When New Westminster residents Jong Hun Kim and Hyun Jung Park bought a 350-square-foot sandwich shop on its last legs inside Burnaby's Bridge Business Centre on in 2019, they had almost no clue as to what it would ultimately become.
Growing up in Korea, Park had a lifelong passion for cooking and dream of owning a restaurant. So when the moment came, the husband-wife duo set up shop at the former Cafe Lunch Pia spot and began serving up sandwiches with a Korean spin. The place quickly became a favourite to-go lunch spot for the many employees in the building.
However, for a long time, this mom-and-pop shop remained just a well-guarded secret.
In the couple of years that followed, the sandwiches slowly transitioned to Korean-influenced rice bowls. With the new concept came a brand-new name: Mama’s Rice Bowl, a fan following and a slogan: Happiness in a Bowl.
Word spread of the family-owned restaurant, and soon, visitors were eager to drop by for delicious Korean-style rice bowls, helping the family fulfil their dreams of serving happiness to people in the form of best-sellers like Spicy Chicken bowl and their signature Korean Bibimbap.
“If the customers want something, she (Park) would just give it without extra charge,” said John Sung Jun Kim, the oldest son and manager. “As long as the customers are happy, she will do whatever it takes.”
He added, “They (Kim and Park) want to serve the food to the customers that they eat at home.... They view the customers as a family, so they want the customers to have the best flavours with the best, freshest ingredients.”
Korean heritage and reuniting with the family
The family immigrated to Canada from Korea in 2001. “We had a dream to live in a country where the nature is beautiful and there are lots of outdoor activities,” Kim said.
Park was a homemaker, while Kim was a practicing acupuncturist. Kim continued to work in Korea while Park and her two sons moved to Burnaby, where they established a new life.
Kim reunited with the rest of the family a few years later and helped support Park’s dream of having her own shop, while taking on several part-time jobs as a janitor, before the family eventually moved to New West.
Park said she is happy to be able to share the dishes that she has been cooking her whole life, though she never suspected the food of her heritage would connect with people here. “It is not even Korea…it is a whole different country.”
Seeing the locals enjoy the taste of her heritage has inspired her to keep the business going, even when it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Like many other establishments, Mama’s Rice Bowl had to find its way out of the pandemic darkness.
The hospitality industry faced a slump during the pandemic years, and Mama’s Rice Bowl was no different. During the pandemic, when restaurants and businesses shut down, the small business was facing the risk of closure — but loyal patrons started a GoFundMe fundraiser.
“One day, we received an email from the this building’s manager saying that the customers raised around $1,500 because they want you to stay open," Kim said. "That was really inspiring and heartwarming.”
This loyalty and support from the community kept them going even when the times got tough.
As more people discover their business, the question of expansion has become inevitable. But as much as John Kim would like to see the restaurant expand, he worries that expansion would mean compromising on the quality.
“And this space is not suitable for expansion," he said. "I think we're almost reaching a maximum, because we don't want to overcrowd the lobby and cause discomfort for the people using this building."
He added that it is also important to look after his parents. “It's really hard on the body … and my mom is almost 70 and dad is in his mid-70s, so it's very hard labour. But they love what they do.”
So for now, Mama’s Rice Bowl will continue to serve happiness in a bowl while tucked away inside a business centre.
They are open Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m..