Un Kim was up before the lark, with 49 members of her young staff, "ready to rock and roll" at a 6 a.m. meeting. It's the best time to catch everyone, she says, "to get their commitment, check on their well-being and integrity. Everybody gets to share."
The dawn huddle was a glimpse of the get-up-and-go that has taken the 43-year-old South Korean immigrant from a single mother working at a Eutaw Street sewing factory to the owner of Papermoon, a thriving 24-hour diner in the city's blue-collar Remington neighborhood.
Kim's ambition and her plans for a new restaurant and live-music establishment sparked an uproar that has dominated Remington for months, forcing her to surrender on a few points, step back and reconsider her approach.
Given her experience - she says her life was a struggle until she had her second child at 40 - Kim has a hard-won perspective with which to view the conflict, in which some neighbors oppose what they consider a nightclub. Forced to retreat, Kim says she has come to realize that Remington is a force to be reckoned with and that her way may not be the only way to improve and enliven the community.
That was made clear last week, when she brought a family therapist, Alexander Ferranti, to a meeting with residents about her restaurant project.
Even though he couldn't smooth rancorous relations or lower the decibel level, Kim says she believes some good came of the meeting. It created a "listening space and dialogue," she says, and encouraged her to pursue her goal without trying to force feed the community.
Kim radiates confidence on the Papermoon Diner porch as she talks about the project she renamed "The Paradiso" from her earlier choices - "Hell" and "Inferno." But, she quickly adds, she wants to see what the community thinks about any new name.
"Where I missed on this project is relationships with other people in the community. I was just being a businesswoman," she says. "I was a bit arrogant."
Members of the newly formed, 75-member Remington Neighborhood Alliance say the name of her proposed establishment is the least of their concerns. They say the restaurant would compromise property values, and peace and quiet in a residential neighborhood.
Since Kim floated the plan early this year, reaction has ranged from lukewarm to hostile. Acknowledging a mistake, she says she communicated with residents on the west side of the diner but didn't consult the east-side neighbors. Those on Howard Street would be most affected by the $1.5 million project, which would consist of a large square building that some have compared to an airport hangar.
"I wasn't authentically relating to the community," Kim says.
As a result of the dispute over live music, residents formed the Remington Neighborhood Alliance, sought a state charter and plan to enact bylaws and elect officers this fall.
They say the Remington Community Association, an established neighborhood organization that approved Kim's plans earlier this year, didn't represent the community.
Hazel Helmick, the association's president, counters that members of the new group have had access to its meetings. "I wish the people who created this new organization would have been there over the last five years," she says.
She adds, in Kim's defense, "I think the Papermoon speaks to what a capable businesswoman she is."
Resistance to Kim's project forced her to cancel and delay her application for a liquor license last month. The liquor board chairman, Nathan C. Irby Jr., said Kim cannot reapply until February. It also caused her to abandon a key feature of the business plan: live music, including jazz and rhythm and blues.
Her original idea, Kim says, was to attract a crowd that could afford and appreciate "fusion" cuisine, which blends Asian, Californian, French and other styles. She says the concept would fly in most big cities, but adds, "I keep forgetting reality. 'Hello, you're in Baltimore, Remington.' Now I get it."
Longtime Remington residents who attended last week's meeting said a recently opened Burger King was a more welcome addition than Kim's planned expansion.
Another source of contention that surfaced at the meeting is when Kim would begin to build on the Cresmont Avenue site, adjacent to the diner, that she bought for $200,000 last year. Kim says she intends to build as soon as city permits are issued, which she expects sometime this fall.
The prospect has displeased people like Joan Floyd, a Howard Street resident and outspoken member of the new alliance. The liquor license is the rub.
Kim says she hopes last week's meeting created "at least a pinhole on the wall." She says the process has given her respect for the community.
Her unconventional approach to the community conflict and to her business - such as hiring the family therapist - stems from a course in "Landmark Education" she took after her husband, a Marine she met overseas, left her in Baltimore in her early 20s. "I felt ugly, fat, useless, abused," she recalls.
The Landmark Education outlook on life changed hers, she says. To climb out of her rut, she quit her factory job and opened a small cafM-i in Charles Village, Clio's, which she sold in 1986.
"I climb and I climb until I see the light," she said of subsequent food businesses. She managed Talk 'N Turkey in the Owings Mills Mall and then CafM-i on the Square, a small establishment across from the University of Maryland Medical Center. In 1994, she bought a coffee shop on 29th Street in Remington and turned it into a 24-hour diner decorated with lights, toys and dolls. Some complained about the avant-garde aura at first: "Naked mannequins. It's no longer an issue, but just art now," she says.
Dan Robinson, 35, who created the whimsical look, is her top manager and has worked for Kim for 17 years. "She's tenacious and energetic like nobody's business," he says.
Since her son Max was born, life is about more than survival for the Roland Park resident. Though she travels and relaxes, her work ethic prevails at times, like the 6 a.m. staff meeting.
"Walking in the park, I never knew what that [relaxing] was," she says. Now, she says, she's allowing herself to pull back and face confrontation in a different way.
"It will turn out however it turns out," she says of the cleared lot behind the diner. "We will work with that."