Six years have passed since Robin Song first dreamed up the idea of opening a Korean restaurant in San Francisco called JunJu. It was a dream of kimchi and California-inflected bibimbap that the chef chased on and off, through high-profile restaurant gigs and a series of popular pop-ups. Today, JunJu finally opens for real, but it’s an incarnation of the restaurant that Song probably couldn’t have imagined even just two months ago, when he was furloughed from his job as the executive chef at the Vault, the swanky FiDi spot. Not only is this version of JunJu takeout and delivery only, it’ll operate in parallel with two other restaurants and a to-go cocktail business that are all run out of the kitchen at Corridor, the Vault’s sister restaurant in the Hi Neighbor restaurant group.
The ventures are part of the Hi Neighbor Incubator Series, a new initiative that gives Hi Neighbor’s furloughed chefs and bartenders the opportunity to launch their own virtual, online-only restaurants — and, beyond that, allows them to keep the profits for themselves. The initial batch of businesses includes JunJu, which begins accepting takeout and delivery orders today, as well as a restaurant specializing in Uruguayan empanadas and one that serves Jewish comfort food, both of which will launch in the next few days. All three menus, plus the cocktails, will be available for takeout and delivery Tuesday through Sunday, 11:30 a.m.–8 p.m.
The program is the brainchild of Hi Neighbor partner Ryan Cole, who says he’d been puzzling over how to support the group’s staff during the coronavirus crisis. For the first seven weeks after shelter-in-place orders went into effect, Hi Neighbor kept all three of its restaurants — Trestle, Corridor, and the Vault — closed, which meant the restaurants’ chefs and bartenders all had to be furloughed. After recalling that Song had once run a successful pop-up, Cole approached him a few weeks ago about the idea of reviving JunJu. Then, as he recalls, he asked Song, “What if we offer [that to] any of our chefs and bartenders who want to take a stab at it? Let’s teach them how to create their own concepts from soup to nuts.”
With Song on board to spearhead the effort and act as a mentor, Cole put out a call to Hi Neighbor employees. They would come up with an idea for a restaurant, create a logo, develop the menu. In return, Hi Neighbor would provide them with a shared kitchen that they could use free of charge, front the initial cost of ingredients, and help set up the logistics of online ordering. Whatever profits the incubator restaurants make will be split between the chefs.
“If it’s successful, it might be the new normal,” Cole says.
Cole’s tentative plan is to have the incubator restaurants operate out of Corridor for the next three months, irrespective of when shelter in place lifts. After all, Cole doesn’t expect San Franciscans to start dining out in large numbers anytime soon — and especially not at Corridor, which by virtue of its Mid-Market location is dependent on the theater and concert crowd. But the restaurant is situated in a cluster of residential buildings, full of people working from home who are hungry for new takeout options.
For the chefs and bartenders, the program is a relatively low-risk way to try their hand at building a new restaurant, one that isn’t burdened with the perils that normally come with opening a business. Song himself came awfully close to opening JunJu a number of times over the years, but whenever he got to the stage where he needed to start negotiating with potential landlords, the whole process just “put the fear of God” in him, he says.
The incubator’s four new businesses include Ines, a Uruguayan spot where Trestle sous chef Nicole Zell will sell flaky empanadas, chivitos (steak sandwiches), and other dishes that draw on her heritage; Schmaltz, a modern Jewish comfort food restaurant featuring Corridor sous chef Beth Needelman’s menu of knishes, schnitzel sandwiches, and 24-hour chicken soup; and Vault bartender Kaitlin Ryan’s AttaGirl Hospitality, a craft cocktail company that will supply cocktails to go with food orders from any of the incubator restaurants.
And then there’s JunJu, which is named after the city in Korea where bibimbap — the Korean mixed rice dish — is believed to have been invented. As Song describes it, the restaurant is an exploration of how the seasonal ethos of California cuisine intersects with the Korean food his parents and grandparents cooked for him when he was growing up. Of course the menu has a bibimbap (with bulgogi and fava beans), and also a braised short rib dish, a spicy pork stew, and a small selection of vegetable banchan. It’s all food that’s uniquely well suited for this moment, Song says: “It’s homey, comforting, it’s rich, it’s flavorful. To top it off, it travels well too.”
Regarding the prospects of the new incubator, Song says, “who knows? At the end of it, maybe it doesn’t work, or at the end of it we open three more restaurants.”
Cole says there may in fact be advantages to just keeping the incubator model in place, at least for a while. “This gives me three different market audiences,” he explains — three different revenue streams, none of them dependent on customers’ willingness to sit down in a restaurant dining room.
The other advantage, Cole says, is the amount of passion he sees the chefs putting into the project now that they’re cooking food that they have a deep personal connection to. Zell, for instance, had never even considered the idea of cooking Uruguayan food professionally before opening Ines — her background had been mostly in Italian and French cuisines. Now, however, there’s a strong possibility that she’ll pursue cooking the food of her heritage even after the incubator closes. “It’s only been three days of making empanadas,” she says, “and it’s just put a smile on my face every day.”
See the full opening menus for JunJu, Ines, Schmaltz, and AttaGirl below: