Ann Kim is the James Beard Award-winning owner and executive chef of Young Joni, Pizzeria Lola and Hello Pizza in Minneapolis. She and her husband and business partner Conrad Leifur created parent company Vestalia Hospitality and, without any outside investors, formed a team that is now working on its fourth restaurant concept slated to open in 2019 in Uptown Minneapolis.
Kim did not follow a traditional path to the restaurant industry. She pursued an acting career after graduating from New York’s Columbia University with a degree in English. Burnt out after eight years of theater and commercial work, she and Leifur decided to open the neighborhood restaurant of their Minneapolis dreams and New York memories. That was Pizzeria Lola.
Kim didn’t attend culinary school; a Korean immigrant, she grew up watching her mother and grandmother make kimchi from scratch out of necessity—no restaurants in Minneapolis had it on the menu. “It wasn’t unusual for me growing up as a kid to have a dinner table that had a bucket of KFC and biscuits with kimchi and a side of rice,” Kim says. “So to have Korean short ribs, with three kinds of kimchi and a pepperoni pizza and cauliflower is not foreign. It’s totally normal.”
In fact, Kim believes being an industry outsider has worked in her favor. "Instead of listening to the rules of opening up a restaurant—where you put the seats, what you can and can’t put on a pizza—those were all thrown out the window and we just followed our guts and what we thought was missing from the pizza landscape. That worked for us. When you do something that’s against the grain, people are hungry for that."
Following the success of Lola, she opened Hello Pizza, a New York-style slice shop, and then came Young Joni, the critically acclaimed restaurant she describes as “my heart and soul.” She talks about learning to work on the business rather than in it, and realizing that her favorite part of the process is creating new things. “I’ve got a million ideas in my head. I love the idea of creating things, coming up with an environment in which people can eat that makes them feel good and special. That’s the part that drives me.” As much as she loves designing a restaurant and menu, Kim takes just as much joy and satisfaction in the business. “Creation is not just about the next dish. To me, creativity is how can you take an organization and grow it in a sustainable way.”
Kim talks about the shock of being nominated for the culinary industry’s top honor, a James Beard award. Shortly after this recording, she won the 2019 James Beard Award for Best Chef Midwest.
After our conversation with Kim, we go back to the classroom with the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business associate professor Alec Johnson to discuss how entrepreneurs can successfully move from creative inspiration to scalable business.
Editor-in-Chief of TCB
Young Joni and Pizzeria Lola Founder and Executive Chef