After 35 years behind the counter – and in front of the grill – trailblazing restaurateur calls it a careerNov 03, 2022 08:01PM ● By Carl Fauver
By Carl Fauver | [email protected]
Way back when Ronald Reagan was still living in the White House, Phyllis Kim was looking for a home of her own. She was also working to bounce back from a rough couple of years which saw her marriage and her partnership in a Salt Lake restaurant each dissolve. Adding to the challenge, Kim was also mom to a 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son.
“I got no money out of my restaurant partnership and my ex-husband never paid me a cent in child support,” Kim said. “I was on my own, with two small children who needed a home – and no income.”
The movie “Wall Street” may have been released in 1987 – but not everyone was living the Gordon Gekko lifestyle at that time. Forget “Greed is good.” Phyllis just wanted her young, single-mom family to survive.
“I came to the United States – all alone, from Korea – in 1977 to attend school in Southern California,” Kim explained. “But school didn’t really work out, so I soon went to work at a restaurant. I had never really cooked before; but I learned how to do it. Eventually the restaurant chain went bankrupt. Then my former manager and his wife invited me to move to Utah with them to partner in our own restaurant.”
Arriving in the Salt Lake Valley “in 1980 or 81, I don’t remember exactly,” Kim’s restaurant partnership worked…until it didn’t – same as her marriage.
“When I found this place (Bell’s Deli, 1207 W. 4800 S.), it was still a convenience store and gas station,” Kim explained. “One of the things that appealed to me most is that it has an attached apartment. So, I bought the place in 1987 and we moved in.”
What followed were decades of hard work, long hours, missed vacations and blossoming friendships among the “regulars” who recognized someone who could use a little support – and someone who concocted a first-rate meal.
“I have been coming here since the 1970s – long before Phyllis bought the place,” nearby Taylorsville resident Terri Kirk said, when she stopped in two days before Kim called it a career. “I love their deli sandwiches; and her old-fashioned cheeseburger is out of this world.”
Kim admits her inconspicuous little business might never have turned the corner if Salt Lake’s two major newspapers had not discovered it. She claims both the Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News each branded her grilled masterpieces “The Best Burgers in Utah” at different times.
“Once we received that publicity, more and more people began to stop in to try my burgers,” Kim explained. “But I also faced so many challenges.”
For example, she says the 9/11 terrorist attack in 2001 cut her business by more than half for a very long time. Less than a decade later, in 2008 and 2009, the “Great Recession” also hit her bottom line dramatically.
“It was one challenge after the next,” she explained. “There were lots of times when I wondered where the next dollar was coming from – and whether it was all worth it. I missed a lot of my kids’ childhood because I was so busy. And they grew up here in the deli, because I had to watch them – I couldn’t afford a sitter. But we made it.”
Many would say Kim did much more than “make it.” Those “ids are now grown. Each graduated from Taylorsville High School. One earned an MBA from Duke University, while the other has a University of Utah BA degree.
“They did a good job earning scholarships,” Kim added. “I didn’t really have to pay a lot for their educations.”
Eventually her finances stabilized enough to fund a major remodel of her business. She was also able to purchase a West Jordan home, and rent out the attached apartment she’d called home for years.
Kim never really had paid employees. But she says her regular customers were quick to pitch in when things got too busy. One of those people – Taylorsville resident Karen Fitisemanu – has been Kim’s friend, and occasional unpaid employee, for 33 years. She was in to lend a helping hand on one of Kim’s final days.
“This is just a nice, friendly neighborhood deli,” Fitisemanu said. “Sometimes Kim asks customers to clear a table or fill the ice. And lots of times they notice and do it without being asked. She’s a great friend and people will miss her.”
Now age 69, Kim actually began thinking about calling it a career just before COVID-19 hit, nearly three years ago. That became an impossible time to think about selling or leasing a small business. But Phyllis says the pandemic did not really harm her bottom line.
“By then, I had so many regular customers and they wanted to support me,” she explained. “Customers could not come in; but they called in orders and picked up their food. One nearby business, Rapco Distributing Co. (3984 S. 500 W.) ordered lunch from me every day during the COVID lockdown. So many supportive people helped me make it through.”
That community support was also obvious during Kim’s final week, when Taylorsville Mayor Kristie Overson and City Councilman Curt Cochran also stopped in for a final warm greeting, burger and fries.
“I really have mixed emotions about Phyllis retiring,” Cochran said. “You can see by my waistline, I probably have eaten there more than I should. I’ll miss her great food. But I am happy she had such a good, successful business, and can now move on to her next step. She told me she’s leased the business to two gentlemen, so it will remain a burger place. But Phyllis has been such a business role model. She will be missed.”
Kim now plans to visit her native Korea next spring, for the first time “in at least 20 years.” She says she may stay a few months, or even a couple of years. But she does not see it as a permanent move.
“I have four beautiful grandchildren here,” she concluded. “I am excited to make memories with them. I worked long hours when my kids were little, so we don’t have so many fun memories. I still love my work and enjoyed daily interactions with people. But now I look forward to exploring other parts of life.”