Sunah Park mastered the power lunch long before she joined Thorp, Reed & Armstrong.
“When I started in law I would run into people who were regular customers,” says the restaurant owner/cashier turned corporate litigator. “I’d always say, ‘Remember your friendly neighborhood café? That was me!’”
The friendly neighborhood restaurant was the Sweetbriar Café, a popular lunch spot in the heart of Center City that catered to health-conscious, high-powered lawyers and businesspeople. Park started the café in 1991 with her older sister Jinah, thanks to a loan and some help from their dad, a grocery store owner. The sisters were 22 and 23.
“It was the hardest job I’ve had in my life — it was 24/7,” Park says, noting that even weekends were spent visiting vendors. “It was our place and we wanted it to be the best.”
Jinah, the brains behind Sweetbriar, was wary of her little sister’s interest in the operation.
“[Jinah] said, ‘No, get your own dream,’” Park says with a chuckle, then admits that initially the restaurant was little more than a way for her to pass the time. She had recently graduated from Brown University and had yet to decide on her next step. “So I figured I’d spend some time helping Jinah.”
For the next three years the shy Park “worked like a dog,” running the cash register and keeping the books while her sister did the cooking and maintained creative control. They started out offering build-your-own salads and other healthful lunch items and eventually expanded to “Texas-size” muffins for breakfast and traditional Korean dinner favorites, such as bulgogi, a savory beef dish.
Though the hours were long and the paychecks small, the skills Park learned while working as the “friendly cashier” were invaluable.
“I discovered I really love to talk to people,” she says. “As I dealt with customer issues, I came out of my shell. And it was my first real exposure to professionals. I had never even met a lawyer before the restaurant.”
But the sisters ended up spending too much time with lawyers — their own — when attempting to renegotiate what Park calls “the worst lease in the history of leases.” Their rent was climbing at a much higher rate than the young business could handle. In 1994, the sisters decided to break the lease and close the restaurant.
It was an expensive lesson, but one that wasn’t wasted on Park. “We were always going to our lawyers for little things like permits and it was quite costly,” she says. “I thought, ‘How great would it be to know how to do these things?’”
Park took the LSAT and was accepted to Temple University Law School. Today, the commercial litigator considers it a privilege to represent business owners.
“It is their livelihood and it is important for them to have someone on their side,” Park says. Like the time she helped a friend with a dental practice avoid a problematic lease. “The landlord didn’t want to work with lawyers, didn’t want a lot of stuff in writing. I told [my friend], don’t get blinded by your desire for the property, you have to do what is good for you.”
Park continues to use her people skills as an active member and former president of the Asian American Bar Association in Delaware Valley and as a mentor to her firm’s summer associates. “I meet all of these wonderful lawyers,” she says. “I am always trying to connect people, always networking.”
Her hard work has paid off: She was named a partner in August. She’s feeling very good these days about her decision to jump into law.
“Seriously, how lucky am I to work in a temperature-controlled office with such nice people?” Park says. And on the rare occasion when something does annoy her, her father provides the perfect reality check.
“He’ll say, ‘Do you want to go back to the restaurant?’” she says, laughing. “And I say, ‘Okay! Okay! I’ll stop complaining!’”