By Paolo Bicchieri
The Inner Sunset has a new flavor added to its diverse plate of eateries. And the owners are excited to share their creations with the community.
That new entry into the food scene is Queens, a Korean market on Ninth Avenue, just steps from Golden Gate Park.
The store is one long hallway. It is part museum and part pantry. Music plays softly on the speakers. Customers zip in and out of the shop, buying fennel kimchi and Fritz coffee, a Seoul-based company. Eddo Kim, co-owner with wife Clara Lee, fastidiously says hello and welcome to each new face.
“We wanted to change the narrative on what it means to be a model minority,” Kim said. “We’re expected to be a doctor, lawyer or go into finance.”
The store represents more than retail. It is a community resource. It is a place to learn about Korean culture. The name Queens pays homage to the matrilineal way Korean culture is passed down, woman to woman. All the recipes come from Lee’s mother.
Kim and Lee come from the East Coast of the U.S., and they come from the education world. Lee worked in ed-tech and Kim in education nonprofits. They missed the home-cooked Korean food they left behind on the Atlantic coast. They began their West Coast culinary endeavors by delivering home-cooked meals out of a commissary kitchen in Oakland each Tuesday.
“What started off as seven families became 15 families became 20 families ordering on a weekly basis,” Kim said. “We started popping up at restaurants and bars. This is only a year-and-a-half ago.”
Their popularity reached the point where they knew they needed to open a physical location. With San Francisco’s steep rental rates, they knew it would be hard.
“We wanted to combine the education component by introducing ingredients and recipes to the community,” Kim said. “As well as serve awesome food.”
Lee and Kim see themselves as holding a dual identity. They believe their Korean-American identity gives them a chance to embrace the American Dream in a unique way. Kim says it can be intimidating for many to navigate a Korean market. They want to change that.
The couple holds five Ivy League degrees between them. Their parents cannot understand why they have chosen this path. But Kim and Lee see entrepreneurship and small business as a way of life, too, and want to inspire young Korean-Americans to choose their own path.
“We wanted to make sure Korean culture can be preserved through stores like this,” Kim said. “If these stores fade away, we wonder what will happen to our culture.”
In Korea, Kim says, the younger generation is taking over their parents’ businesses. They have begun to upgrade the design and branding of their products along with the advent of the internet and social media’s ability to share their culture.
“In the U.S., we’re the only ones carrying these products,” Kim said. “We’re working with a guy who just took over his father’s apiary. And it’s delicious honey.”
Oils, soy sauces and other traditional practices have been taken up by young Koreans. These traditional Korean products can now be globally competitive, Kim says. Queens is also looking forward to selling craft, small-batch soju (a clear alcoholic beverage) and traditional rice wines.
“We want people to go beyond the green bottle (of sohu),” Kim says. “That’s what people are familiar with. We want people to try real Korean cuisine.
“Some people have positive things to say about change and some people have other opinions. But we’ve always wanted to come to the Inner Sunset. We want to be contributors to the community.”