BLACKSBURG — When Connie Kim stopped singing in the kitchen, it was time to close the doors of her popular Pembroke restaurant, Kal-bee.
“Bittersweet,” Kim said in an interview at her home on Brush Mountain. “I will say that — bittersweet.”
For 16 years, Kim’s generous portions of Korean and American dishes drew a growing clientele from around the region and from as far away as Korea. For most of her cooking career, she sang in the kitchen.
But lately, a range of complications, from tussles with the Virginia Health Department over her traditional fermented kimchee to a shrinking pool of reliable workers wore her down, Kim said.
She stopped singing.
On June 15, she and husband, Bob Grace, both in their 60s, finished their last service early because they ran out of food. Grace, a former military officer, worked as head waiter when the restaurant was open weekly on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
“We really, really appreciate everyone who supported us over the years,” he said.
In a way, Grace said, Kim was a casualty of her own success. As the restaurant became more popular, larger labor trends made finding reliable help harder. Eventually, most of the kitchen work fell on her. It was too much.
Grace pointed to his wife’s hands, and Kim held them up to show the swollen joints. She’s had neck surgery and is dealing with liver and pancreas problems.
She needs to rest, Grace said. “I’m looking forward to her getting her health back.”
Cooking for 50 customers a night would be no problem for her, Kim said. “But one Saturday, I was serving 230 people. Too busy, that’s why I had to quit.”
Since cleaning out the restaurant to make way for new owners to open Bluegrass BBQ later this year, Kim said she’s beginning to recover.
“I feel good,” she said. “Used to be, I cried because [I was] so tired.”
But the closure has left a gap, especially for Virginia Tech’s Korean students, for whom Kal-bee was a refuge.
Investing in the future
“I know a lot of people are going to miss her food,” recent Tech graduate Jieun Chon said. “There is no food like this, anywhere — even in Korea.”
More than that, Chon said Kal-bee was an oasis for her and other Korean students who leave behind family and culture to come to Southwest Virginia for education.
“She at least have half of the credit for all of the Korean graduates,” Chon said. “She knows that studying out of country is not easy.”
It’s a lesson Kim said she learned when she came to the U.S. as young woman nearly 50 years ago. She met Grace, an Army officer, at a college in Louisiana. They married in 1976, and moved around the Southeast with his job.
Kim declines to talk much about her past, but she does talk about missing her mother’s cooking. Wanting a better life for her daughter, Kim said her mom didn’t teach her to cook. Instead, she encouraged Kim to “study, study and marry a good man.”
But making her way far from home was challenging. Before Korean markets and restaurants caught on in America, it was hard to find the tastes of home.
“You want to eat mama’s food,” but it’s not available, she said. “So, you remember your taste buds.”
Gathering as many Korean ingredients as she could, Kim said she experimented until the right tastes emerged. And through Kal-bee she provided that cultural touchstone for others.
But she did more than feed Korean expatriates and speak to them in their first language, Chon said. She took special interest in their welfare.
As she prepared this month to move to San Francisco for a job at Google, Chon said it was the support of Kim and Grace through tough times that helped her succeed.
When Chon’s cousin came to Tech to study and fell seriously ill, Kim heard about it and cooked for her as she recovered.
“At that point, I’m not sure why she was doing that,” Chon said. “We have no relationship. I’m just one student who doesn’t have a rich family. There’s nothing I can do for her at that moment.
“But she always gives love without expectations,” Chon added.
They grew closer when Chon graduated in 2016 with a computer science bachelor’s degree, but got no job offers. While her American counterparts went to work quickly, Chon said employers were leery of visa hassles caused when the Trump administration tightened immigration restrictions.
Without an income, Chon said she faced giving up her dream of living and working in the U.S.
But Kim and Grace stepped in.
“She let me help her at the restaurant, and she supported me,” Chon said. “And then she gave me a lot of other advice.”
In 2017, Chon was accepted to a Tech computer science graduate program and got a fellowship that defrayed some expenses. When she graduated from it in May with a job offer in hand, Kim and Grace were there to celebrate.
“They are my true mentors,” Chon said.
And she is not the only one. Grace said that over the years his wife has offered guidance and support to several young people in the community, giving them jobs at the restaurant and encouraging them to go to college.
“I can see potential,” Kim said.
And she sees it in Cody Journell.
Originally from Pearisburg, Journell, 28, had his first experiences at Kal-bee as a little kid on a bike sent to fetch lunch for his mom, a CPA who worked near the restaurant.
“It’s kind of funny how things come full circle sometimes,” he said. “I’ve known about that place and Connie and Bob since I can remember.”
Journell, who works as a real estate agent, said he was driving by Kal-bee recently when he saw a “for sale” sign in front. So he went in to talk to Kim and Grace about listing the property for them.
But the more they talked, Journell said the more he started to think about a long-time ambition. For several years he and family friend Chad Brodkin had talked about opening a restaurant and music venue in Giles. Brodkin is a chef who’s cooked at the Inn at Virginia Tech and Mountain Lake.
“It’s really surprising how much … musical talent comes out of our area,” Journell said. But, apart from The Palisades Restaurant in Eggleston there aren’t many venues for musicians and audiences here, he said.
Journell said he and Brodkin hope to open Bluegrass BBQ in the old Kal-bee location before football season. The food will feature Brodkin’s take on barbecue with Appalachian influences.
A former Hokie placekicker with a Virginia Tech business management degree, Journell said he will focus on marketing and administration, as well as booking bands.
Like Kim before him, Journell has struggled to find financial backing for his restaurant. Journell and his partners — organized under the business name The Barbecue Men LLC — weren’t able to raise the $200,000 Kim was asking for the restaurant and equipment.
So Kim struck a deal with him. In exchange for a down payment, she would let him rent to own the building over the next two years.
“I want to give him a chance,” Kim said. “I know how difficult the very beginning was. If I don’t have him,” she said, gesturing at her husband, “no way I can make it.”
‘I trust you’
Grace and Kim moved to the area in 1996 after he retired from the Army. He went to work teaching high school just over the border in West Virginia, and she decided to pursue her dream of opening a restaurant.
Kim said she took jobs at several chain eateries in and around Christiansburg to learn the business. Then she found an affordable location at the old Pembroke post office on Snidow Street in 1999. But converting it to a restaurant would take a lot of work and cash.
Again and again, banks turned her down, she said. She did eventually get a loan, but it was not enough to hire a contractor. At the end of their work days, the couple would meet in Pembroke to do the construction themselves.
They put $177,000 and 14 months of labor into the building, according to The Roanoke Times archive. It was Grace’s salary and military pension that kept them going, Kim said.
They opened Kal-bee in 2003. Things still were not easy. Kim said she hired too many employees at first. Eventually she had to let several go. She decided to focus on Southern comfort food to appeal to locals.
“Little Cracker Barrel, that’s what they called me,” she said — after the famous country cooking restaurant chain.
But business wasn’t good.
“I was really struggling,” Kim said. “Our savings is all gone. Wintertime, I have no customers.”
To keep busy, she knitted baby blankets and scarves and gave them away to people who came in to eat. One day, a customer asked why a Korean cook at a restaurant named for a popular Korean beef dish (Kal-bee means “rib”) wasn’t offering Korean food.
So, Kim ran a special, bul-go-gee. The Korean stir fry dish caught on. If an American dish didn’t sell well, Kim said she replaced it with a Korean one. Her clientele grew. By the time she closed her doors last month, only one American meal remained on the menu: shrimp scampi.
Kim said remembering those hard times made her want to help Journell.
“I told him, ‘You’re ambitious,’ ” she said. “ ‘Bank no trust you, but I trust you. Better do a good job.’ ”
Journell also knows about struggling for a dream. The Giles County High School standout always wanted to play for the NFL, and stepped onto that path when he joined the Hokies as a redshirt freshman in 2009.
But in 2011, he was arrested with two other Blacksburg men for breaking into the home of a Hokie basketball player. All were charged with felonies, and Journell was suspended from the football team. But eventually his charge was reduced to misdemeanor trespassing, and he said Coach Frank Beamer welcomed him back to the squad.
Things mostly went well until his senior year. Then, in 2013, Beamer dismissed Journell permanently for unspecified violations of team policy. It hurt, and he wasn’t happy about it, Journell said. But he credits Beamer’s tough love for waking him up.
“I don’t make any excuses for anything that happened,” Journell said. “Obviously I got into the drinking and partying scene way more than a Division I athlete and someone who aspires to be a professional someday should have.”
He finished his degree and continued to chase the NFL dream. He got a contract to play football in Germany. Going from being “big man on campus” at Tech to “just another American” in Europe helped him turn a corner, he said.
After that, he returned to the U.S. and worked and trained in Northern Virginia, still hoping to get to the NFL. While he got looks, Journell said eventually he gave it up and came back to the New River Valley. About a year ago, he went into real estate, and now is close to owning his own business. He and his girlfriend are expecting a baby.
“When I finally made the conscious decision to hang up the cleats, and I was going to pursue something else, another dream came along,” he said. “There’s not one thing that you’re destined to do, really.”
“Honestly,” Journell said. “Going through adversity in college and later has given me a level head.”
Kim is banking on that.