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Jimmy Oh mixes it up
By Robyn Grange

 

The old adage, “One success leads to another,” is proving true for chef and restaurateur Jimmy Oh. As owner of Bentoh’s and Jimmy Oh’s restaurants, he distinguishes himself as one of few owner/chefs in Springfield. By successfully operating his restaurants in the past eight years, he also has beaten the odds that suggest 26 percent of restaurants in Illinois fail in the first year. During that time, he has developed a loyal customer base that has been steady business in spite of the economy. 

Since 2002, Bentoh’s has offered downtown Springfield a tasty lunch menu that includes fresh sushi, salads with homemade Asian vinaigrette, spring rolls and Japanese bentos, which, like in Japan, are a boxed lunch of rice, fish or meat and vegetables. 

“Bentoh’s is just a lunch place. It offers just simple, fresh ingredients, and you’re in and out,” Oh said. This simple approach to food, prepared in an open kitchen in a restaurant of only 500 square feet, resonates with employees of downtown businesses and state legislators alike. 

The most famous Bentoh’s “regular” is President Obama. 

“Barack gets chicken bento with brown rice,” said Kelly Boettcher, general manager and Oh’s most senior employee. As a state legislator, President Obama frequented the bistro and continued his visits as a U.S. senator. 

“Whenever he would come into town, he would call immediately when they landed, and he would say, ‘Hey, I need four of this and five of this,’” Oh said. “He would send us pictures (from the U.S. Capitol steps) where he said, ‘I love Bentoh’s,’ ‘I miss Bentoh’s.’”

Obama’s love for Oh’s food led to Oh cooking for the Obama family, VIPs and press corps when they were in Springfield to announce his run for president and his selection of then-Sen. Joseph Biden as his vice-presidential running mate.

It was even rumored that Obama would visit Jimmy Oh’s as president in February 2009, when he was in town for dinner celebrating Lincoln’s 200th birthday. 

“There were a lot of rumors that he was coming to this restaurant to eat that night,” Oh said. “We were ready for him if he decided to come, but that never materialized. That was during the financial crisis. He had better things to do.”

The popularity of Bentoh’s has provided a reliable customer base for Jimmy Oh’s, but according to Boettcher, there’s opportunity to grow. 

“Downtown, the people we get are regulars. We’ve already built our name and built our business out there. Here, there are still people that don’t know about us,” Boettcher said. Jimmy Oh’s opened in 2008.

Located on Springfield’s west side, this restaurant provides its visitors with Euro-Asian cuisine similar to that served at Bentoh’s, but that’s where the similarities end. 

“Down at Bentoh’s, it’s just an in-and-out type of deal. Here, what we’re trying to do is invite the customer to come in, sit down and have an experience,” Oh said. 

In addition, Jimmy Oh’s has more menu items, including several upscale dishes. The restaurant is much larger and includes a general dining area, a bar and a banquet area reserved for parties and receptions. This reception space supports his robust catering business, which began at Bentoh’s. 

“We get a lot of catering requests outside of the restaurant, like weddings, wedding rehearsal dinners and graduations,” Boettcher said. 

To enjoy the experience at Jimmy Oh’s, a customer does not have to pay extraordinary amounts. In fact, many of the dishes are priced similarly to those served at some of the moderately priced chain restaurants. 

“In Springfield, you have to worry about the price,” he said. “We don’t want to price ourselves to where people will only come for special occasions. We want this to be a place you come once or twice a month.” 

Oh’s success in the restaurant business is not a fluke but a culmination of his life experience, which began by cooking with his mom as a boy. 

“I’ve been cooking my whole life. Even when I was younger, we used to have sleepovers and I would make dinner for everyone. I’ve always done that,” Oh said. His culinary experience continued with on-the-job training alongside some of the country’s top chefs in their kitchens. 

As a Springfield native with an economics degree from Northwestern University, he has a strong understanding of how Jimmy Oh’s must function in this market. 

“There’s one set pie here in Springfield, and everyone is trying to get a bigger piece of that pie,” Oh said. However, rather than worrying about the competition, his approach is to focus on the nation’s food trends.

“Obviously we’re in the business to make money. But our business model has changed because this market isn’t one where people will regularly go out and spend $25, $28, $30 a plate per person,” Oh said.

Not unlike other business owners, Oh faces challenges with finding ambitious and loyal staff. Although describing himself as obsessive, Boettcher and Doug McCowan, Oh’s bartender, have been with him six years and three years respectively. They have embraced his philosophy of “providing consistency with food preparation and maintaining the type of quality that people are expecting.” McCowan said, “He keeps you on your toes. You don’t get too lax.”

During the years, some of Oh’s serving staff have not always been as committed. 

“We’ve gone through many employees, weeding them out, just trying to find people you can trust. It’s been a headache,” he said. For Oh, most of his employee challenges are behind him with the team he’s got now. He puts them in positions of responsibility and lets them make decisions on their own while restraining himself from micromanaging because, admittedly, he can’t be everywhere at once.

The tremendous responsibility of owning and operating two restaurants doesn’t leave Oh much family time. Yet, he makes time to be with Cindy Oh, his wife and co-owner, and their four children, the oldest of whom is 14 years old. He also spends quality time mentoring boys as the general manager for a basketball team he started a year ago. His team, the AI9 Elite, named after Andre Iguodala, NBA player with the Philadelphia 76ers and a Springfield native who agreed to lend his name to the team. 

Last year, Oh reached out to Cortland Walton, coach of the talented Boys & Girls Club team, and suggested his sponsorship. “This team was by far the most athletic, most talented team in town, but none of them had played on an all-star team because they couldn’t afford it. So I said, ‘Hey, how about if I sponsor the team for the year and I’ll take the economic factor out of the whole deal,’” said Oh. They went on to win the 2009 Illinois Amateur Athletic Union’s basketball championship. This year, they participated in 11 tournaments, winning nine of them. 

Developing a competitive basketball team is just one of their goals. Most of the boys come from single-family, low-income homes on Springfield’s east side and see basketball as a way to reach their goals of success. 

“They fail to realize the importance of education. If they don’t have the grades in high school, they are going to be ineligible to play,” Oh said. 

“If they’re ineligible in high school, there’s no way they’re going to get to the next level, in college. Our goal is to see that all these kids get a college education paid for by playing in Division I or Division II in college.” To support this effort, mentoring and tutoring are available Monday-Thursday for all the boys who need it. In addition, the boys are required to do community service. Oh’s passion and commitment to the AI9 Elite is one shared with his 10-year-old son, Michael, who plays on the team.

Oh’s culinary talent, business acumen and presidential connections were, at one time, rumored to be leading to a job as the White House executive chef. 

Oh explained that the “job offer” was only extended as a joke between friends. 

“The only truth to that is the night before his announcement, we were sitting on a couch in the hotel room reminiscing. I said, ‘When you become president, I’m going to come cook for you at the White House.’ He said, ‘Hey, when I become president, you’ve got a job at the White House.’” 

This lifelong Springfield resident does not have plans to go anywhere. 

“Springfield is just a great place to raise children. We love it.”

 

Story published Friday, May 7, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 2 )

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