You are investing in a bear market.
A once-successful Wall Street restaurateur whose business has been hit by the pandemic is cashing in on an unlikely second career: sewing unique souvenir bears for families across the country.
Jin Kim, 64, spent his first 30 years in New York City serving rice and raw fish delicacies to sushi power brokers Niko Niko.
But after seeing her beloved restaurant close twice, first due to Superstorm Sandy at 80 Wall Street, then due to COVID after moving to nearby John Street, the mother of two turned to her sewing machine and went back to work.
She now creates about 150 memory bears a week through her thriving Etsy store, turning fabrics like blood-soaked clothing and baby blankets into beautiful custom bears, quilts and pillows, primarily for grieving clients.
“Just as clothes mean a lot to the person, they mean a lot to us when they are sent to [us]“Kim told The Post from her newly acquired studio in Palisades Park, New Jersey.
“Clothes contain a story and a memory, so it’s meaningful that people send them to us and trust us with that garment and trust us with the creative process of making a bear or a quilt.”
After launching JinsBearsLLC on Etsy, Kim was inundated with orders for her cute creations from customers looking to commemorate loved ones in sentimental style.
The bears are made from materials such as old shirts, T-shirts, uniforms and favorite sports jerseys of deceased relatives, but sometimes people send blood-spattered clothing that was cut up by medical teams.
Once, a mother whose baby had died sent Kim a blanket.
“Mommy sent me [the blanket] “Make a keepsake bear,” said Kim, who said the heartbroken mother later sent her photos of her late baby and the bear. “How sad, my heart broke.”
Initially, Kim began sewing mini bears for sale and later expanded to 12- and 15-inch creations.
“People were sending T-shirts and saying, ‘Hey, this is like my son’s T-shirt that he always used to wear.’ It’s not here anymore, but I would love to make it as a souvenir bear,’” explained Grace Kim, Kim’s 26-year-old daughter and business partner.
Jin immigrated to the United States from South Korea with her husband and 2-year-old son in 1991, settling in New Jersey. After working menial jobs and saving for two years, they made their first foray into the food business and opened a delicatessen near Madison Square Garden.
The Kims eventually sold the deli to finance their first restaurant project, which was unsuccessful and drained their bank accounts.
Jin, who also speaks Japanese after studying abroad at a young age, returned to work full-time at a Japanese food supply company.
She and a colleague partnered to launch a sushi shop called Niko Niko in Secaucus, New Jersey. Its enormous success prompted them to dream even bigger and open another Niko Niko on Wall Street in 2000.
The soft-spoken but brave entrepreneur spent decades waking up at 4:30 a.m. to make the commute from her Fort Lee home to the Manhattan restaurant.
“I was a very hard worker. Almost 30 years in the restaurant business, [they] They were actually very difficult for me,” he said. “Thirty years of very, very hard work.”
Niko Niko suffered catastrophic flooding during Superstorm Sandy in 2012, which also coincided with the end of the lease. So Jin and his team packed up and moved a few blocks away, to 133 John Street, until COVID forced the city (and his business) to shut down completely.
“All the companies closed. All the buildings were black, without light,” Jin recalled. “There’s no business. The deli next door closed. So we finally decided not to do business, no more business.”
The pandemic brought a period of respite for Jin and a new creative vein. He sewed his first teddy as a surprise Christmas gift for his grandson, Lukas, who was 3 years old at the time.
“I don’t want to buy anything, like toys, that doesn’t have any meaning,” Jin said. “So I planned to do something for Lukas as a secret.
“My daughter and Lukas’ mother see [it] and say, ‘Did you make it?! ‘Did you really do it?!’ Yes, I made it,” Jin said with a smile.
The couple urged her to open an online store to sell their handmade souvenirs, but Jin wasn’t so convinced, until they posted a photo of Lukas’ bear on Instagram, and their first real orders started coming in.
“My best friend [Liz] I actually bought one of the bears,” Grace said. “She was like, ‘Oh my god, it’s so cute, here’s some money,’ and then she was like, ‘My boyfriend wants one,’ so now they have matching mini bears. Liz and I really put pressure on my mom: ‘You should sell them, they would really be a hit.’”
JinsBearsLLC launched in 2021 from Jin’s bedroom, then spilled over into her living room, then her basement before she and Grace got a studio in October. They also hired four employees to meet demand.
“That used to be my room, the basement, but I moved out because the bears were taking over!” Grace said. “That’s when I think I realized we were right. “It was about paying the bills, paying the employees.”
Jin has made nearly 7,000 sales on Etsy and has amassed over 3,000 five-star reviews. Her page features personalized pillows made from ties, beautiful fabric bears with bow ties and vests, and colorful keepsake heart decorations.
Keeping memories alive
One of Jin’s clients, Julia Goodyke, was surprised by her daughter with a special teddy bear in honor of her late brother Mark, who died of colon cancer in 2022.
“I was surprised because I knew I had bought one for my mom. And little did I know, boom. She got me,” Goodyke told The Post. “It’s funny because she’s wearing a Chicago Bears jersey.”
“As soon as I go down the stairs every day, I see that [the bear] and his photo that we used for the funeral. He was one in a million.”
The magnitude of the precious memory does not go unnoticed by Jin.
“This is very sincere,” he said. “When I touch the clothes I think about the person who died, about that person’s life.
“That’s why it’s [not just about] the business but [it’s] very meaningful to me. Fulfilling”.