Donuts, subs, long hours fuel this American dream

Friday, June 08, 2018, Vol. 42, No. 23

Jenny Lee, Hailey and George spend a bit of a hectic but fun day at the donut and sub shop. The family business includes Edward Lee, Rowda Ali, Jenny and George and Hailey Lee and mom Kyung Mi Lee.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

The former South Korean clothing importer-exporter once known as “Woo” is sold out of donuts. Doesn’t really matter because most folks don’t want apple fritters for lunch as Edward Lee’s 23-year-old business changes, kind of like Clark Kent to Superman, from its early morning identity “Best Donuts” to its alter-ego “Sub Shop.”

Speaking of such transitions, long ago Edward severed his original identity “Woo” because he wanted to be an American.

The donut oasis and the sub shop share the same space in the building at the northwest corner of a strip center at Trousdale and Harding. Each has its separate set of fans. But then there are the crossovers, the loyal locals who drop in each A.M. for a morning pastry and return later for a deli sandwich, says Edward’s daughter, Jenny Lee, a Houston-based wealth-management specialist who spent her youth in this building and still calls it home.

“I’m in town for my father’s surgery,” says Jenny, 38, nodding across the room at her father, who is wearing sunglasses this day after cataract surgery. The second cataract surgery will be a few days later, so she’s hanging around.

Jenny today serves as hyper-busy mama (more later), as well as translator for her own mom and dad – Kyung Mi Lee, 64, and Edward, 68. People with big smiles, Jenny’s folks mostly rely on their native tongue, cheery attitudes and the wall-filling blackboard spelling out their menu in English as they carry on their business from 6 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday, 7 a.m-3 p.m. Saturday.

Dough preparation for the pastries and breads brings Edward and his assistant Rowda Ali, who has worked here 17 years, in at 3 a.m. And when the donuts and sandwiches are done, cleanup punctuates another long and fruitful day of living what became the Lee family’s second shot at the American dream after their first effort failed.

That dream was born decades ago as the couple ran their sometimes-successful business in their hometown of Seoul.

“My mother and father knew they wanted to come from Seoul (where Jenny and her brother Stephen, 40, were born),” says the wealth-management expert as 10-month-old George smiles and slaps at a water bottle on the table in front of him.

Jenny juggles children while still somehow focusing on our smile-filled conversation. While little George is more into the stuff from the bottles – he’s also been suckling some formula – big sister Hailey, 4, uses her visits to mom’s lap to practice spelling “Hi” and “Hello” with a purple crayon on a sheet I tear from my reporter’s notebook. She later changes from purple to yellow. I think it’s because she dropped the purple one.

Jenny notes that as soon as she and I finish talking about her family’s thriving business/businesses, she’s going to take the kids to her parents’ house, near the Nolensville-Old Hickory intersection, for an afternoon nap.

That triggers Hailey to look up from her artwork and shake her head. “I don’t like to take a nap,” she says, with a smile-punctuated defiance.

When her mom and I both answer that naps are to be treasured, Hailey holds her crayon high and looks from Mom to this old writer and says, simply: “I have more energy than you guys.”

I agree with her. Her mother just laughs and exposes a fetching smile that probably won her many friends when she was a student at Hillsboro High and then Belmont.

“When I was in high school and then at Belmont, I used to work here six, seven hours every day,” she says, motioning her free arm – for one is almost always occupied by motherly duties – in sort of an airy circle of the tidy place where love of family is the driving force.

She did everything from delivering donuts in the morning and sandwiches in the afternoon to helping run the cash register to making sure the customers were happy.

And, she served as translator to the burgeoning number of good old boys and girls who found eye-openers and later sandwiches in this comfortably weathered, urban stretch of Nashville that backs up to Radnor (railroad) Yard and is yards not only from the Trousdale-Harding crossroads but also from I-65.

Kyung Mi – who has been the love, life and business partner of Edward beginning when he was the fellow known around Seoul as Woo, the clothing maker and importer and exporter – drops in on the conversation I’m having with her daughter occasionally. Generally, it is just to provide a smile and swap out the children. She also says a few words in Korean (with a dash of English) that Jenny either answers in the family’s native tongue or translates for me.

I do ask Kyung Mi why she and Edward still keep such long hours in their shop next to a nail salon and two doors down from a liquor store. She answers to Jenny, who then turns to me.

“She says ‘some of our customers have been coming a long, long time.’” Jenny adds she also has seen many loyal customers grow “very, very old.” But they keep coming.

Then her mom speaks again in her native tongue dosed slightly by English (I do understand those words more or less).

“She says she is able to work more physically,” Jenny adds. “She feels she still needs to be working at her age. She feels like a lot of the customers are family and that feeling is mutual.

“The plan is to work as long as she’s able to work physically, and she’s for the most part in good health.”

I ask Jenny if I can ask her good-natured pop – he does keep smiling in my direction, likely keeping track of the grandkids – the same basic question.

She watches as Edward climbs from his chair and retreats behind the counter to care for customers. Then she smiles: “He’d tell you the same thing.”

That itself is the sign of good mates and business partners.

“How come he changed his name to ‘Edward?’” I ask the sunglasses-wearing man’s daughter.

“He never liked his Korean name before, so when he came to the United States, he had them put ‘Edward’ on his citizenship papers.”

Jenny and her brother preceded their parents as U.S. residents by a couple years when their Aunt Immi Mathis – who already was in Nashville and married to an American – sponsored the efforts of her family to come to the U.S.A.

“My brother and I came over in 1992 and stayed with my aunt before my parents came, so we are more Americanized,” says Jenny, adding that the now-deceased aunt jumped into the Woo clan’s plan by running a second donut shop in the Tusculum area. “It’s not in business anymore.”

She explains the family’s immigration and transition from Koreans to Americans by noting that her mom and dad had suffered some business setbacks, including a flood in their Seoul facility.

They didn’t give up. With their kids safely tucked away with loving family in the States, they tried to rebuild and revive their Korean business. But it just wasn’t working out.

So they, like generations of people from all over the world, followed the world’s rainbow to find their pot full of hope: And they were welcomed here. (In the early to mid-1990s, citizens and leaders of this country still realized that this was a nation of immigrants, so there were no walls nor gunfire involved. Just a lot of paperwork. But that’s a discussion for another time.)

Looking to how they’d support their family in the U.S., they figured they could play to their strengths. “They decided they wanted to start a Korean restaurant,” Jenny continues. “I don’t think there were any in Nashville. At least in this part of the city.”

And they found the perfect location, they figured. “There had been a pancake house here in this building, but it had gone out of business,” adds Jenny, remembering the early days of the American dream.

The Lees rented the building, bought the pancake house’s food-prep equipment and got to work.

“That was nice,” says Jenny, eyes gleaming as she describes those early days on Harding at Trousdale.

“We got to know the owner of the building, the owner of this whole strip of buildings – Dr. Cooke. His son is the owner now.

“Dr. Cooke would come in here when he was alive. He would sit down and talk. He was a nice man.”

It was during that period that the family discovered being flexible with the menu can be a dream-saver.

“It was Taste of Korea restaurant,” notes Jenny, who helped her folks out from day one at the business for no pay. “That’s how you do when it’s family,” she says, flashing a loving smile down to whichever child is occupying her lap. Sometimes it’s both.

What the Lee family quickly discovered was that there wasn’t much of a taste for Korean food in Nashville. It was hardly one of those “build it and they will come” deals.

That’s because this had not yet become the “‘It City.” Meat-and-threes and barbecue joints set the standard, and for something different a Big Mac or O’Charley’s pretty much filled the bill. Maybe a bowl of grits, but what the hell is this “kimchi” stuff?

Now, of course, Korean, Ethiopian, Indian, Turkish, Pakistani, Japanese and even an overabundance of greaseburger and over-marinaraed spaghetti joints can be found throughout the city. Heck, there are Chinese, Cuban and a Cuban-run Italian restaurant in the same strip as Edward’s business.

“Our timing, it was a little off,” Jenny says of the Taste of Korea’s short tenure. “I think it was about two years we ran it, but my mother says it was much shorter, less than a year.”

Receipts dictated development of a Plan B.

“At that time we were in a survival mode,” Jenny acknowledges.

“We had to do what we had to do. ... One of our customers had a donut shop elsewhere, and he said he was willing to teach us how to make donuts and run a donut shop,” she recalls.

“So that’s how we ended up doing that,” she says, as George pulls at her shirt while his few tiny teeth form a smile. “We had a lot of good feedback on the donuts.”

Almost immediately a setback arrived in the name of progress.

“We initially only had the donut store (then called The Donut Place),” Jenny recounts. “But a few weeks later they began construction of the intersection at Harding and Trousdale.”

She notes it was another incident of “bad timing” that led to the evolution of what now is a landmark business in the area just off Interstate 65 on Harding Place.

“We had a lot of good customers for our donut shop, but it wasn’t enough for us to float.” The construction made it difficult for even their most loyal customers to make it to the store.

There was something of a silver lining during that long project. … A lot of hungry workmen and women were toiling away at that intersection, day and night.

Jenny Lee with 10-month-old son George. Daughter Hailey giggles in the background.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

“So we added another product,” Jenny says. The Sub Shop part of the business was born, offering all sorts of gourmet sandwiches, including the popular chicken club, Italian and Cuban.

“Some people say we have an identity crisis,” she says, with a laugh, when I kid her about the stunning transition from sweet pastry to savory deli stuff that begins every late-morning.

It not only worked, it is thriving all these years later, with the Sub Shop sign presiding over the building and Best Donuts across its gut.

“Once it was completed (the split identity of the little storefront), it felt right to keep it that way.”

So, in addition to the line out the door of folks looking for coffee and an apple fritter or a chocolate-covered donut either to eat in or carry to work in the mornings, the neighbors in Crieve Hall and Elysian Fields (not to mention the hardhats, firemen and nearby business-park denizens) began coming in for lunch.

“There have been setbacks here,” says Jenny, summing up the 23 years at the intersection. “And we’ve had to try out different cuisines, but the result is it shows hard work pays off.”

Course Jenny is just visiting for a few days when I catch up with her. (I’d visited a couple of months before, but Edward and his wife asked me to come back when Jenny was in town… or something like that). Jenny took her degree first to New York City, where she met her future husband, Son Vann, of Vietnamese descent. Both are in the finance world, love blossomed and eventually they relocated to Houston.

Jenny still has a role in her family business, though.

She travels here about three times a year and also uses her skills to help oversee the financial end of things. Sometime Son takes part as well.

“When I went away, I was more worried about them than they were worried about me,” Jenny admits.

But, she adds, they are doing just fine. And she credits her folks’ “perseverance.”

“We tried with a Korean restaurant and it didn’t work. Then we added a donut store. Then when they were doing the road construction, we added the sandwiches. Sure, we tried different cuisine, but hard work pays off.”

Her mother wanders to our table to offer up, mostly in English, her own secret for success. “Keep it simple. Keep the quality fresh. I like everything (we make). Very proud.”

She reverts to Korean, and Jenny happily translates. “She says to keep it fresh and thoroughly wash everything. Quality is important and cleanliness.”

Edward still presides, but he has a devoted assistant in Rowda, 42, the former Ethiopian – “I always wanted to be a U.S. citizen” – who began her quest for the American dream 20 years ago and eventually found where she belongs.

“We are all family,” she says, of her cohorts in the sub and donut paradise. Edward is no-nonsense and insists I add Rowda to the family portrait I shoot by the main counter.

Hailey again climbs into Jenny’s lap, and grandma has something else she wants to add to the story of the family business. This time she sticks to Korean and Jenny translates: “Work and money is not as important as it is that we have a lot of friends here. A lot of people continue to come by. Some commuters. And a lot of church friends.”

The Lees attend the big Nashville Korean Presbyterian Church on Franklin Road, just north of Brentwood and kinda across the highway from Wendy’s.

“They are very active in their church,” says their daughter, admiration lighting her eyes as she watches her American parents take care of customers.

“They are blessed.”