Ask anybody and they’ll tell you: we have great food in Austin.
Even if you don’t count the James Beard Award-winning spots or the digs featured on popular television series', residents know they can get a mouthwatering morsel at hundreds of high-quality places that pepper our city.
And yet, restaurants close — often. Last year alone, more than 90 food trucks, restaurants, and bars shuttered in ATX, including local favorites like Abel’s On the Lake, Nau’s Enfield, and Thunderbird Coffee.
Sue Kim-Drohomyrecky and Katie Kim want to do something about that.
The sisters-in-law and business partners launched their newest endeavor, a culinary incubator called Playground ATX, late last year. We spoke with them about their curious journey to the colorful Airport Boulevard restaurant, and how they aim to build community through what they love best: good food.
“I remembered how it made you feel”
Although they share a mission, the two sisters come to the project from very different backgrounds. As Katie will tell you, she wasn’t a cook. In fact, for a time she didn’t even own cooking utensils — or salt.
In contrast, Chicago-raised Sue began checking cookbooks out of the library at age eight. Although she never wanted to work in restaurants — she thought maybe she’d be a doctor, or play piano at Juilliard — after getting a job as a hostess at 19, she was hooked.
“I just loved all the theater of it,” she said. “I remembered how it made you feel and what great food is.”
In the early 2000s, Sue opened James Beard-nominated Spring in Chicago, her first restaurant of many. Katie took a different path, diving into the world of emerging tech and data analytics. In their respective careers, both women noticed one thing: how difficult it was for people with good ideas and talent to succeed.
“There’s so much more for me to do”
Cut to March 4, 2020. Sue flew to the Capital City for a new project she was working on launching: Aba Austin.
She recalls standing in the space on Music Lane — under the enormous, beautiful oak tree in the middle of the patio — when all of the phones around her began going off at once. “We all know what happened next.”
Amid the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sue stuck around in Austin, and she got Aba open.
“It was a very challenging, very challenging year,” she said. “It [gave me] time to reflect, and I decided, ‘You know what, I want to stay in Austin.’”
Katie’s family also moved to ATX, and over the course of the next few years, the two of them began exploring their new city. Sue fell in love with food at places like LeRoy and Lewis, Cosmic Coffee, Justine’s, Suerte, and the cogs began to turn.
“I realized there’s so much more for me to do,” Sue said.
Over a couple of bottles of wine on the back patio, Sue and Katie talked about their next steps. They struck up an idea.
“Experiences worth having”
There is a goddess in Greek mythology who represents all things fortune. Tyche is the bearer of great success, luck, and prosperity, as well as the great strain often required to obtain it. She also signifies a much larger fate: the wellbeing of a community.
Sue and Katie feel drawn to Tyche.
“We’re mothers, we’re wives, we’re sisters, we’re women,” Sue said. “We are nurturers.”
Those elements, plus a personal mission to support female businesses, are key to the duo’s newest project: the Tykhe Group.
This new hospitality group centers on curating experiences worth having, Sue said, allowing restaurant workers to have fulfilling lives, follow their dreams, and build community. What better way to launch this group, the sisters-in-law realized, than with the culinary incubator that is Playground ATX?
The vision, Katie said, is to help small businesses reach a place of stability while maintaining their agency. Prior to opening their concepts in Playground, the “headliners” go through a business school-type boot camp, covering everything from building a menu and branding to strategy and profitability.
“We’re in essence providing the C suite and operations,” Katie said, “and guiding them to really help see if this dream can be a reality.”
Already well-known in Austin for their now-closed food truck Fil N’ Viet, Kevin and Rosie Truong seemed like obvious choices to become Playground’s first headliners.
“I respected them. I thought they were very, very good,” Sue said. “They just were very passionate and kind.”
East Meets Wings currently serves up chicken with flavors inspired by Indonesia, India, Thailand, China, Japan, Phillippines, and Vietnam. Their residency at Playground is expected to end in late spring, and what the restaurant’s next life will look like is yet to be determined.
Meanwhile, Sue and Katie is already working on their next headliner, with a menu in place and an announcement to come.
But they’re not stopping there. Playground also recently launched Mission Mondays, a series bringing in learning opportunities and small businesses from the community to showcase their talents or products. Just in case that wasn’t keeping them busy enough, they also launched a podcast.
For Sue and Katie, that’s what it’s really about — the teaching.
“That’s what we enjoy doing. That’s what our passion is,” Katie said. “Nobody succeeds alone.”