"Best Hamburger in Utah," says the sign above the entrance to Bell's Deli in Taylorsville. Inside, you'll find Phyllis Kim, trying to keep up with the lunch rush as she puts on her daily one-woman show behind the grill.
Phyllis takes the orders, runs the cash register, carries food to her customers and buses their tables, nine hours a day, six days a week. Ever since she bought an old mom-and-pop store on 4800 South and converted it into a restaurant 20 years ago, people have come from all corners of the state to try her hand-cut fries and signature burgers heaped with bacon, pastrami, mushrooms and jalapenos.
Except for her regulars, most customers are unaware of the story behind the woman who greets everyone with a cheerful smile and fusses over their hamburgers as though she were cooking up a tender batch of Chateaubriand.
At the suggestion of one of her friends, I recently dropped by for a Free Lunch chat with Phyllis while she geared up for the lunch crowd. Originally from South Korea, she laughs when asked how she ended up grilling hamburgers in Utah.
"That's what I'd like to know," she says. "It's a question I ask myself all the time."
Now 53, Phyllis was 24 when she came to the United States against her parents' wishes to attend the University of California at Northridge. "My family was from an old-fashioned culture — they thought I should stay in Korea and get married," she says. "But that wasn't for me. Going to college in America was the only way I could get out of the house."
When she dropped out of school to marry a student from Thailand, her parents were so hurt, they refused to speak to her for years.
"I had brought shame to the family," says Phyllis. She and her husband moved to Salt Lake City to buy a Denny's restaurant with friends and Phyllis slowly began developing her cooking skills. But the partnership and the marriage failed at the same time, leaving her with no income and two young children to raise.
After she spotted a "for sale" sign on a run-down market with an attached apartment in Taylorsville, she knew it was the answer to her dilemma. For years, she put in long hours to pay the bills and save a little extra to send her kids to college. It paid off: Jennifer, 23, plans to become a lawyer, while Porntepp, 21, will soon be going to medical school.
It hasn't been easy, running a restaurant with no money for advertising and no employees. When things get too hectic, Phyllis' regular customers chip in to run the register and deliver orders.
"We're all very loyal," says Kim Swain, who has become a close friend. "Once you're Phyllis' customer, you're a customer for life."
"I couldn't do it without their help," says Phyllis, who puts on a traditional Korean feast every year for her regulars in thanks. "These people have become my family. They're the reason I've never given up all these years."
One reason her customers won't let her quit is they've become addicted to her saucer-sized "killer cookies." Phyllis spent years perfecting the cookies, throwing out several hundred dozen before she felt they were good enough to list on the menu. When asked what's in her recipe, she smiles.
"Sorry, I can't tell you. It's an ancient Chinese secret," she says
Have a story? Let's hear it over lunch. E-mail your name, phone number and what you'd like to talk about to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also write me at the Deseret Morning News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, UT 84110.