Often restaurants represent something. A chance to get together with family or reconnect with friends. A moment for people to disregard the business of daily life and to simply enjoy the presence of good company and the taste of a good meal. It can be a chance for people to experience a culture and cuisine that may be unfamiliar, or an opportunity for one to reminisce on a forgotten but cherished meal from their past.
For Terence Em and Sabrina Hee Soo Kim, their Shabu Shabu restaurant Shaburina in Redmond was envisioned to represent all of these things.
Shabu Shabu is a Japanese-style hot pot, in which fresh and high quality ingredients are hand chosen by dining guests and are cooked in bubbling pots of savory broth, right at their table. It is very similar to a Chinese hot pot, but Em and Hee Soo Kim say their broths are typically less spicy and mouth numbing than then Chinese-style.
Guests have the choice of veggies like bok choy, beansprouts, scallion, corn, squash, a variety of mushrooms, and many other delicious broth additives. They also give all-you-can-eat rich and lean varieties of Kurobuta pork and Wagyu beef, thinly sliced to cook in boiling broth within seconds.
Em says they are not only one of the only Japanese-style hot pot restaurants in the entire state, they are the only one that allows guests to choose the accoutrements to their broth buffet-style.
“Four people can come and everyone is satisfied to their own liking,” said Hee Soo Kim.
They opened Shaburina in October of 2019, hopeful and excited to grow their brand, notoriety and to become a hub for the community. But like many businesses in the restaurant industry, the pandemic threw somewhat of a wrench in their plans to grow and establish themselves.
“Nobody saw it coming,” Em said.
They stood by through government-mandated shutdown after shutdown, waiting for new guidelines that would allow them to open up shop. They made difficult decisions in the name of adaptation, like deciding to offer take-out options and hot-pot-at-home-kits for customers to recreate the experience in the safety of the 2020 quarantine.
Eventually, they were allowed to reopen, but were tasked with the challenge of not only creating a safe, sanitary buffet-style system for their restaurant, but also to make sure people in the community felt safe eating there.
As a solution, they not only implemented safety measures like plexiglass barriers, gloves to be used at the buffet, germ-killing UV lights to sterilize dinnerware and cutlery, temperature checks for guests, and employee name tags that included their temperature check numbers to ensure confidence, they also created a social media video that outlined what all these measures were and how they would be use to ensure a sense of safety and sanitization for guests who may have otherwise been hesitant to take a perceived risk to enjoy a meal there.
Em said there were times when money was tight and employees were hard to hire, in which Em and Hee Soo Kim were basically the only ones working the dining service. Together they performed the duties of the host, server, prep chef and bartenders all at once.
Through all of these efforts, precautions and adaptations, Shaburina not only survived, it also slowly created a loyal community around itself.
Hee Soo Kim said they have a family from Portland, Oregon that makes a weekly trip up to Redmond just to enjoy Shabu Shabu at Shaburina. Em said some of their sauces, such as the “chef’s sauce,” had become so popular with regular customers that he joked that he received “death threats” when they ran out due to supply chain issues.
They embraced social media and used their Facebook to spread photos of their guests’ experiences and to show others in the community why it was worth it to treat themselves to a night of Shabu Shabu hot pot with friends and family after a difficult and turbulent few years of pandemic.
“This location has inspired us to say ‘Hey, we can do it’,” said Hee Soo Kim.
The married couple and Shaburina co-owners now say they are exploring expansions to other locations and communities as well as merchandising some of their recipes to be sold in retail.
“We were scared when we were a new restaurant,” Em said. “But we learned a lot, and got a little more brave.”
The couple said they were proud of surviving the uncertainty of being restaurant owners in the pandemic, and they look forward to seeing the community continue to enjoy meals at Shaburina and for new memories to be created there.