Business, Miss Kim, ZingTrain

ZingTrain Q&A: Here’s How Ji-Hye Kim Partnered with Zingerman’s to Open Miss Kim

Back in November, on what would turn out to be Ji-Hye Kim’s last free day in a long time, ZingTrain eagerly interviewed her about what it meant to be a partner of the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses and opening our newest business—a Korean food restaurant—Miss Kim.

ZingTrain: Tell us the story. Start at the very beginning.

Ji-Hye Kim: I think to tell the story of any new business from the very beginning, you have to start at the point where someone realized they wanted to be a business owner. So that’s where I will start. Before coming to Michigan, I helped someone else open their business. I loved that entire experience. Working with practically no oversight. Creating the systems and an organizational culture from scratch. The freedom and sense of ownership that I felt. That experience is when I knew – I knew I wanted to own my own business. I suppose that’s where this story starts.

ZT: So why did you leave? Why did you walk away from all that?

JK: Well, I didn’t like the industry. That entire business was based on numbers. I wanted something more tactile, visceral, direct, honest and …. pleasurable! I hadn’t realized it yet but food is all those things and I’ve been longing for the Korean food I grew up with for a very, very long time.

ZT: How did you get to Zingerman’s?

JK: When I moved back to Ann Arbor, I lived a couple of blocks away from Zingerman’s Deli. I’d known about it as a student in Ann Arbor, but back then it was just “that expensive place I can’t afford.” One day, I walked into the Deli. I tend to be a pretty shy shopper – I don’t talk much and I mostly focus on the sign copy to make my choices. But before I even knew it, the person at the cheese counter had dismantled my usual armor of shyness and totally charmed me – and we were just talking about a piece of cheese! Funny thing is, I don’t even think he was trying, he was just telling me about the cheese. It was the best service I’d ever received.

Best of all, the cheese was outstanding! I was intrigued. Then I read a piece in the New York Times about Zingerman’s 25th anniversary. I was hooked. I started researching Zingerman’s and the more I read about it – the leadership style, the business model, being Open Book – the more interested I became in working there. And then there was food.

I was 27, going on 28, at the time. The years at the start-up had been intense in an industry I did not even like. So, I gave myself permission to “play” until I was 30. I figured it was low risk. Just long enough to scratch that food itch and then I would get “serious” with my life.

ZT: You’ve been at Zingerman’s for almost a decade now. You’re a partner at Zingerman’s and just opened our newest business. How did that happen?

JK: I started my life at Zingerman’s in the Retail Department at the Deli. It seemed only fitting given that a piece of cheese had changed everything. Besides, none of the other Zingerman’s businesses I applied to called me back! So I focused on learning every aspect of the retail business at Zingerman’s Deli. I learned how the numbers worked, how we took care of the food, the kinds of relationships we built with our producers and vendors and how we interacted with each other.

I took things at my own pace. Think of it as serious, engaged playing! Back then, I had no aspirations for partnership at Zingerman’s. Even though I didn’t know at the time that I wanted to open a restaurant, an Asian food restaurant seemed like a bit of stretch as a companion business for a Jewish delicatessen!

It wasn’t until someone else opened that door that I started considering it. One of my co-workers at the Deli, Kristen, put forth a vision for an Asian restaurant as part of the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses. She asked me if I was interested. And I walked through the door.

ZT: You mean you walked through that door and got on the Zingerman’s Path to Partnership?

JK: Back then the Path to Partnership wasn’t quite as formal and detailed as it is now. An Asian restaurant was definitely pushing the capacity of the process. So Kristen and I met with Ari and Paul and we figured out what the next steps were.

And then stuff just started happening. I realize now that this is one of the those intangible things – the power of vision, the power of being part of a connected community, the power of walking through an open door when you’re ready.

We decided that a food cart would be a low risk way of incubating and testing out the business we were proposing. The very next day someone told me that their friend was trying to sell a food cart! So we bought that cart and called it San Street. Then a local business owner decided that he wanted to open a food cart courtyard – Mark’s Carts. It came complete with a common commissary kitchen! And pretty soon we were one of the carts there, incubating our business.

Turns out that Mark’s Carts was not just an incubator for our idea, it was also a great incubator for being part of a community of businesses – perhaps with a little more dysfunction! We had a shared kitchen space and we had to self-organize to make it work. Much like at Zingerman’s, the company was awesome. We were a group of driven, scrappy, small business owners working hard to succeed. However, in contrast to Zingerman’s, we hadn’t exactly opted into the community and did not have common goals and principles. But we all wanted to make it work. And we did!

Most importantly, the food cart allowed Kristen and me to understand what it means to be a business owner. That’s when Kristen realized it was not for her. I, on the other hand, decided it was definitely for me!

The next four years are a bit of a blur. We really pushed the capacity of that food cart to its limit. We got a second food cart. We started catering events and doing pop-up dinners. Zingerman’s was pretty busy in those four years too. When we all emerged from those four whirlwind years, Zingerman’s had a much more formal and well-articulated Path to Partnership and I was ready to get on it.

ZT: Talk about the Path to Partnership process. What made you finally get on the Path to Partnership? What was it like?

JK: Becoming a partner at Zingerman’s is an interesting process. People have repeatedly asked me, “Did they make you jump through a lot of hoops?” My response : “Who’s they?”

To be honest, when I started on the Path to Partnership, I wasn’t a 100% certain that I wanted to be a partner and open a business within the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses. But like that other door that I walked through, I walked through this one. I figured that the act of walking through the door and being on the path would itself be the clarification I needed. And no matter the outcome, I would learn from it and grow as a person and future business owner.

It’s a very well designed process. It’s flexible. It allowed me to do things at my own pace which was important for me. It allowed me the time I needed to explore. It allowed me the space I needed to articulate the answers to “Who is this group that I am going to be a part of? What is their culture? How do they operate?”

And I got my answers. I held my own and did not go forward with each step in the process until I was ready. While I was on the Path to Partnership I saw our organization from an entirely different perspective. I got to know Zingerman’s (and myself!) at every level. Everyone offered to help. Everyone was on my side. And everyone was recruiting and advocating for even more people to be on my side. The organization was peppered with people proudly sporting San Street t-shirts!

The summary? The Path to Partnership process itself is the best representation of what it means to be a partner at Zingerman’s.  It’s truly well designed.

ZT: What is it like becoming a Partner at Zingerman’s?

JK: Going through the Path to Partnership process you talk to a LOT of people. Every partner at every single business. You learn to advocate for yourself and your business. You learn to ask for help. Everyone you talk to has an opinion that you need to be able to meaningfully consider and then decide what you are going to do with. You’re asked to trust people with your personal future and your business vision and sincerely give them the opportunity to influence it. In other words, the process tells you exactly what it’s means to truly belong in a community.

And the trust. At Zingerman’s, you’ve got to buy in. And I’m not talking about the money, which you also need to do. Buy-in means that you buy into the way Zingerman’s operates – the vision, the guiding principles, open book, servant leadership. The whole thing. If you don’t like it, you don’t get to stand by the sideline and not comply. You also don’t get to maliciously obey. If you don’t like what you’re being asked to do, you bring a better option to the table and sell it to everyone else.

When I started on the path, I was not sure I was the best person to start a business within the Zingerman’s Community. I have a lone maverick side to me that enjoys making unilateral decisions. By the time I was done with all that talking and collaborating, I knew exactly what it would mean for this lone maverick to get herself 17 partners!

ZT: What were your biggest learnings from the Path to Partnership?

The most transformational thing I learned was this – Being a partner at Zingerman’s is not about relinquishing control, which had been my biggest concern.

I realized that I’m not an expert at everything and Zingerman’s was offering me many resources – not only the systems and processes that have been vetted over three decades, but also the collective wisdom and support of the entire organization. A team of 700+ people who were rooting for me to succeed and looking for ways to contribute to Miss Kim’s success.

I had imagined being independent and being part of the community as opposites. It’s more complex that that, even paradoxical. Being on the Path to Partnership, I learned that it’s about being both independent and functioning within a community at the same time. It’s about making better decisions by having access to more information and expertise than you might ever have had the capacity to gather as a small business owner. Being part of the community doesn’t mean that you lose autonomy.  It does mean that you’re committing to being a part of the community, engaging in dialogue and giving and accepting help when needed. Nothing more and nothing less.

I also learned that dialogue itself is really useful. I might not use someone’s input, but being in dialogue significantly improved the quality of my decisions.

ZT: Which brings us to the best part. Tell us about the food.

JK: There aren’t many of absolutes in this organization because we dialogue a lot and make decisions by consensus – but one of the absolute absolutes is the quality of the food. It’s so inspiring to be part of an organization that holds you to that high of a standard and inspires you to keeping reaching for higher. We may not have a lot of experts on Korean food, but we have a lot of food experts here and they understand what good food tastes like!

Zingerman’s totally understood my obsession with the texture of the pork buns and tteok-bokki. My fascination with fermented food. Even my irritability on the misrepresentation of Kimchi in the western world! My numerous trips to Korea to research and learn, the many opportunities I took to go work in the kitchens of chefs more experienced than myself; at Zingerman’s no one ever questioned the ROI of that time and money.

Zingerman’s asks probing questions. What is the traditional version of the dish? What is the original form of this ingredient? How will you represent it here? Questions like these are important to me and totally par for the course at Zingerman’s. Taking the time to answer those questions has made for a much better menu at Miss Kim’s.

Why wouldn’t you want someone to walk into your restaurant, invest a lot of time and energy in evaluating every detail and then give you thoughtful feedback in a way that you understand and can hear? Now multiply that someone by 700 and you’ve got Zingerman’s. It’s like having hundreds of pairs of eyes and ears and millions and millions of taste buds!

If you would like to learn more about Zingerman’s Path to Partnership, please email [email protected] and we’ll send you a slew of really cool and useful stuff. You can also download our FREE webinars on the Path to Partnership online.

You can also read about the food at Miss Kim and see photos.