The story behind Ann Kim's fabulous viral 'fuck fear' tweet

Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

Ann Kim was just settling in for bed Tuesday night after another long day.

Almost every day is a long one now for Kim. But she likes this version of her life better than the one she had before. And much better than the one she almost had.

For reasons beyond her, Kim's mind drifted back to the days when she was a successful but unfulfilled Twin Cities stage actress, and working for the Hennepin Theatre Trust. What she really wanted, she had started telling people back around 2008, was to open a restaurant. 

Everyone tried talking her out of it. They had a point: Kim had never cooked professionally, never even worked in a restaurant, and was not a business owner. And didn't she know how many restaurants go under right away?

They talked Kim out of chasing her dream. But she wouldn't give up altogether, and shifted her sights downward, toward something safer: She and her then-boyfriend Conrad Leifur started hunting for a chain restaurant they could franchise.

They learned that a Jimmy John's in suburban Cottage Grove was for sale. That, Kim reasoned, would be a good way to "test out the waters" in the restaurant business.

She and Leifur would run the day-to-day operations, but the logistics, the recipes, and the reputation would all be handled by Jimmy John's, whose sandwiches Kim happened to like. ("This was before I knew about how the CEO likes to hunt big game animals," Kim says now.) They got a copy of the franchising contract from the company, and Kim's brother-in-law connected her with an attorney who works with restaurant owners.

Kim met the lawyer at a Starbuck's. Instead of just reading the paperwork's fine print, the attorney asked Kim what she envisioned for herself. As she tried answering, Kim found that she was talking less and less about running a sandwich chain shop, and more and more about the "great neighborhood pizzeria" she'd dreamed about.

Kim did not expect the attorney's reply.

"I would like to get your business, and make some money," he told Kim, as she recalls. "But I don't think it's right. My advice to you is not to open this [Jimmy John's]."

The attorney told Kim she should instead start her own restaurant. Kim was taken aback. This guy who didn't even know her was giving her advice on a major decision in her career, her life.

She was also pretty sure he was right. Within weeks, she and Leifur (whom she later married) were on the market for a space to open a restaurant. Kim's vision was clear: A pizza joint that paid attention to the dough, and tasted like the stuff she'd eaten when she lived in New York. No pasta, no burgers, no deep-frier. Some vegetables, a few salads, soft serve ice cream and cookies for dessert. 

Eventually, they found their location in southwest Minneapolis, just off the border of Edina. At that time, with the recession still very much in effect, banks weren't handing out loans to first-time restaurateurs. So they maxed out credit cards and whittled down their savings, making a big bet on good pizza, and on themselves. Pizzeria Lola opened in November 2010

People showed up, and crowds grew by word of mouth and good write-ups in local press. Then Guy Fieri's Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives filmed an episode there. On the first day of lunch service after the show aired, people lined up outside Lola waiting for the doors to open.

Two years later Kim and Leifur opened Hello Pizza in Edina. Last November they embarked on their most ambitious project yet, the cavernous Young Joni (and its stylish little "back bar" down the alley') in northeast Minneapolis. Overnight, the restaurant was heralded as one of the city's best new restaurants in years. In February, Kim was named a semifinalist for the prestigious James Beard awards.

Kim and Leifur employ 170 people now, and feed thousands of Twin Cities diners every week. Couples that took their babies into the photo booth at Lola when it opened are coming back to take pictures with seven-year-olds. 

It was all of this, this whirlwind that's changed Kim's life and the lives of many others, that was on her mind on Tuesday night. Kim felt compelled to do something she doesn't do that often. She wrote a tweet.

She was initially shocked by the outpouring of reaction.

"I tweet, like, five times a month," she says. "And I'll get an average of maybe two 'likes.' Twitter to me, is the one social network I don't think I understand." 

Regardless, this tweet took on a life of its own, eventually popping up on the Reddit's r/GetMotivated thread, where hundreds of people have commented. Kim admits she doesn't even know what Reddit is.  (She pronounced it "Reed-it.")  But despite her surprise, she thinks she gets why this message resonated with so many people.

"Unfortunately, a lot of our decisions we make in life are based in fear," she says. "I think the story’s resonating because a lot of people look at the choices they’re making. And they're looking for courage to break out, and do something goddamn authentic."

If they find that courage in Kim's success story, she's all for it. 

What would Kim's life be like if she'd ignored the lawyer's advice, or met with someone else, and opened a Jimmy John's in Cottage Grove? She's never even considered the possibility, but suspects she would've hated it. And then done something different. 

"You can always change your path," Kim says. "I'm an immigrant, my parents moved to this country in 1977. They came here because you can make choices, and change paths, and my parents didn’t think they could [in Korea]. I've been given this opportunity, and I'm going to take it, and I'll be damned if I'm going to let fear get in my way.

"If you don’t like your path, then change it. I've reinvented myself multiple times now. Who knows? Ten years from now, I might do it again."

And best of luck if she does, not that the unstoppable Ann Kim needs it.

Just one thing though, Ann, if you do decide to take another risk? For our sake? Keep the restaurants open.