Trial by Fire: The Making of Young Joni

Ann Kim and Conrad Leifur, of the red-hot pizza joints Lola and Hello, are launching the most anticipated restaurant of the season—and reinventing themselves in the process

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Thai sausage appetizer and Jambon Royale pizza from the new Young Joni

Photo by Josh Grubbs

Two months before Young Joni is scheduled to open, it sure doesn’t look much like a restaurant.

Wires stick out from walls, the dusty concrete floors would be better suited for a warehouse, and the unfinished ceiling’s main strength is keeping out the rain rather than aesthetic reward. You can see the bare outlines slowly taking shape—the void where a big wood-fired hearth in the middle of the room will eventually spread its warmth, the framed-out entryway where frozen Minnesotans will soon stomp their boots before coming inside—which would be good news if the project weren’t wildly behind schedule.

Located next to Dangerous Man Brewing in Northeast Minneapolis, Young Joni is the third restaurant for business and life partners Ann Kim and Conrad Leifur. Their first two, Pizzeria Lola and Hello Pizza, were small, self-financed—and instantly popular. This new place represents a huge leap into the big leagues—it’s three times the size of Lola, with a separate speakeasy in the back, along with a more varied menu than either of the dialed-in pie joints, and an aesthetic by a hot California designer. But with all this ambition come higher stakes and increased challenges.

Take today. At a weekly construction meeting, Kim and Leifur gather with their builder around a table strewn with papers. Electrical cables hang overhead, and the designer’s on speakerphone. The team runs through a list of problems to be dealt with that takes up more than a full printed page. The grill’s the wrong height; a batch of tile didn’t arrive on time; structural surprises in the historic building required excavation, testing, and inspection.

As the group talks through the issues, raised eyebrows and voices reveal frayed nerves all around. Kim, fortunately, is no vein-popping, blustery Gordon Ramsay. She stays calm and focused, offering words of encouragement instead of threats and blame.

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Korean BBQ Pizza, and Pizzeria Lola’s wood-fired oven

Photo by Josh Grubbs

Not only is Kim shouldering the expectations of herself and Leifur, her team and employees, she’s also bearing those of her octogenarian, self-made immigrant mother. A recent conversation:

Mom: Why is Young Joni taking so long to open?

Ann: It’s complicated, Mom.

Mom: Really? It took me less time to walk hundreds of miles on foot from my hometown in North Korea to the South during the war. That was complicated.

Ann: . . .

Ann Kim’s family immigrated to Minnesota in the late 1970s when she was a child; sponsored by a family member, they landed in Apple Valley (“which back then was whiter than white,” she says). Neither of her parents spoke English. Her father got a job on an assembly line before settling into a career at the post office; her mother’s first job was housekeeping in a nursing home.

In Korean culture, the concept of han permeates. There’s no direct translation into English, but it contains elements of the oppression and remorse felt by a people who have been frequently invaded by overwhelming forces. It also incorporates familial loyalty and sacrifice. Kim’s parents believed to their core in the notion of diligent hard work and providing a better life for their children.

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Ann Kim and Conrad Leifur in the Young Joni dining room as their new restaurant takes shape

Photo by TJ TURNER

Kim was the model child with an unorthodox side, a class cut-up who caught the acting bug in high school. Her parents were against the theater and only allowed her to participate as long as she maintained her position in the National Honor Society and president of the student council. She ended up at Columbia University, where she got an English degree before coming back to Minnesota and taking a job with a legal firm (she’d considered law school). After she got a gig with Mixed Blood Theatre, the day job was over—something her parents only learned when they called the office and were told their daughter no longer worked there.

“My mother was in tears,” Kim says. “She was yelling at me, basically disowning me. They just didn’t see acting as a noble profession at all.”

Others disagreed. For nearly a decade, Kim was a successful actor working on stage and in commercials—she was the only actor to appear in every show in a season at Mixed Blood, and eventually landed a coveted spot as a company member at Children’s Theatre Company. But the profession’s gig-to-gig uncertainty took its toll—and the big, life-changing role actors dream about never came.

This was the height of the Great Recession, which Leifur—who she had met on the dating site—was feeling as acutely as anyone. The North Dakota native had gone to Yale to study math and economics, which led to a lucrative career as an analyst and hedge fund manager. But he pretty much hated the work and culture, and when he lost his job he viewed it as a blessing in disguise—and encouraged Kim in the crazy notion of going into the food business.

best new restaurants, young joni, pizza, italian, pizzeria lola, hello pizza, ann kim, conrad leifur, minneapolis, twin cities, restaurants, food, dining out
Going over blueprints

Photo by TJ TURNER

“I always loved to cook,” she says. “My grandmother, who pretty much raised us when my parents were working all the time, cooked everything from scratch. There wasn’t anything she couldn’t make—especially fermentation and preserving.”

They thought about buying a franchise. The “Soup Nazi” concept immortalized in an episode of Seinfeld was one possibility. Another was opening a Jimmy John’s in Cottage Grove—that one almost happened until they were realized they wanted something more creative.

Kim looked at the Minnesota landscape and sensed that there was a demand for a pizza place that was homey and comfortable—but with her unique taste elevating both the food and décor. After a stint at a famed pizza school in San Francisco, she took her first restaurant job as an unpaid prep cook at Solera. A For-Rent sign appeared in the window of a former neighborhood market in southwest Minneapolis; Kim and Leifur saw their opportunity and took a big risk on Pizzeria Lola.

“We had to succeed or we were going to lose everything,” Kim says. “We had maxed out about 10 credit cards by then.”

Adding to the pressure—Kim had yet to tell her parents. Knowing that a newspaper article was appearing in a few days, she invited them to what they thought was simply lunch at a local eatery. When she told them she owned the place, her mother playfully knocked her on the head: surely her daughter was joking. “Finally now they just sort of understand, OK you’re that child,” she says. “You try everything—you just go for it.”

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A worker installs custom tile near Young Joni’s grill

Photo by TJ Turner

Lola offered inventive gourmet wood-fired pies (the Lady Zaza with house-made kimchi and Korean sausage, the Sunnyside with a runny-yolk organic egg on top) in a hip, date-worthy ambiance that also welcomed kids (see all the smiles in the Photo Booth shots in back). It had the vibe of gentrifying Brooklyn: a place where parents can go out with their families and still feel cool.

After a year, TV trickster Guy Fieri featured it on Diners, Drive-ins & Dives (even though it’s none of the above). The day after the episode aired, there was a line out the door a half hour before opening. Even today there’s a spike in business every time there’s a rerun.

A little more than two years later, a former storefront at 44th and France in Edina opened up down the block from the venerable Convention Grill; Kim and Leifur saw the opportunity to open a second restaurant with a different pizza concept. While Lola’s figurative heart is its copper-clad wood-fired oven, with Hello they launched a by-the-slice walk-up approach with a gas oven that’s also built a steady following.

About a year after Hello opened, the two pizzerias were humming and best-of awards from local publications (including Minnesota Monthly) were rolling in. The momentum was pointing still forward, and the founders of Dangerous Man Brewing in Northeast let them know that a space had opened up adjacent to the taproom. It looked like a natural for Hello 2—a by-the-slice eatery where customers could go next door and wash down slices with craft brew. Quickly they abandoned that idea when they discovered a larger space across the alley that could be a sit-down joint—Lola 2 in Northeast.

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Kim and chef Michael Shaughnessy try out Young Joni recipes in an outdoor test kitchen

Photo by Josh Grubbs

“We signed a lease on the space and said we’re going to learn from our mistakes and sell a lot of pizza,” Leifur recalls.

This new place seemed like a no-brainer, but for some reason . . . they hesitated. No one would have blamed them for playing it safe, opening up variations on their two previous restaurants and raking in the money that would have surely followed. But there’s a reason Kim and Leifur don’t run a Jimmy John’s in Cottage Grove—they share a love for the experience of creating something new, along with the hard work and diligence to make a vision become reality. This need for creativity, though, was getting bogged down in the weight of the day-to-day. Kim was feeling burned out from her hands-on approach to the two places they were already running.

“I felt like I was carrying the weight of the world,” Kim says. “Which wasn’t true, but I felt like I was responsible for everything and that I had to make all the decisions. It was a really bad approach—no one can be responsible for all of that. I thought I was being a responsible owner and chef but I was micromanaging. It was a big eye-opener and I think Conrad realized it way before I did.”

A life partner will do that—see things about you that you’re unable to see for yourself. It’s not every relationship that could withstand running a business together, and theirs was being tested. As the only owners, they really only had each other when they needed to vent their doubts and frustrations. They were at a crossroads—the nose-to-the-grindstone mom-and-pop approach simply couldn’t bear the weight of the pressure they were under and the scale of organization they were going to need in order to keep three businesses open in a brutally competitive environment.

“We needed help,” Kim says. “We couldn’t go on like this, because it was going to affect our relationship. And that’s the last thing we wanted.”

Kim tests recipes

Photo by Josh Grubbs

The two hired a consultant and coach to help them with building structure for their business—first by starting with boundaries and support structures in their personal relationship. They defined their own job descriptions, hired directors of operations and human resources, and set out to define a culture based on an ethic of communication between management and employees—including managers’ meetings that close with each attendee conveying their feelings about what transpired.

“You start to see the limits of what you can do as an individual,” says chef Alex Roberts, owner of the recently expanded Restaurant Alma as well as two Brasa Rotisseries—and a friend of Kim and Leifur’s who experienced similar growing pains when he scaled up his business. “It’s a really big exercise in humility, but you can’t take care of people or do your best work when you’re always just reacting.”

At first the transition triggered substantial turnover among staff who essentially wanted to cash a paycheck without the emotional investment. But in the bigger picture Leifur and Kim see their expanded company as one that might break the mold of burnout in the food industry by attempting to make jobs in their restaurants more sustainable. They’ve done research to ensure they’re paying their employees in the 90th percentile of their peers in the Twin Cities, and benefits include health insurance, paid time off, and matching 401K contributions.

“It’s the owner’s responsibility to define the culture,” says Leifur. “It’s about how conflicts get resolved and open communications. It’s not rocket science.”

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Young Joni head bartender Adam Gorski tests drinks with Kim and Leifur in the restaurant’s under-construction speakeasy

Photo by TJ Turner

Along with this newfound order in their business management came more clarity of vision for the restaurant concept that evolved into Young Joni. Inspired by a visit to a Venice Beach restaurant, they convinced the designer from that project to take on theirs. Kim envisioned a wood-fueled grill to accompany a wood-burning pizza oven, a broader menu centering on sharable plates, and a speakeasy cocktail line-up designed by former La Belle Vie bartender Adam Gorski. The menu will feature tacos and Korean-style pork and beef served with wraps, in addition to new pizza recipes.

It’s been a chaotic process, one that Kim in a rueful moment calls “how not to expand.” But if the evolution from a couple of neighborhood pizzerias to a third, much more ambitious flagship has been fraught with uncertainty and indecision, it’s also led to an organization that feels centered, ordered, and methodical.

Not bad for two personalities that can seem to be polar opposites. Kim is gregarious, talkative, pinballing thoughts aloud, and quick to laugh. Leifur is reserved and cerebral, holding back only to step into the conversation with statements that seem to come complete with punctuation. But both share total discipline—the concept of han comes up repeatedly in conversation with Kim, and Leifur has the particular steel of a multiple marathon runner. The couple’s yin-yang dynamic makes sense on the business level as well as the personal. With Young Joni, they created structure in their lives in order to channel the chaos of inspiration.

When Kim tries to pin down the exact chronology of Young Joni’s fits and starts (it’s named after Kim’s mom, Young, and Leifur’s, Joni, by the way) she puts a hand to her head in exasperation. The whole thing proves daunting to slide into a chronology, so she turns to her partner for an assist.

Leifur pauses a moment and says, “We took the scenic route.” 

Ann Kim and chef Michael Shaughnessy test recipes for Young Joni:

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