They say that the only person who can put up with dating a chef is another chef, so it's no surprise that Karen Yoo and Nathan McCall first met in the kitchen of Los Angeles' Sona Restaurant.
“When you're in the kitchen lifestyle, and you work in a kitchen, it's hard to maintain relationships outside the kitchen," said Yoo, adding that the pair worked at Sona from about noon to 2 a.m. each day. But, of course, there was more to the relationship than just convenience and proximity. “There were plenty of other people in that kitchen, so it's not just that," she joked.
After leaving Sona to travel in Europe in 2006, the pair ended up in another kitchen together, this time in New York City, at Daniel Boulud's highly acclaimed three Michelin starred Restaurant, Daniel. By 2008, the couple were engaged to be married, and plotting their return to the West Coast.
“We ended up coming back to California and deciding to open our own restaurant but, unfortunately, at the time we were trying to do things on our own, with whatever small amount of money we had," said Yoo. “We also couldn't find the right space or get loans from banks, because nobody was lending to food businesses."
Although the two had been formally trained at the Le Cordon Bleu, California School of Culinary Arts and worked in Michelin starred restaurants around the world, opening up their own fine dining establishment seemed out of their financial reach. That's when McCall came up with an alternative.
Seizing a New Opportunity
“Every day in New York, Nathan's bus ride home from Daniel would take him by a really high-end meat market, and there wasn't really anything at the time that existed like that in Los Angeles," said Yoo. “It was ultimately frustrating for us being cooks and not being able to source that quality protein from your average grocery store, so we decided to bring that high quality protein to the average consumer."
The couple scraped together whatever savings they had and rented a small, 695 square foot space in Los Feliz, California, to open their high quality meat and fish market.
“We went to LegalZoom right off the bat, because everything my husband and I have done in this business we have figured out ourselves—everything from HR to finance to the legal parts," said Yoo. “We've used them for quite a few things over the years, and overall it's gone very smoothly. They've been easy to work with and very affordable."
Getting to Know Their Customers
McCall's Meat and Fish Co. officially opened its doors in January of 2010, and soon became much more than just a place to pick up protein. Though patrons came in looking for something to put on their dinner plate, conversations about food typically evolved into conversations about just about everything else, and before long the little establishment became a Los Angeles institution and community hub.
“We know maybe 75 to 80 percent of our customers by first name," said Yoo. “Nathan is, in a way, like a bartender; people end up just sitting and chatting with him about all sorts of things, from what's going on in their life and their kids, to what they're going to put on the dinner table at night, and that translated to the rest of our employees."
Over the last seven and a half years, the company has continued to grow from its original size to include an additional 980 square foot expansion—where Yoo's pastries and baked goods are made, displayed, and sold—as well as a small cafe just down the street. Though they ran the business themselves in those early days, they now employ a staff of 22, but it's not just their business that has increased its headcount.
Finding Family Time
Now that McCall's Meat and Fish is running smoothly, Yoo and McCall are looking forward to finally taking a step back from the day-to-day operations in order to spend more time with their kids, Hunter and Ruby.
“Nathan and I, seven or eight years later, are finally at a point where we can start delegating," she said. “The next step for us is finding a way where we can let go a little bit and have some people that can handle certain day-to-day decisions without us."
Though they never opened up their own fine dining restaurant, Yoo says their journey ultimately brought them to a better place.
“Not having a traditional restaurant has allowed me to be home with my children in the afternoons and evenings and to be able to tuck them into bed at night," she said. “We don't regret the choices we made. In the end, it was better for our family life as a whole."