Nosh Pit

Pair haven’t given up on opening their dream: South restaurant

N’Gina and Ian Kavookjian are preparing to open South, a fried chicken spot and downhome eatery, at the former Cheung Hing Company near Southside Park. The past two years of trying to open have been a saga for the couple, and left them with a bitter taste toward Sacramento being friendly to small business.
N’Gina and Ian Kavookjian are preparing to open South, a fried chicken spot and downhome eatery, at the former Cheung Hing Company near Southside Park. The past two years of trying to open have been a saga for the couple, and left them with a bitter taste toward Sacramento being friendly to small business. Courtesy: Unseen Heroes

The countdown for fried chicken and Southern cooking near the edge of downtown started two years ago. But it’s felt more like a lifetime for N’Gina and Ian Kavookjian, the husband-and-wife team behind the much-anticipated restaurant South.

The eatery’s name refers both to its New Orleans influences and down-home cooking style – think fried green tomatoes, po’ boy sandwiches, fried chicken and waffles for breakfast – and its home in downtown’s Southside Park neighborhood.

“South” could also refer to where the Kavookjians’ spirits were headed much of the time in trying to open the restaurant. They spent more than $300,000 buying a property near Sixth and T streets and bringing the building up to code so they could open South, only to get bogged down in bureaucratic red tape and unexpected fees.

South has since relocated to 2005 11th St., which formerly housed the Cheung Hing Co., a small market with Chinese foods to go. And just maybe, if all goes right, South will open in mid-November.

But we all know how it goes with projected openings for Sacramento food establishments. Preservation & Co., a specialty foods company with award-winning bloody mary mix, had its initial grand opening plans pushed for more than a year because of permitting issues and other snags. The expected opening for Bacon & Butter in Tahoe Park turned into a punchline after months of delays, but it finally debuted to big crowds Oct. 6.

Nevertheless, the Kavookjians remain determined to realize their vision. The space looks more like a construction zone than a neighborhood restaurant on a recent morning. A ladder lies sideways in what will be the main dining room. A trashcan overflows with debris, and wires poke from an old alarm box that’s dissected on the floor. In a move to save money, the couple are doing the bulk of the construction and cleaning themselves.

The old chopping block from Cheung Hing Co., which was used so much that you can see impressions of ducks in the wood, will be cleaned and integrated with the bar. Right now, they’re emphasizing function over fancy, and cutting costs where possible.

“We have to let go of the idea of opening with everything being perfect,” said N’Gina, with a day of paint stripping ahead of her. “The liquor license will come down the line. So will the décor items. The biggest focus now is on being smart, and making sure the space is clear, clean and inviting. The menu has to be well thought out and can be executed the way we want it done.”

The two are well-versed in the restaurant industry. N’Gina formerly worked as assistant manager at Ella Dining Room & Bar and was a food and beverage manager at the Sheraton Grand. Ian still works as a general manager at Cafe Bernardo at Pavilions until South gets up to speed. The two also owned the short-lived Eight bistro in El Dorado Hills, and run a catering business on the side.

They’d banked so much on the original South location, which formerly housed the Sacramento Tofu Co., and hoped to open in September 2013. That notion now sounds naive to the Kavookjians, especially after their crash course in city codes and zoning.

The city later stopped construction on the project due to concerns about flooring, and held up their life safety permit. Nine months and $4,600 later, the Kavookjians were told they’d need to pay an additional $12,500 for sewer impact fees because of the building’s change in use, from a warehouse to food service.

N’Gina said the city offered to lower the sewer impact fee to $5,000, but they’d gone beyond budget and needed another game plan.

The Kavookjians still own the original South property and live on its second floor, but found it would be easier to simply lease at their current location, which is already built out for food service. They’ve assembled the core of their cooking team, including Rachel Kelley, who will leave her post at Revolution Wines to serve as South’s sous chef.

The finish line, with all its fried chicken glory, seems so close. But N’Gina can’t help but feel soured by the overall experience.

“We thought downtown Sacramento loved small business, but there’s more politics in it than we assumed, and that’s unfortunate,” she said. “It’s changed our attitudes in how we look at the city. I just hope I can look back in 50 years and laugh.”

Call The Bee’s Chris Macias, (916) 321-1253. Follow him on Twitter @chris_macias.

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