Neophyte restaurateurs Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark ran through calculations on their Excel spreadsheet, something they've done plenty in the last year. They knew early on that the margin of error at their new Avondale restaurant, Parachute, was thin.
“If we averaged 25 customers a day, five days a week, that wouldn't be good for us. That's just skating by, and we'd have to get rid of everybody,” said the 34-year-old Kim. “Ultimately, because we have our names on the line, if it comes down to only me and Johnny cooking back there, we would do that.”
It was the prospect of husband and wife working together in the kitchen, doing what they loved and knew best, that brought them to their “jump off the cliff” moment. It happened on Nov. 1, Day One of their 3-year lease at 3500 N. Elston Ave., the day the romanticism of boundless possibility turned hard and real. They entered an unfamiliar world of decimal points, percentages, contractors, government licenses and seemingly endless paperwork.
For Kim and Clark, who have a 4-year-old son, Daewon, their reputation, financial livelihood and ownership of their dream restaurant comes intertwined as a package deal: They have no plan B and are entering a restaurant business where, historically, success is as likely as betting against Vegas house odds.
Then there's the mistaken belief among diners that ambitious restaurateurs serving $20-a-plate entrees are printing cash.
At Parachute, Kim and Clark will each put in 80 hour-plus workweeks and expect to take in a combined salary of $35,000 this year. Several chef colleagues suggested they not take a salary at all their first year to help the restaurant's bottom line, but raising a 4-year-old renders that argument moot.
“Look, we're one of the lucky ones. So many people are dying to open their own restaurant. I couldn't be more grateful,” said Clark, 33. “But as much as I love cooking, it takes a toll over the years when you realize you can't get anywhere with what you love to do. Sometimes the baby sitter makes more than me.”
The silver lining, if you want to call it that: Living below the federal poverty line qualified their son for free Head Start preschool.
When Kim was the executive chef at Aria, inside The Fairmont Chicago hotel, she was making $70,000 a year, great money for a cook. The downside: The job often required 90-hour workweeks, which meant her husband was Daewon's primary caretaker. Being a stay-at-home dad became Clark's full-time job, even more so during the two months Kim was away to film Bravo's “Top Chef” in 2011. (Kim wasn't paid for the show.)
Clark earned his degree at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., the country's most prestigious cooking school. As much as he loved raising his toddler, Clark yearned to put his training to professional use.
The opportunity came for Kim and Clark to become co-executive chefs at Logan Square's Bonsoiree in 2012, which back then had just earned one-star status in the Michelin Chicago guidebook. Here was the chance for Clark and Kim to work side by side while evening out parental duties. Even with Kim's decreased salary, their combined wage at Bonsoiree would still be higher than her Aria tenure solo — $85,000 between the two.
But after three months, Clark and Kim pulled out of Bonsoiree. Not enough customers walked through the doors to sample their upscale interpretation of Korean cuisine. They left on their own accord, they said, and Bonsoiree was converted into an Alpine dining concept.
Suddenly, Clark and Kim were without full-time jobs, picking up freelance dinner gigs and one-off cooking classes where they could. Clark found an hourly position at Prairie Grass Cafe that paid $12 an hour. Kim taught advance-level cooking at her alma mater, Kendall College, a class that simulates running a fine-dining restaurant. What was supposed to be one school quarter at the start of 2013 lasted through much of the year.
Still, they lived paycheck to paycheck. Kim was expecting to teach the summer quarter at Kendall, but the class was canceled because not enough students enrolled. They had to withdraw Daewon from preschool for a few months until they could afford the tuition in the fall.
“Nothing ever seemed to keep going and connect,” Kim said over lunch recently in a Peruvian restaurant not far from Parachute. “Even though it's hard, you follow what you love to do. My dad keeps telling me, ‘A drip of water doesn't seem like much, but if it keeps dripping it could cut through stone.' Sometimes it takes a few steps backwards to go forward.”
The thing to know about Clark and Kim's situation is they are not the anomaly. Granted, established head chefs at large-scale operations can earn north of six figures. (TDn2K, a Dallas research firm that tracks 30,000 restaurants nationwide, said the average executive chef of an upscale Chicago restaurant earns $70,500 annually.) But even at luxury establishments like Alinea and Grace, starting cooks earn $8.25 an hour plus overtime. It's not uncommon for, say, four cooks to room in a two-bedroom apartment in a neighborhood far from their job. The margins are even tighter for an upscale startup like Parachute. Clark, Kim and their son live in a $810-a-month apartment in Roscoe Village, where the walk-in closet was fitted with the couple's bed so Daewon could sleep in the master bedroom.
I asked why is it chefs pursue this field when the money and hours are lousy.
Kim: “We think about food all the time. I've invested my whole adult life into cooking, and I can't see myself doing anything else.”
Clark: “I've thought about quitting a lot. Then I'll work construction for a month, and then I tell myself, ‘I don't care if I'm making double here, I want to go back to cooking.'”
Once they decided to become owner-operators, then came the question of what kind of restaurant to pursue. If they spent $100,000, they could afford a takeout spot, no larger than perhaps 800 square feet, a space limiting their output to a small menu. The revenue generated from such a restaurant would require Clark or Kim to supplement with a second full-time job, and the point was to work together. But if they spent $250,000, they could finance a sit-down restaurant with a roughly 40-seat capacity. They opted for the latter, the higher-risk, higher-reward option.