Columbia restaurateur Jina Yoo is a diminutive, concentrated bundle of energy. She combines the soul of an artist with the drive of a determined entrepreneur.
She opened Jina Yoo’s Asian Bistro more than four years ago in the trendy, growing southwest section of Columbia. Her unique approach to dining has been so successful Jina is planning to open a second restaurant this spring in downtown Kansas City.
Jina’s path to restaurant ownership started with joyous extended-family gatherings in her native South Korea. Growing up there, the older of two children, Jina remembers frequent get-togethers with cousins, aunts and uncles. Every family celebration involved cooking and eating. In addition, Jina’s father was a gourmet who took his older daughter on frequent journeys around their native land to sample the fare of restaurants in every corner of the country.
“But I never learned to love music,” Jina confesses. “I was like a machine. After recitals I always had an empty feeling.”
Majoring in the pipe organ at college, Jina decided after her freshman recital that a music career was not for her. But after talking with her grandmother, Jina returned to the keyboard, completed her undergraduate work and was accepted for graduate studies in the pipe organ at Indiana University.
There she met the man who became her husband. They moved to Columbia when he was accepted into the MBA program at the University of Missouri. Jina traded her pipe organ studies for the role of homemaker and mother. And in her new Midwest home she pursued her love of cooking.
Jina first got serious about the culinary arts when she gave informal cooking classes in her home to friends and neighbors. Soon many of her disciples told her she should start a restaurant.
The idea took a long time to grow. She loved to cook, but she knew nothing of business. She had no experience and no money to start a restaurant. The dream lingered for eight years, until Jina finally contacted Virginia Wilson, business counselor with the MU SBTDC in Columbia.
Within a month Wilson had helped Jina create a business plan that attracted the attention of loan officers at two local banks. Jina combined a $290,000 loan from Boone County National Bank with another $100,000 of her own money to find a location and to design and build Jina Yoo’s Asian Bistro.
It’s been open more than four years. Much of the loan is paid off, and Jina is doing what she loves.
“There’s no aspect of the restaurant business that I don’t know now,” she says with confidence.
Though the restaurant has an established menu, Jina gladly concocts new recipes on special request: “I once created a dish for a lady who suffered from allergies to sugar, garlic and soy sauce. To solve the problem I substituted with fruit juice, scallion and gluten-free soy sauce. She loved it.”
Regular customers frequently ask Jina to surprise them. She’ll return to the kitchen, survey the inventory, and have one of her staff write down the list of ingredients as she creates a new recipe.
“I can imagine how a dish will taste before I actually create it. But don’t call me a chef. I’m not qualified” Jina insists. “Cooking is more rewarding than music. Every day is different. I ask my customer’s, ‘What do you feel like having today?’
“What is so difficult about that? It’s a people business. I don’t simply survive … I thrive. But it’s not about the money. Once my business account was down to $300 and my entire staff had quit. I work my tail off, and the business continues.”
Jina is continually on the go, so moments of relaxation are few. The restaurant is open seven days a week. Opening later in the day on Sundays allows Jina some down time, which she puts to good use. She’ll relax by getting in her car and driving roundtrip to St. Louis or Kansas City while listening to inspiring business CDs.
“I constantly seek to improve my business knowledge. I also improve my menu. I learn by making mistakes. I also learn from Virginia. She is an excellent advisor who has helped me on my business journey.”
– Jina Yoo