Published on July 19 2019.
“I’m not a business operator, I’m a dreamer.” Peter Jo laid himself bare to a packed room of his hospitality peers on Monday night, as he told the story of what went wrong with his first business, Restaurant Shik, which opened in March 2018 and closed barely a year later.
While restaurant closures are often reported in food media, it’s less common to see business owners get up and offer a candid assessment of their failure. But that’s exactly what Jo did in a standing-room only event at Worksmith in Collingwood.
The conversation, held with Food + Wine Victoria’s creative director Pat Nourse, opened with a question that hinted, perhaps, at the kind of lessons audience members were looking for: “When did you first think about closing the business?”
Jo’s answer – and his whole story – is far from conventional. He had no plans to close the business; his landlords arrived one morning in April, gave him 15 minutes to vacate, and changed locks. Jo’s dream of running Melbourne’s leading Korean restaurant was over. He could no longer afford his rent of $2,500 per week.
Jo wasn’t a greenhorn; he’d grow up with restaurateur parents who run two successful Korean restaurants in Sydney, he worked the floor at the likes of Momofuku Seiobo and Belles Hot Chicken, and spent two years running pop-up restaurants. And the demise of Shik happened despite a flood of positive press from Good Food, Time Out, Gourmet Traveller, Broadsheet, The New York Times and others.
After opening with a team of nine full-time staff and a couple of part-timers, he had slowly whittled that down to five full-time people across the kitchen and floor. Jo himself shouldered more and more responsibility along the way, becoming sommelier, front-of-house, director of food and office guy.
And yet he still wound up $160,000 in debt.
The biggest question on everyone’s lips was “how?” How did a critical darling, a place that got glowing reviews from influential outlets, end up shuttered barely a year after its first birthday? Questions flew in from the crowd, as well as the internet, focusing on the nuts and bolts. Had Jo done a business plan? (Yes.) How long was he searching for a site before he settled on Niagara Lane? (Three years.) Was opening on a laneway with little foot-traffic a foolish choice? (“It was kind of ballsy and stupid, I guess.”)
The emotional toll of the discussion on Jo was clear. Why subject yourself to a very public reckoning that few, if any, others go through? Jo says he wanted to continue a wider conversation on wellbeing that’s happening in restaurants, shining a sometimes harsh light on the realities of what’s widely accepted to be a tough industry.
“I do genuinely care about this industry,” he said. “I want it to be strong and successful and stable.”
But he wasn’t promising any magic-bullet answers for the audience. His response, time and time again, was that he hadn’t opened Shik for the right reasons. It wasn’t a business for him, it was a project. His goal, he says, was to prove to other people something about Korean food, which he felt was misunderstood thanks to the current crop of Korean restaurants in Melbourne. Their food was an Americanised version of Korean cuisine. At Shik, he wanted to redefine what Korean food was and educate both Koreans and non-Koreans on the scope of the cuisine. And it was about a sense of self.
“For me the restaurant meant so much because it was so much about me finding who I was and who I represent.”
Jo admitted that he probably kept too many staff on the books too long after the number of covers each week dropped off. But aside from that, he said he wouldn’t have done anything differently. And, he wants to do it all over again, despite admitting that he still has much to learn about the business side of restaurants.
For now, he’s back at work in hospitality and trying to pay back his debts, starting with his staff’s wages.
While restaurant closures are part and parcel of the business, here’s hoping Jo’s conversation is the start of a franker discussion of what can go wrong in the trade – and how to get it right.
For upcoming events at Worksmith, head to worksmith.io.
By Emma Breheny