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On any given day, loyal Jack’s Fresh customers may notice namesake owner Jack Kim hustling around the buffet steam table in his neatly pressed apron as he peeks over his glasses at the trays of food inspired by dishes from around the world, refilling them whenever supplies dip.
What they may not realize, despite coming for years, is that Kim visits the Restaurant Depot wholesale food supplier near his home in Chantilly, Virginia, every weekday at 6 a.m. to pick out fresh produce for that day’s meals and drive it into the city in his pickup truck with a massive icebox in the back.
That’s not the only way he puts significant care into his pay-by-the-pound restaurants. When Jack’s Fresh first launched as Jack’s Famous Deli in 1992, Kim traveled to other cities to learn about their specialties. He flew to Los Angeles to eat at In-N-Out Burger, for example. He took his family to New Orleans to learn how to cook and serve seafood. And there was no way Kim would introduce a cheesesteak without first visiting Philadelphia.
“That was when I was in my late 30s,” Kim says. “I was 190 pounds.” He’s now 55 years old and trimmer at 160 pounds. His face creases into a warm smile when he laughs. “I ate too much.”
Kim’s daughter Mi Jin Kim accompanied her father on some of the food fact-finding missions. “Growing up we did take a lot of road trips,” she says. “A lot of them consisted of food, because mom and dad were always trying to do better. They wanted to learn and the best way to learn is to experience it for yourself.”
“When I started, I didn’t know what American people liked to eat or anything about American food,” Jack Kim admits. “I didn’t even know what a bagel was. I thought it was a doughnut that was too hard.”
Another way Kim and his wife, Soo, taught themselves about which foods people in the U.S. like to eat together was by visiting supermarkets and studying the frozen food aisle. If they saw spaghetti served with a slice of garlic bread, they knew their menu should offer both items simultaneously. That’s also how they learned steak and mashed potatoes are fast friends.
“That was their way of studying because they didn’t have a formal education,” says Mi Jin. “They were definitely creative and innovative and very hardworking.”
The origins of Jack’s Fresh can be traced back to a promise Kim made to his wife. He grew up in South Korea and met his future bride in school when they were both 16 years old. They married four years later. “She asked me how I was going to support her,” Kim remembers. He vowed to have his own business by the time he turned 30. “She said, ‘How?’ And I said, ‘We have 10 years, don’t ask me now.’”
In 1984, Kim left South Korea and immigrated to Washington state to live with other family members who had already traveled to America, and Soo eventually followed him. “Almost 35 years ago, Korea wasn’t all that good and I didn’t have any family left there,” Kim explains. He sensed more opportunity elsewhere. He initially took on some jobs in Spokane, Washington, before relocating to D.C. in 1989.
He was lured to the District by a friend from Spokane who’d already made the move. Kim visited and was enticed by the grander scale and quicker pace of life. It was a vibe more similar to the big city of Seoul. “My friend who moved here said, ‘If you come, I think you can change your life,’” Kim says.
In D.C., Kim worked at a Korean restaurant as a waiter for three years, saving money and thinking about how to fulfill the promise he made to his wife. In 1992, he hatched a plan to open his own dining establishment with hours that would make it easier to manage having a family. His son was already 4 years old at the time, and in 1993 he’d welcome a daughter, Mi Jin.
Although he didn’t have experience in the kitchen, his time working for the Korean restaurant taught him the logistical side of the industry, from hiring staff to ordering supplies. After scouring newspapers advertising businesses for sale, Kim found what would become his company’s first location on 15th Street NW across from the former Washington Post building.
On a typical weekday, you’ll see office workers, tourists, construction workers, and other passersby stream through for either breakfast or lunch. At its peak, Jack’s Fresh boasted nine locations. The Kims still run the ones located at 1197 20th St. NW and 1400 L St. NW and they sold others that are still operating under the Jack’s Fresh name.
The restaurants have a counter where diners can choose from made-to-order sandwiches and burgers, as well as hot and cold buffet bars brimming with selections that take diners around the world. There’s teriyaki chicken, mac and cheese, barbecue ribs, spinach pie, chicken potstickers, and a salad bar. About 70 percent of the menu is always available, while 30 percent are rotating specials or new items Jack was inspired to create.
Some of the most popular items are the Americanized Chinese food: General Tso’s chicken, fried rice, pepper steak, and kung pao chicken. Kim’s favorite is the baked salmon. But whatever is on the menu, he’s tried it and stands behind it. “If I don’t like it, I don’t put it out,” he says.
Kim closely monitors who’s buying what, so that he can determine which options should stay and which he needs to “86,” restaurant speak for cancel. “If by the second or third day it doesn’t trend, then people are not interested and it comes off,” he explains. After doing this for 27 years, he’s got a good grasp on what people gravitate toward.
A number of patrons visit daily, while others only come on the days that they know their favorite dishes will be available. Some have been coming to Jack’s Fresh for so long that they’ve seen Mi Jin grow up.
Jack’s’ staff has also remained consistent over the years. He placed help wanted ads to recruit his first kitchen team, but says that was the only time he’s ever had to advertise for workers. Many employees have stayed with him for more than a decade. When employees did leave, their spots were often filled by family members or friends.
He speaks with clear pride about his employees and customers, and plans on keeping Jack’s Fresh going for at least another five years. After that, he might sell and switch to a business with a lighter workload. He doesn’t expect his son or daughter to take over. They’re both employed in other sectors.
Kim doesn’t plan to slow down as his restaurants enter their twilight years. He’s still eager to go on road trips to discover dishes to add into the rotation. “I’m still traveling, still taking long weekends with my wife and my family,” he says. “I always ask them, ‘Are you looking for a new menu?’”