Deuki Hong, Founder, The Sunday Hospitality Group
When you meet Deuki, you can instantly see, hear, and feel his sense of humbleness. The then-NY chef took a leap of faith and with little change in his pocket, took on the San Francisco food scene. Though with bumps in the road, Deuki’s candidness with business, personal growth, and the future of food warmed us to his personal ethos. We caught Deuki during a busy lunch rush at his newest open, Sunday At The Museum, for a quick chat about chicken saved his career.
Explain the anthesis of Sunday Hospitality Group. You started with Sunday Bird and then grew into Sunday at the Museum. How, when, where, and why.
It was always a group in my head. It wasn’t about the number of restaurants—I left New York to start Sunday Group and wanted to create the hospitality group. My background started in New York food, majority fine dining, and it wasn’t really going the way I wanted. I learned a lot and worked with some of the best chefs in the game but ultimately, was this what I wanted long term? It was a big risk to leave my network, leave the people I love, everything I know in terms of home. I just trusted Andrew Chau and Bin Chen and they gave me a shot to open a small fried chicken kitchen in the back of their Fillmore Boba Guys location. It was trust on both ends, and with that trust, came a lot of pressure.
You recently posted a lowlight to Instagram explaining how popcorn chicken saved your career. Can you go into that for those who haven’t seen your post?
When you open a restaurant, it comes down to ego vs customer. You can have the best concept in the world but if you have sloppy execution, you’re at the publics mercy. And it did, it started out as that. The guests that were coming in and telling me, “that’s actually not what we want.” For me, I wasn’t listening. I was giving customers the blind eye when it came down to what they wanted ultimately. The biggest things, which I learned from Bin and Andrew, was to listen more. Actively put myself in the customers shoes and seeing what they see. So when I looked at the sales for Sunday Bird, I felt very defeated. March 31st, 2017—I sold 10 chickens in 10 hours. That’s not good when the Boba Guys line is out the door. I won’t ever forget that. But thankfully, having big brothers like Andrew and Bin, steered me in the direction of doing the popcorn chicken (instead of full chickens) and helped give me perspective on what customers crave. It was invaluable.
How do you feel about the Yelp, Instagram, and foodie culture that’s birthed on the Internet.
I find it… challenging and also motivating. When I was starting out in my career, the way you learned about a restaurants food or dishes was either reading about it in books, magazines, or hearing about it from word of mouth. Now we live in an age where Yelp Elites can dissect every movement you make and every breath you take. But I can’t paint them to be horrible people, my cousin Peter Hong (who is my roommate) is a Elite Yelper. I’ve got a Yelper in the family. There are people on all these platforms that enjoy just constructively reviewing restaurants and getting to know our story while there are some Yelpers that have this odd sense of entitlement. That what they say, they actually believe that it matters. Because I know how much it takes to open a restaurant, staff people, pay them, keep them motivated, keep them involved in the brand mission, I couldn’t ever post a 1-star or a 0-star. But that’s me because even if I have AWFUL service, I will still tip 20-25%. The server and chef depend on tips.
If Deuki 5 years ago could talk to Deuki now, what do you think that conversation would sound/look like?
Wow, that is a hard question. The 5-year-ago me was 24 and he was very arrogant. The 24-year-old me would ask, “what are you doing? What happened to this vision, that vision, all of these visions?” It would be a great conversation with the now (29-year-old me) and the 24-year-old me. But I think he would have a hard time listening, in fact, he probably wouldn’t. But he would enjoy the food, I hope…
In your words, is food an art or a science or both? Break it down in your world.
If you ask any good chef, it’s both. You can’t create without the other. The science acts as the nutrient that fuels the body but the art gives the food artistic validation. You could have one or the other but it would be very generic and pretty mass-produced.
You’re a New York boy by birth but the best coast always lures the best. Tell me more.
West coast and east coast are completely different vibes. I’m here for a reason… It’s not the best coast but it’s a great coast. I’m not going to say best but NYC represent. In SF, the city has taught me to go deeper rather than wider when it comes to working with a team. The New York mentality is always about go, go go, next man in, next man out. But the city has so many amazing business owners who are so willing to help you out and willing to share their experiences and tips on industry, such as Farmhouse Kitchen Thai, Big Bad Wolf, to name a few.
What are some positive affirmations or things you say when somedays are just hard to get out of bed. Do you have days like that? If not, why is that?
I want to pay it forward. Andrew and Bin put a lot of faith and trust in me to make something great when I first started out. They also still to this day give me such great advice on how to proceed in this industry. When it comes to my employees, amazing people (like you), I want to offer my person, my network, my resources to help others get closer to their goals in whatever capacity that I can.
I always have had this thing when I think about running kitchens, I’m not sure if it’s entirely negative but I always say “3 things are gonna suck today”, three things are going to go wrong, not go your way, etc, and if only two things go wrong I’m like, “shit… I had a pretty good day today.” I wake up everyday thinking that and being able to manage expectations throughout your day.
// thesundaygrp.com, 1522 Fillmore St, 200 Larkin St.