Opening a restaurant was never a particularly easy endeavor. But opening a restaurant during a global pandemic adds an extra level of difficulty. It’s like surfing a monster wave while simultaneously juggling knives. Either activity is challenging enough on its own, but both at the same time?
This past spring, chef/restaurateur Kim Scott opened Poppy by Mama Kim in the new Sutter Park home development in East Sacramento. With decades of experience in the restaurant industry, Scott is no stranger to a challenge. But even she says it’s been an extraordinary experience. “A lot of curveballs” is how she describes it.
Those curveballs include a staffing shortage that forced Scott to open the restaurant as a pop-up on a severely limited schedule. Her beer and wine license didn’t come through in time. Her sous chef was exposed to COVID and had to quarantine for two weeks. The dining tables arrived damaged, and other items were stuck in supply-chain limbo. But, says Scott philosophically, “I’ve been taking curveballs for a long time.”
Raised in Niagara Falls, Scott studied fine art in university, but a stint working in a French restaurant convinced her to enroll in a classical French culinary program. She ended up on the West Coast, working at the Sheraton Plaza in Palm Springs. As the hotel’s garde-manger chef, she prepared cold foods such as salads, along with fussier preparations such as chaud-froid and aspics. There, her fine art background came in handy: Food and ice sculptures were her forte. (She once sculpted an 8-foot-tall dragon out of tallow.)
As a chef and caterer, Scott worked her way up the West Coast, from Palm Springs to Los Angeles to the Bay Area and Tahoe, finally settling in Sacramento. With her business partner, musician Phillip Rayburn, she opened a restaurant called Mama Kim Eats on Del Paso Boulevard. (Rayburn’s R&B musician pals called her “Mama Kim,” and the name stuck.)
Brunch was the hot ticket at Mama Kim Eats, where Scott put a Creole spin on dishes such as King crab eggs Benedict, fried chicken and waffles, and lamb sliders. In 2014, OpenTable named Mama Kim to its list of top 100 brunch places. But Del Paso Boulevard proved unfertile soil for a restaurant, and the restaurant closed in 2018.
East Sacramento promises to be a better location. The neighborhood has gradually morphed into a dining destination, with intriguing new places like Joon Market and Junoon Flavors of India joining established ones such as OneSpeed, Selland’s and Kru. Poppy is welcoming, with approachable food and reasonable pricing. “People are very conscious of their money in the pandemic,” Scott says. “I want this to be a place you can come every day, not a special-occasion place.”
Once she hires enough staff, Scott plans to offer brunch on weekends, along with both lunch and dinner during the week. Her menu relies heavily on seasonal produce from local farms. Summer lasagna may feature grilled eggplant and fresh tomato sauce. Fried chicken, served during winter with mac ’n’ cheese, will come with a lighter side such as apricot freekah salad in the warmer months.
Scott is already brainstorming ways to attract diners when the pandemic is finally in the rearview mirror. She wants to do chef dinners, with long tables set up on the public green space in Sutter Park. She’d like to host wine pourings by local vineyards on Poppy’s patio. She’s already offering catering platters for pickup, and she plans to operate a little market inside the restaurant, selling provisions like baked goods and jarred foods. It remains to be seen exactly what it will take to run a successful food business post-pandemic, but Scott plans to give it her best shot.
Poppy by Mama Kim
533 53rd St. (at Sutter Park)