Apparently, I shouldn’t have expected any less. Justin and Judy invited me to their home for drinks for the interview, and we sat around their table where they’d hosted countless of old and new friends. It was almost essential to conducting the interview that it be interrupted regularly with Judy and Justin’s insistence on refilling my cup and pushing plates of snacks my way.
Their two-story home is found in the heart of Old Fourth Ward—down the road from Krog Street Market and the MLK, Jr. Memorial—where they live with their corgi-mix, Leo. The house itself is a bridge between generations: the structure had been fortified and the interior redesigned and modernized, but the house still retained a feeling of historicity. Everything about being in their home was a revelation of their character.
Justin and Judy recently married in 2015 and are respectable examples of success in the bustling Atlanta market. Justin is the Director of Marketing at Yik Yak, a location-based social networking app that allows a user to participate in discussion threads with other users in a 5-mile radius, while Judy is a senior strategist at Brighthouse, a global consultancy that helps companies find a deep purpose in their work. The two enthusiastically assured me that they loved their jobs.
Which is why it’s a bit curious that they felt the need or drive to start a new project on top of their careers, especially in an area that neither have known in their professional lives: food. Poké bowls and sushi burritos, to be exact, modern twists on a traditional Japanese dish that professes the counter- and intercultural influences that is so innate in this generation.
The newlyweds are the co-founders of Appa's, a new pop-up at Old Fourth Ward’s Irwin Street Market Cooking School that has taken Atlanta by a tasty storm. Every Sunday for eight weeks during their first season, there was a line that stretched out the door and around the corner that often lasted for the full three hours that they were open. In fact, the line lasted closer to four hours because it formed long before the doors even opened. Once inside, you could see that Justin worked the front of the house with his knack for conversation and addictive laughter, while Judy ran the operations where orders met preparation.
But to understand exactly where their passion—and very closely related, their success—comes from, we have to go directly to the heart of the pop-up, namely, well, the name.
The term “Appa” is a Korean word meaning “dad,” and, specifically, the “appa” here refers to Judy’s father, with whom she admitted she has had a rocky relationship. Even for her wedding, she conceded, the invitation she’d extended hadn’t been particularly inviting. But when he came, she told me with a reminiscent smile that it had been beautiful. There had been a reconciliation there that had been so moving that her father decided to move down to Atlanta from New Jersey to start a new life. Though biologically related, the hiatus they had had in their relationship caused them to meet each other again in very different parts of their lives, and they found commonality and kinship in each other's passion, food and the sharing of it.
You see, a strained subject in Judy’s past is that her family had been in the sushi restaurant business before when she had been much younger, and it had apparently been a source of frustration and stress in the family. At the center of it had been her dad, the main chef and owner of the establishment, and so any and all problems that had risen orbited him.
But Justin and Judy looked at each other before they turned to me and said with a set resolve, “Now we know what we’re doing it for.”
When asked about the reason for it all—the inspiration, the vision, the goals, the future, everything—it had all been a single word: family. When it came to making any decisions, the first thing they asked themselves was whether or not it would bring the family closer together.
Long before the doors to Appa’s opened, Judy was doing her best to inspire her father with new ideas for serving sushi in a bowl. In the meantime, Justin was in California, trying a sushi burrito for the first time. He brought the idea back with him, and the two convinced her father to attempt a food lab (“On this table here,” Judy told me, definitively tapping the table we were sitting around with an open palm) in their home, just a fun night for the family to enjoy a new way of cooking and eating. Along the way, their cousins brought along their talent in photography, and they took pictures of the food. This led Judy and Justin—tech savvy, inventive, and driven in their own professions—to create a website in a matter of fifteen minutes, and almost immediately, they received a strong response from their social tribe.
And it’s truly a remarkable thing to have such capable role players in such an organic manner as a family, brought on by a passion that so naturally flowed out of their time spent together as one. And this type of love for one another and for something together is what is undoubtedly the recipe to their success.
Justin and Judy are not first-generation Koreans, and they rather identity as one-and-a-half or second generation Koreans. This means, in their words, that they can neither identify as fully Korean nor American. They told me, however, that they identify firstly with the Korean culture before they do to the American one, and by calling the pop-up “Appa’s” they were hoping to honor Judy’s father in the way they envisioned it bridging their generations.
When asked why it was a Korean transliteration with a very American apostrophe followed by an S, they felt that it couldn’t have been any other word because it was simply endearing for the way they both called their fathers “appa” as they grew up. It would have been quite foreign of them to call their fathers anything else—not “dad,” “pops,” nor “father”—and so they felt that they had to stay true to themselves in this way. The “apostrophe s” that often denotes a person’s place or possession was so that the vernacular could be more recognizable to the wider audience, that this was definitely because, for, and from appa.
This project, pop up, whatever one would call it, was innately born out of a relationship because, without one to utter it and believe in it, appa would simply not be appa—he’d just be a man.
By working together, the family achieved an intergenerational bridge that is rarely found. It was almost by surprise that Justin and Judy realized that start-ups—a term made popular in the millennial generation connoting an entrepreneurial spirit and venture that deviates away from traditional career paths—were simply not a new concept; previous generations have been starting businesses for years. However, what couldn’t be denied was that the way that start-ups were done has now completely been revolutionized. And it’s in between these two realities that we find Justin and Judy’s family, reconciling generational gaps and compromising and improving ideas.
When Justin and Judy suggested that they only accept credit cards so that they didn’t have to deal with cash, Judy’s mother raised strong objections to it: how could a restaurant not accept cash? It was almost blasphemous. Along Buford Highway in Doraville where many of the previous generation’s Asian restaurants are located, some establishments accept only cash. It was unheard of in a restaurant business model to forsake it. And yet, Justin and Judy assured and enlightened her that it would be okay. And it was. Most young people carried cards and transferred funds through phone apps.
Her parents also insisted that they advertise in newspapers and radios—the traditional methods. All they had witnessed in the weeks before their grand opening was their daughter and son-in-law typing away at a computer, seemingly, well, doing nothing. What they didn’t and couldn’t know was that their event for the grand opening of the pop-up had been viewed over 100,000 times online. The relatively young Judy and Justin showed them just how much the world had changed in terms of marketing.
In turn, Judy’s parents showed just how far passion, creativity, and experience could go. Her father’s 19 years of experience running a restaurant afforded priceless and sagacious adages that really cemented his role as, well, appa. He taught them the notion of doing better at the end rather than simply beginning with gusto—those who had been waiting longer had a higher threshold for quality, did they not?
And having a shared loved and project brought out the best in each of them. Working for a family that loved what you loved conjured a much different set of motivations than, say, working for a franchise.
It must have been a very distinct and swelling emotion to be able to provide the very skills to tackle the obstacles that they faced together. Justin and his extensive background in marketing brought perhaps a few too many people to their doors. He spent countless hours just on the music playlist in order to create the right atmosphere. He created a simple and easy to navigate menu to streamline the ordering process. Judy, on the other hand, managed the operations in only the way she knew how. Her talents were regarded and in every bit trusted by all members of the team, and thus she was able to act with confidence, maybe even in a bit of defiance to the bumps along the way. Her mother provided the care and affection to the preparation and plating as only a mother could. And behind the counter in the kitchen was a dancing appa, whose rhythm as he cooked was invariably passed onto everyone around him.
All in all, however, the family acted, decided, and created in a collaborative storm. No single individual could claim that they knew best; it was simply not how a family acted. As remarkable as it is that every member of the team brought a certain expertise to the table, what's truly enlightening is that they collaborate in a way only a family can, staying both involved and humble in the realization of their passion.
They couldn’t tell me what they thought to do next. Everyone, from friends to acquaintances to strangers leaving reviews on various social platforms, begged for them to open a brick-and-mortar. And for a bit, they wondered if it was an obligation of theirs to give their consumers what they wanted. Their enthusiasm, in short, had turned to pressure.
But they asked themselves what they’d been asking the whole time, a question that had turned them into the success they are now: is it good for the family? And ultimately, they decided to keep it the way it was because it was, in fact, fun. No other model could allow them to experiment with food, stay simple, and make it about passion rather than profit.
A seasonal pop-up was ideal for them because, by redefining success, they redefined failure, and so what was a doubtless next step in the past—an actual restaurant—no longer applied. They kept it family-centered, rather than consumer-centered, and they found that this was what served their customers best. Judy told me laughing that before every pop-up, they would come together and huddle in a circle to chant “Fighting!” a Korean cheer to rouse the spirits before a big event.
And what told me that everything they were telling me was true was simply the way Judy and Justin were telling me their story. I wondered if any parts were fabricated for the sake of the story, or if it was all as authentic as I hoped it would be, because it was one of those things that you stumble across that you wish will last without ever losing its sincerity. But there was a remarkable and silent story that unfolded even as they were telling me theirs during the interview, and it was a much more subtle one than the one they were weaving.
When we had started the interview, I had sat on one side of the table, Judy to my left, and Justin across from me. Over the course of the interview that had lasted a little longer than an hour, during which they told me about their family and their own relationship, they slowly began to gravitate towards their shared corner. Their initial posture had been casually professional for the interview, but it fell away to something romantic and real. Whereas they had sat apart to be interviewed, they ended with their arms intertwined, Judy’s hand resting on Justin’s.
It showed me that real love—one where you find reconciliation, work for a common passion, praise one another, promise to do better, and seek out the ways to do so—can do nothing but grow.
Atlanta is blessed to have this earnest and hardworking family nestled within it.
All photos are the creative property of www.uni-ko.co