When Corey Lee decided to launch a takeout-only sneak peak of his hotly anticipated Korean restaurant, San Ho Won, a couple of weeks ago — mid-pandemic — it wasn’t meant to be any kind of moneymaking endeavor. Run out of the kitchen at Benu, Lee’s three-Michelin-star fine dining restaurant, the preview meals were essentially pegged as a not-for-profit venture, as Lee wanted to provide some income for a handful of cooks. In addition, he pledged that 100 percent of profits would go toward paying for his furloughed employees’ benefits package: health care, rent assistance, and financial aid for workers who don’t qualify for unemployment — plus two meals a day for staff and their families.
Then Lee got notice that Benu had been approved for a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan — the federal coronavirus relief loans meant to provide small businesses with an influx of cash, with the stipulation that to be forgiven, recipients must spend 75 percent of the money on payroll. “For Benu, that means operating the San Ho Won take-out program as a real business instead of a small, not-for-profit venture,” Lee wrote in an email to Eater SF.
In short, Benu is staffing up. Lee says he’s reinstated about 36 of his furloughed staff, with most of them cooking for San Ho Won. (A few other cooks are preparing the staff meals, which are cooked and distributed out of another of Lee’s restaurants, In Situ, which is currently closed to the public.)
For customers, not much will change. The San Ho Won meals, which include about six or seven dishes, will still come in the same multi-course format and will still cost about $48 a person. The main difference is that Benu now has the capacity to serve more of the meals — 200 of them each day, seven days a week. That’s good news for customers who’ve tried to snag the meals in past weeks and found them to be sold out.
Benu’s takeout operation still isn’t going to be making any money, Lee says, and those 200 meals a day might not provide enough takeout volume to sustain all the staff that he has reinstated. In theory, Lee says, the restaurant should be able to just break even — if they sell out every day, and if they eventually receive at least some amount of loan forgiveness.
As for the PPP loan, Lee says he finally received it after applying for it four separate times between March 17 and early April, and there are still a lot of finer points about its terms that he doesn’t fully understand, particularly around forgiveness. He’s not the only restaurateur who has found the process confusing. “How is the loan useful for a restaurant that is not open?” Lee says — especially in a city like San Francisco, which just extended its shelter-in-place order until May 31. For right now, however, he says it’s a good thing that he’s able to employ more people.
For Korean food enthusiasts, the fact that the San Ho Won takeout meals — which marry traditional Korean flavors with modern techniques, and have generally been well received — will be more widely available is happy news.
The next set of meals, for next week, will be available to purchase online starting today, May 1, at noon, highlighted by a spring vegetable bibimbap: ramps, fern, cordyceps, and pea leaves over a sweet carrot fried rice. The meal will also include Korean beef meatballs and a 4-year-aged fermented soy bean stew, plus a couple of side dishes and a dessert of dalgona (Korean honey comb) with coffee and panna cotta.