and saw the landlord locking up the door. She pulled over and said, "hey, you! Is this place for sale?"
It just worked out. It was luck of the draw, or maybe it was the end of the road. For us, it was the last chance we were going to take on something before we gave up. I don't know why it worked out, but it did.
Beverly: It usually ends up that way though, with a lot of things. Right when you're about to give up, or maybe you're at your last straw, then something keeps you...your eye, I guess, it's the universe maybe, your motivation. You're willing to wait this long: "Here, finally, here's your reward." It was really seriously the best spot that I could think of, right on the verge of, I guess you can say art and commerce. It's in a sort of edgier neighborhood, but still makes sense. It's really close to the highway, so it's accessible, and had some bones in it.
You've obviously been very critically successful, but how do you personally define success?
Johnny: It's an accumulation of a lot of things. Success is being able to support yourself as an entrepreneur, that's the first thing. Second of all, having a happy staff working for you, because you couldn't do it without them. Another thing is making your customers happy, the fact that they enjoy the food that they're eating. That everyone's happy in the business, I think that's success, whether it be the customer, the owner, or the staff.
Beverly: I think it's very people based, the happiness meter. If everyone has a smile on their face, I think that's a sign of success.
The accolades, the reviews, James Beard finalist, what has that meant to you? Is there one that you can pinpoint and say, "that one was really special"?
Johnny: They're all shockers. I don't think we had any expectations.
Beverly: I feel like each, whether it was Eater, or whether it was Chicago Tribune, or James Beard, each one has a different market, or the Jean Banchet (award). It's all different markets, so it's very important to us, each one, because it shows how we can affect people in different (ways). We were so busy with trying to keep up with the business that we didn't really soak it all in fully. I guess you could say we were so grateful for it; all the critical acclaim helps our staff feel better about working here too. They feel that their hard work is getting acknowledged.
Was there a moment when it hit you that "this is going to work. This is going to be a good restaurant?"
Johnny: For me, there's always the fear that the customer is going to go away. The fact that we made it to this one-year mark, that's a big sign that what we're doing right now is working. We're always trying to evolve because there's always a chance that it won't work in the future.
Beverly: The night my mom didn't criticize anything. My mom's the most critical person; she comes in every Friday night with my dad and stays until 12:30 in the morning. She's like 71. A couple of times she didn't say anything and I was like, "I guess it's working." She always has something to say: Anywhere I've (worked) she's always been pretty critical: "too salty, too this."
Every day there's moments where I'm like, "we can still improve so much." The moment we lose that desire, a restaurant can go up to down.
What effect has the Top Chef TV exposure had on the restaurant? Has it given you business? Have people been more critical because of it?
Beverly: TV exposure could be both good and bad for any business, but in my case I feel like it's been mostly good. It has a market that goes beyond just Chicago, and it reruns and it replays. Maybe people are more familiar with the style of food; I cooked a lot of Korean-influenced food on Top Chef.
Ultimately, your food is going to speak for itself. How many times have you heard or seen something, you go and expectations are a little bit higher, and then they're so disappointed. That's something that I try to over-deliver. Hopefully they come in (and say), "wow, I didn't expect it to be this good."
What have you learned most in the first year?
Johnny: How to grow up really fast. Be a leader, or sink. You start to believe in yourself a little bit more every day. You think, "maybe in the future I could do this again."
Beverly: I think I've learned how to separate what's best for the restaurant and what's best for personal. I think sometimes what I come down to is "what's best for Parachute?" That's always the question. And the restaurant community as a whole.
And also focus. The more busy we got, the more emails, the more requests. It's hard to focus when all these things are coming towards you. You have to learn how to focus on what's most important. That means saying no to things or just re-prioritizing.
Johnny: That's a huge one for me too, is saying no. I've learned to feel comfortable to saying no to things.
What have you said no to?
Johnny: You get asked to do tons of charity events. We do as many as we possibly can, because we do care, but you've got to know your limitations. You're not going to help anybody because you can't give your all. You've got people to take care of under this roof.
What has been the most satisfying part of the first year?
Beverly: Of course making beautiful food, that is very personally satisfying, (but) it's ultimately even more satisfying taking care of our people, taking care of our guests who come in. One of the things this year, we've contributed to health insurance (for) our full time employees. We could invest that money somewhere else, making our food better, maybe getting more fancy equipment, but I feel like having security, making sure everyone here feels significant, like they're important, and what they do counts and matters. I feel like that's really important to me.
Our first year anniversary, (staff) surprised us with this really cool picture. They got together on their day off and wrote a little nice note around this huge picture frame, bought us a cake. It was really fun. Very few places are able to provide that kind of atmosphere, nothing can buy that. It's something that comes from within.
What have you changed with the food and the menu in the first year?
Johnny: Our menu format has completely changed since we opened. In the beginning it was a little bit more playful, a little bit more casual in a sense. We kind of reduced it to ultra-simplicity; a list of daily dishes that we come up with. We realized if we want to cook what this area has to offer during the summer, you can't have this formatted menu with different sections. We still have our staples, but we found that our repeat customers really enjoy having things that change. I think we elevated ourselves a lot since when we opened.
Beverly: I'm so glad we don't have to dumb down our menu. If anything, that demand is making us more creative. Before I think we were afraid that people were going to over-categorize us, they're going to put us in this niche hole. You can't make everybody happy, but most of our guests really do appreciate the transparency and the honestness that this is really food from our heart; we don't have to force it.
Johnny: It's kind of scary when you're opening a restaurant. You don't want to go too far; you want to make sure everyone likes everything. I think we did it right—start nice and calm, don't overdo anything, and grow into your shoes.
Is there anything you'd like to say to Chicagoans or people around the country or world that have come and supported you?
Johnny: I personally thank every single person. The fact that people come to the middle of Avondale on Elston with nothing else around, that means a lot. It takes effort to get here.
Beverly: I guess the word is grateful, grateful towards them for coming to check us out.
Having an open mind to the cuisine...I'm so glad that most people are not like, "this is not Korean enough." I like that they're just enjoying the food and enjoying the experience, embracing the experience, following our cue. It's not easy to get people out of their comfort zones and try something different—some people have never seen some of these ingredients before, don't know how to pronounce some of the words, the physical closeness.
What do you have coming up?
Johnny: I think our wheels are always turning. We're still committed and focused to this place. We still feel like babies.