“By the end of the first month, we’d made triple our rent”: This ex–PR pro teamed up with her mom to open a Korean restaurant during Covid
Jane Lee’s parents have been running restaurants together for decades. When Jane was laid off from her PR job during the pandemic, her mom suggested they open up a Korean restaurant together called Mama Lee’s. Here’s how it happened.
—As told to Andrea Yu
“Since immigrating from Korea to Canada in the late 1980s, my parents have been running small businesses downtown. At first, they owned convenience stores and produce stands. Then they moved on to restaurants, first opening a Korean and Japanese place in North York, then a takeout business downtown, and finally, in 2018, joining the Kibo Sushi franchise.
“I’d helped out with my parents’ businesses ever since I was young. As a teenager, I attended business meetings with my parents to help translate. I looked over bills and lease documents. But I never had any interest in joining the family business. I saw how hard it was to run a restaurant, and though I admired my parents for doing it, the thought terrified me. Instead, I studied public health at Ryerson and considered doing my master’s in epidemiology and vaccination research. But my heart wasn’t in it.
“I’d always been a media junkie, so I enrolled in a post-graduate certificate in public relations at Humber. From there, I worked as an account coordinator for several agencies across the city. Most recently I worked with a PR agency, serving clients like tourism boards and franchise businesses. I was happy at the company, but in the back of my mind, I was itching to start my own business. I liked the idea of being my own boss.
“When the pandemic started making headlines in early 2020, I had a feeling in the pit of my stomach that my job could be at stake. A lot of our clients were opting out of PR. And sure enough, by the end of March, my premonition had come true: I was laid off. It was surreal. I was lucky that my boyfriend, who I live with, still had his job in the tech industry, and he was able to support us financially. I’d also been saving up for a down payment to buy a condo, which gave me an extra safety net.
“My parents’ Kibo Sushi franchise is on the ground floor of a condo building, and because it was already takeout-only, they were able to survive the pandemic. Then, a couple of weeks after I was laid off, my mom, Young Jin, saw that one of the other restaurants in her building had shut down. She had always wanted to open a Korean restaurant of her own, so she jumped on the opportunity. The next day, we called her landlord and set up an appointment to visit the space.
“Since the landlord already had a relationship with my mother, he was happy to rent her the space. He even offered a few months of free rent, since he knew that times were tough for small restaurants. My mom would get the keys on May 1, but she didn’t have to start paying rent until July. When the landlord stepped outside, my mom and I let out a small squeal. She’d wanted to open her own Korean restaurant for so long, and I was excited for her.
“My mom didn’t have business plans or layouts, so I offered to help. We stayed up all night drafting up some rough business plans, designs and menus. The space was small, just 524 square feet, and it was already licensed to be a restaurant, but we needed to get permits for construction, a business licence and food handler certificates. The plan was to do takeout only, at least for the time being.
“At this point, I was just helping out—I hadn’t even thought about joining the business. Then, a few days later, my mom nervously asked, ‘Is this something you’d want to do with me?’ At first, I said no. I’d never planned to run a restaurant. But my mom convinced me that it would be fun. She’d run the kitchen, and I would get to do everything and anything else that I wanted. I liked the idea of taking on a mother-daughter project, and I’ve always been interested in interior design and digital design—skills I could use in the business.
“I sat on it for a few days, hashing it out with my boyfriend. A few days later, I told my mom I was in. It was both exciting and scary. I worried that if I messed up, I’d be messing it up for my mom too.
“We needed to do some renovations, so I contributed a big chunk of my own savings and my mom matched my investment. We decided to focus on Korean rice bowls, since we wanted it to be quick and easy for people to do takeout at lunch and dinner. We named the restaurant Mama Lee’s after my mother—my way of paying tribute to her. I worked with a designer to create our logo based on my mom’s face. It was easy because she’s so cute.
“We hoped to be open by July 1, but there were a lot of delays. Our permit applications took forever. Pre-pandemic, you could go to an office and someone would walk you through everything you needed. But now it was all happening online and we had to figure things out for ourselves. On the construction side of things, our contractor only worked with one assistant to keep safe. But the smaller team meant that the work took longer to finish. July 1 came and went. Our landlord knew how hard we were working, so he gave us another free month of rent.
“Finally, on August 25, we opened our doors. I had all these plans to contact the media and get some coverage for our restaurant, but I was so busy that I never got around to it. We just relied on walk-ins from the condo residents in the neighbourhood. And it worked. We received so many lovely comments from our customers, who told us how glad they were to have a Korean restaurant in the neighbourhood. By the end of the month, we’d made triple our rent. When I told my mom how much we had sold, we both cried. Afterward, she told me she was scared because she felt responsible for me changing careers. She worried she was going to fail me. I told her that wasn’t the case at all: I wanted to be my own boss, and I was grateful for the opportunity.
“Running a restaurant is hard work. We’ve been go-go-go from day one. For the first two months, my mom and I were working 12 or 13 hours a day, six days a week. But now we have three staff—two chefs and one person who works part-time as a cashier. Now we’re each working four days a week, and then I spend another one or two days ordering supplies and bookkeeping. I try to take off at least one day a week, but I feel like my brain never shuts off. I’m constantly thinking about work. I’ll be lying in bed at night thinking, Oh my God, I forgot to buy broccoli.
“People thought we were crazy for opening a restaurant during Covid. Even when there’s no pandemic, it’s hard to open a restaurant. But we saw the opportunity and we went for it. So many things fell into place at the right time that it felt like a sign from the universe telling us to go for it.
“I love that I get to work with my mom and see her as often as I do. It’s nostalgic watching her cook the meals that I grew up on. If everything goes well, if we make it through the lockdowns and get the vaccine, my mom and I want to open up a second location that a family member could run. Our plan is to turn Mama Lee’s into a franchise. It’s a big goal.”
“I’m happy with my decision. There’s a lot of financial freedom. There’s the reassurance of knowing that I’m not going to get laid off. And, of course, there’s also a lot of responsibility. I’d love to be my own boss for the rest of my life. It’s so fulfilling, because all the sweat and tears I put in are for me and my family. I’m working towards my mom’s dream, which is now my dream. Whether the outcome is good or bad, it’s all ours.”
Mama Lee’s Korean Kitchen, 16 Yonge St., Unit B.