It takes time to create a place where people feel safe, engaged, and supported. For the past four and a half years, Albany Law School 1L Jinah Kim has created that environment at her restaurant, Sunhee’s Farm and Kitchen, a Korean eatery that focuses on locally sourced meals as well as support services for immigrants and refugees.
And now she’s learning the law to further her mission.
This year tested the resilience of the restaurant and hospitality industry. The COVID-19 pandemic created skeleton versions of many once-bustling eateries; business owners were forced to adapt quickly and change their carefully-made plans.
“Our deepest concern was the jobs that are available to people. And a lot of things started coming out of the cracks. Especially with restaurants, you have people who don’t have health care coverage or don’t [yet] have a paid sick leave policy,” she said. “Having to address that and really quickly change how we are going to execute our mission amidst the circumstances was really important.”
Kim had hoped to step back from day-to-day operations at Sunhee’s as she prepared to start law school, but the pandemic was a curveball no one was prepared to catch. At the core, there were tingling nerves, concern for the future of the eatery, her parent’s farm—where much of Sunhee’s food is grown—and potential inaccessibility for the immigrant and refugee populations.
She found herself making deliveries, working shifts, and focusing on keeping her employees and customers safe.
“It was a lot of executive decisions, a lot of consulting with each individual employee on what their needs were, how their budgets are, and how we are going to get through this,” she said. “Every day was different.”
Though things were shaky, the strong foundation she’s built by investing in the community itself—she has invested in several downtown Troy buildings since 2017 with eventual hopes to renovate them and deepen the offerings available—made itself known.
“We were seeing a lot of the fruits of what we’ve planted in the last four and a half years, in light of a tragedy like a pandemic,” she said. ”All the time and investment that was there started showing in our time of need. I was surprised and moved by how many people wanted to help.”
In 2017, Kim reached out to the Community Economic Development Clinic within The Justice Center at Albany Law School to establish a nonprofit arm of Sunhee’s. The designation allowed Kim to expand her services. During the pandemic, it has been a crucial piece in keeping the business going because it allows them to apply for loans and grants, and accept donations. They currently offer free English lessons—virtually for now—a pantry package program, and collaborative community events.
Through efforts from professors and students within the clinic, Kim had her first look at the Albany Law community. Her time as a client was “seamless and natural” but her biggest takeaway was the human element of those who helped her get established. She looks forward to working on the other side of the table as a law student.
“They were all a part of the community. They actually came to our business and supported us. They were customers,” she said of The Justice Center’s students and staff. “I loved being able to see that dual nature of [them as] professionals but also as part of the community. I appreciated the earnest manner that everyone engaged with us in. The students were also phenomenal—I can’t wait to be one of them [working in the clinic].”
Kim and her family migrated from South Korea when she was 3 years old. She attended Boston College and worked in refugee resettlement offices before and during her return to the Capital Region. Her parents own and operate a 41-acre farm in Washington County and Kim enjoys the harmony of city life in Troy and the accessibility to respite offered by the region’s location.
“It’s a central location with access to the best of both worlds,” she said. “For me, Troy was that perfect place. Everything is still coming together. The opportunities are endless.”
Her efforts are being noticed. In August, she was named one of the Albany Business Review's Women on the Rise for 2020. The annual award recognizes women in the Capital Region making an impact.
So far, she’s finding many of the introductory concepts learned in the first year of law school appear in business operations too. Kim hopes her law degree can help her establish legal service offerings at Sunhee’s. She’s looking forward to getting the full picture of many pieces of the law, especially areas that impact those whom Sunhee’s helps—practice areas such as family law, tax law, and immigration law.
“I love it. I’ve found that even what I’m learning as a 1L can apply to business. It’s all relevant,” she said. “It all really connects and I think as a small business owner it’s a really cool opportunity to have that real-life application happening around us as I read about it in textbooks.”
Though she’ll be balancing her business and law school, Kim does hope to get involved in student activities that also tie into Sunhee’s mission. It’s been tricky with pandemic protocols, but she’s still enjoying it and making connections with professors and classmates.
“There’s still solidarity. The overall atmosphere and the culture that Albany Law creates is one of collaboration. It’s very community-oriented and I’m really impressed by that. The same as work culture, it takes years to facilitate that,” she said. “We’re here to help each other and make this into an experience, rather than just [earn] a degree. Just like a restaurant, a lot of things go into making that a possibility.”