BRATTLEBORO—“I don’t want to go,” Yi-Soon Kim said, when asked about her decision to sell the business — the Shin La Restaurant — that she and her husband, Tae-Mo Kim, have owned on Main Street for almost 35 years.
“It’s very hard,” Mrs. Kim said. “The customers are very graceful, they are so nice to me. They’re like friends and family.”
But Mrs. Kim is nearing age 65, and she said she “wants to prepare while I’m still healthy.”
She wants to sell the business while she is still able to run it.
“The machine breaks down,” Mrs. Kim said, pointing to herself.
Although Mrs. Kim looks forward to retiring, her timeline for selling the Shin La is not urgent. She said she hopes to complete the transaction within “one or two years.”
“That’s plenty of time,” she said, noting “it could happen soon, it could happen in a year.”
Building a menu, one item at a time
The Kims arrived in Brattleboro from Baltimore in 1981. They had emigrated to the United States from “the riceland state, Chun Buk” in Korea, Mrs. Kim said.
Their first business was a shop on Elliot Street, where Hazel is now located, which sold sandwiches, salads, and soups.
“We had 20 different kinds of sandwiches,” Mrs. Kim said, reeling off the old menu: turkey, tuna salad, ham, roast beef, egg salad. The latter sandwich Mrs. Kim still makes for herself sometimes, and she will occasionally set aside egg salad for a special customer.
“Some people are still very disappointed there are no sandwiches. I feel bad. I wish I could make it for them,” she said.
Three years after opening their Elliot Street shop, the Kims purchased the building on Main Street now housing the Shin La; they moved their restaurant to the then-vacant storefront. Mrs. Kim said the restaurant’s space once housed the Public Market Grocery.
Mrs. Kim said she started selling Korean food at the Elliot Street location “one item at a time.”
“It takes a long time to establish a menu,” she said, but, of her restaurant’s Korean cuisine, “I think it’s been very successful.”
She said all her menu items “turn over nicely,” and any item that seems unpopular, she nixes.
When asked which menu items are solid favorites amongst her clientele, Mrs. Kim said the chicken rice soup is the biggest seller.
“It’s like the Shin La pharmacy!” she said. “When everybody’s sick, they come for the chicken soup,” she noted.
As if on schedule, the door to the restaurant opened that late-afternoon, long after the lunch rush had ended. A man came in from the cold rain.
“Can I get a bowl of chicken-rice soup?” he asked Mrs. Kim.
Next on the popularity list, according to Mrs. Kim, is the yakimandoo dumplings, of which the Shin La serves a vegetable and a pork version.
“I am very proud in this isolated little town, people have the chance to learn about Korean food,” Mrs. Kim said, noting the courage locals show in trying foods unfamiliar to them.
“Even little children like the yakimandoo,” said Mrs. Kim, noting “everything is made by my fingertips — most restaurants use pre-made. I think it’s the best dumpling in the United States.”
A family endeavor
Although Mrs. Kim has been running the restaurant on her own for more than a decade, the Shin La’s history is a family affair.
“I raised my children here with my mother-in-law,” Mrs. Kim said.
Long-time residents may remember the elder Mrs. Kim walking up Main Street in her long, full skirt, with one of her grandchildren strapped to her back, while inside, Yi-Soon and Tae-Mo ran the Shin La.
When Tae-Mo was diagnosed with cancer in 2000 and became too ill from radiation treatments to work at the Shin La, he began staying home, and he cooks Yi-Soon dinner every night.
He still helps her with the restaurant, but remotely.
“My husband has a garden,” Mrs. Kim said, listing the vegetables he grows that end up on the plates and bowls coming from the Shin La’s kitchen: cucumber, zucchini, scallions, Chinese cabbage, garlic chives, and Korean radish. The restaurant’s kim chi is made from some of those vegetables.
With Mrs. Kim selling the Shin La, so ends the Kim family’s ownership. Mrs. Kim said none of her three children are interested in taking over the restaurant.
“I would not push them” into assuming ownership, she said, adding, “this is not easy to run. They are all business-minded and are doing well in their respective professions,” Mrs. Kim said, “because they grew up in the business. They are coaching me now! I am very proud.”
Upon retiring, Mrs. Kim said her first and most important plan is to take her three children to the “very beautiful Korean island Je Ju Do. I want to make them a vacation from work.”
Right now, Mrs. Kim is relying on local word-of-mouth to try to sell her restaurant, but she is also considering advertising in one of the nation’s Korean-language newspapers, and possibly hiring an international broker.
“I hope interested people contact me,” Mrs. Kim said. “That would be nice.”
As she said it, a woman who was dining with her two young children overheard the conversation.
“Oh! We don’t want you to retire!” she told Mrs. Kim.