Throughout the month of May, in honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, The Pulse will be featuring the voices of notable AAPI members of the Redwood City community. From Japanese brothers Eikichi and Sadakusu Enomoto, who made Redwood City the “chrysanthemum capital of the world” in the 1920s, to our very own Jeff Gee, who helped form the Asian-Pacific Islander Caucus, which advocates and supports policies that further the goals of the second largest racial category in San Mateo County, there is no shortage of local AAPI figures who have broken down walls and opened doors for future generations.
National estimates suggest there are up to 7,500 POC (People of Color)-owned businesses across Oakland, Redwood City, Richmond, San Jose, San Francisco and South San Francisco, nearly half of which are Asian-owned. Being home to San Mateo County’s annual Lunar New Year festival, and with nearly 18% of our population being of Asian American or Pacific Islander descent, it’s no surprise that Redwood City houses some of the Bay Area’s best Asian cuisine.
A familiar face in the restaurant scene, John Kim is the owner of downtown staples Talk of Broadway, Vons Chicken and Yokohama. As Korean immigrants, his family found it more productive to become small business owners and not work for someone else. They debated going into the dry cleaning business but found the barrier to entry too expensive, so their journey here began in 1995 when they purchased Talk of Broadway in downtown Redwood City.
The Pulse sat down with Kim to hear stories about how his family came to Redwood City and how that shaped their lives and perspectives.
Redwood City Pulse: For context, tell us a bit about where you immigrated from, how you came to the Bay Area, and a bit about your upbringing…
Kim: I was 16 when I moved to America - it was 1989. We were broke when we were in Korea, so my uncle invited us to immigrate. It took us 9 years to get here.
At the time, it was easier to come here when you were poor - for better opportunities - than it is now. It’s just so expensive here now. We moved to San Francisco because transportation is much easier there. I finished my last two years of high school there and then did one year at San Francisco City College.
Then, I started working at a 5 & 10 store on Irving Street - I think it was the last one at the time. That’s where I learned most of my English instead of school.
My mom’s first job was as a dishwasher at a Haight Street restaurant, and then she became a cook. She was a housewife and did all the cooking back in Korea, so it [the business] wasn’t new to her.
Redwood City Pulse: How did you get into the restaurant business? Was there family history there?
Kim: As [Korean] immigrants, we wanted our own thing - to own something - not to work for someone else. It’s more productive. Also, when you’re young and you’re desperate, like when we came here, you have so little money and are willing to work harder.
We were debating whether to go into the dry cleaning business or the restaurant business. At the time, it was going to cost $100-$150 grand to buy a dry cleaner because of the cost of equipment. But, we could buy a restaurant for around $20 grand, so that’s how we ended up in this business in 1995, and in Redwood City.
My mom cooked at our restaurants, and my wife also worked at our restaurants sometimes. My wife’s family also owned a breakfast restaurant in South San Francisco. She worked there until 2000, but it closed during the pandemic.
Redwood City Pulse: What brought you to the Peninsula? And Redwood City specifically?
Kim: We still lived in San Francisco and commuted down after we bought Talk of Broadway. At the time, home prices in San Carlos were maybe $400,000, so we used our revenue from the first 5 years or so to buy a house there. That was a lot of money for us. I eventually bought my own house in San Carlos in 2007.
At that time in our lives, we didn’t have as many expenses - like a mortgage, cars or college tuition - so we could save everything and put our money into new businesses. In 2009 (during the financial crisis), it was one of my customers who gave me the advice to buy another business, so we bought the Japanese place next door [now Vons Chicken]. And then, we went on to buy the corner lot where Yokohama is in 2013.
I learn so much from talking to my customers. I am very happy with where I’m at.
Pulse: Given you were “new” to the restaurant business and in the States, were there people that helped you along the way? Did you have any mentors?
Kim: I’m learning new things on the job all the time, talking to all my customers. So many of my customers are successful in all different areas. If I’m stuck, not just about business, I ask their advice. I didn’t finish college. This is my college.
When we first bought Talk of Broadway I didn’t even know what hash browns were. I ate my first hash browns here. I didn’t know all the different ways to cook eggs. I learned everything on the job, from talking to people. I also changed the menus based on feedback from them to make the restaurants more successful.
Owning restaurants, I learned that Americans come not only for good food but also for a social life. They come every day and want to talk and catch up. Even after they move away; when they come back, they stop by and say hi. Really good waitresses at other restaurants knew how to socialize, and that brings the customers back because they like talking to you. I learned from seeing all that. In Korea, people are busier and more serious. It’s unusual for them to interact with the restaurant owner. They eat more out of necessity.
In the late nineties, a few other breakfast places around here closed, so a lot of customers who were regulars there started coming to my place, which was great. I also think the prices were higher there so that attracted people to us too.
Redwood City Pulse: After coming to the States, what parts of your Korean culture and traditions did you feel strongly about holding onto? How did you do that?
Kim: It was obviously much easier to hold onto these things at the beginning. After buying Talk of Broadway, my brain started changing to become more American. I still watch a lot of Korean movies, but mostly my brain now works in half American, half Korean.
At home, our food is very Korean. I eat American food for breakfast and lunch since I’m at the restaurants, so I usually want Korean food for dinner. My wife is Korean and a good cook, so 80-90% of the time, we eat Korean food at home.
For a while, we also continued an annual worship service for my grandfather. He passed away in Korea and multiple generations would worship there all night, and we ate special food for the occasion. I remember all the things we used to eat for this. As the first son, my father continued this tradition until about 2000. My parents also used to be Buddhist and then became Christian, then it sort of faded away.
Pulse: How do you think your immigrant experience (in the ’80s) is different from others who have more recently immigrated?
Kim: Back then, people were immigrating here for better opportunities. It was so competitive and serious back in Korea, so it was a lot harder to get the opportunities there.
We were poor and desperate when we came here, looking for better opportunities where we could work hard and start from scratch. It’s a different time now. It would be so much harder to come here and start from scratch today. Maybe in another state, but not here in the Bay Area. They wouldn’t have the same opportunities I had when I came here because it’s too expensive now.
Korean immigrants coming here now seem different from the immigrants who came here before. Many are wealthier people coming for investment purposes, not poor people looking for a better opportunity.
It’s also a lot better over there [Korea] now than it was 20+ years ago. Access to education, healthcare…so there’s more opportunity for kids to succeed there now without having to come here.
Pulse: As an Asian-owned business owner, have you ever felt prejudice? If so, in what way?
Kim: Once in a while. And maybe more so now. But, overall, I have a really good thing going with all my customers. I have judges that come in here regularly, CEOs, lawyers - and we all talk like friends. In here, nobody cares if you’re the waiter, the owner, the cook, and I like that.
Our kids, this new generation, are smarter than us. They’re more aware. They understand better what’s going on around them. They know all their rights and what they deserve. Back then, for me, I don’t think I fully understood it, even if it was happening. And probably, I also expected it a little bit too.
As you can tell, Kim’s establishments have been Redwood City landmarks for some time and are definitely here to stay. Here’s what some of his customers have to say:
“I have been coming here for years. By that I mean more than 20. Why, why, why haven't I reviewed them before? I think because it's like eating at a neighbor's house. You don't review a neighbor. You'll be greeted as a friend and in no time the owner will know your name and invite you in as though you're just the person he's been waiting to see. He not only remembers my kid, he remembers my grandchildren. You'll see postcards from vacationing customers on the wall and Christmas cards. It's your neighbor's kitchen. So just like the neighbor's house, it won't be fancy but you'll feel special and eat well.”
“We've been coming here for about 15 years. The staff is always super friendly, customer service is first and foremost. John the owner always makes things right. We're happy to be part of the Talk of Broadway family. Amidst all the new additions in Redwood City, ToB is where you go to get grounded.”