More than ten years ago, immigrants So and Ki came to the Twin Cities from Southeast Asia with the dream of giving their daughter a better life. When they arrived, both So and Ki gained experience working as sushi chefs in various restaurants and markets until they could save enough money to start their dream of owning their own family business.
This past winter, So and Ki invested everything they had to open their new Thai/Japanese restaurant in Burnsville, T & J Restaurant ( T&J stands for Thai and Japanese and also represents So and Ki’s heritage).
So works two jobs on top of owning the restaurant. He gets up every morning at 3 am to make sushi. After his shifts, he returns to T&J and works until 11 pm. So lives this routine every day, seven days a week to support his family. He doesn’t complain, however. Instead, he’s happy and full of life. His wife, Ki, loves to laugh and joke around. Ki works as a full-time mom, and she preps, cleans, and runs the restaurant. Although they’re both overworked, they are delighted to finally have the opportunity to fulfill their dream.
Just as they were getting started, COVID hit.
Faced with now an even greater challenge, So and Ki fought to drive business and keep their doors open. Although they were expert sushi chefs, this is the first time they’ve run their own business. Two Burnsville residents, Dan and Jazmine, visited T & J one afternoon after they heard from Jazmine’s brother that T & J made excellent sushi, so they thought they’d check it out.
When Dan and Jazmine sat down for the first time, they noticed that the menu was a little unclear and could use a good design. They saw Ki and So working really hard to make a go of their new restaurant. They thought, “The food is so wonderful – it seems they maybe just need a little help.” Instead of criticizing, Dan and Jazmine decided they’d see what they could do to support the new owners.
Jazmine, a graphic designer, left that day and went home to design a brand new menu for T & J. At first, she felt a little nervous – she didn’t want to offend but thought her expertise could get them off on the right foot. A couple of days later, Jazmine went back to the restaurant to show Ki the new menu mockup she designed. Ki broke into tears with gratitude and was thrilled that Jazmine would offer her skills to help two strangers. It wasn’t long before a new friendship bloomed, and Dan and Jazmine would offer even more of their abilities to help So and Ki succeed.
Dan and Jazmine reached out to their friends and family to perform a cost analysis and review their pricing and profit margins. Another friend set up Facebook ads. Even Jazmine’s dad, a contractor, offered advice. Dan and Jazmine helped them set up their website and started online ordering. They also volunteer by serving at the restaurant a few days a week to help out So and Ki.
“The more we got to know So and Ki, the more this became about more than just a restaurant. This is about someone’s whole world. It’s about their dream. They’ve put in everything they have. We don’t want to see them fail,” said Dan.
T&J Restaurant serves only fresh, high-quality ingredients and buys organic whenever available. All their protein sources are sourced sustainably, and yet, their menu is very affordable. They serve ridiculously generous portions, too: Sushi typically comes as eight pieces, but T & J serves ten in a roll. Even a Build Your Own Roll is $5 for ten pieces!
T&J Restaurant is the type of small business in Burnsville where the owners remember their customers and care about relationships. So often tells his customers, “I’ll make special for you!” And he creates a unique dish based on what people desire. “To have someone remember you and know what you want heightens the experience for their customers,” Dan believes.
So and Ki are happy to still be in business and remain incredibly positive, despite their obstacles. They keep dreaming and working hard and believe that that success will follow. Because of friends like Dan and Jazmine, they’re getting the help they need and improving sales each month.
Dan explains why he and Jazmine decided to help So & Ki:
“At the end of the day, it’s about what you want in your community. We all have to shape the community. We choose where we put our dollars and passion projects. If we all chose to be good stewards, we wouldn’t have bailouts and such. We need to have a hand in the community. How can we all play a role? I choose to help instead of criticize. We can be part of the problem or the solution.”