February 24, 2021

All In A Day’s Work | Mijin Kim: At the Kingston Deli, “every day is a great day”

“EVERYBODY KNOWS YOUR NAME”:  Mijin Kim presides over the Kingston Deli on Route 27 in Kingston. In addition to serving more than 100 customers every day, she describes herself as “like a psychologist” or “like a bartender,” as she talks with her customers and learns about their families, their jobs, and their lives.

By Donald Gilpin

At 8 o’clock on a weekday morning, the Kingston Deli is a busy scene. The regulars, mostly men in their 70s and 80s, are all in their places, one at each of the eight tables spread around the room. They’ve been there for about an hour, and most of them were sitting outside in their cars before that, waiting for the deli to open.

There’s coffee drinking and eating breakfast and non-stop discussion of topics ranging from local news to personal reflections on the day ahead to history, politics, and international events. Difficulties in the COVID vaccination roll-out seemed to be the main topic on Monday this week, but most of the regulars apparently had succeeded in getting at least one of their two shots.

As the dialogue continues, a constant stream of customers — most essential workers, fire department, road crews, construction workers, snow plowers, landscapers,  painters, and others who don’t have time to sit down—come in, order at the counter, and take their food and coffee with them.

Presiding over the Kingston Deli is a woman named Mijin Kim. At least that’s her real name and the name her Korean friends and family know her by, but to most of the customers she’s known as just Kim, because, she says, her first name is too difficult for Americans to remember. And her Latino customers and employees all know her as Maria, a name given to her when she took Spanish classes in high school. She studies the Spanish language every day, regularly checks her Spanish notes posted on the counter, converses readily in Spanish, and says she is now semi-fluent.

The regulars, “Kingstonians not Princetonians” who come every day to the deli on Route 27, feel like a family, Kim says. “They grew up here and went to school together and their kids went to school together, and their grandchildren went to school together —for generations. Maybe they’re attracted to Kingston Deli because it feels like home. Everybody knows everybody here.”

She describes the Kingston Deli as “like Cheers without the alcohol. Everybody knows your name.” Kim bought the deli from her uncle, who retired about four years ago. She has worked there for the past 15 years, and for about a dozen years before that she worked with her uncle at a deli in Hamilton. 

She explained why she’d rather be operating the Kingston Deli than anything else she can imagine. “To me every day is a great day to come to the deli,” she said, “because I get to see everybody—all my customers, all my regulars. And they tell me how their days are going. Like if they’re having a bad day they talk to me, and I’m like a psychologist, or a bartender. They tell me their problems, and I try to help them.”

She continued, “I listen. I think that’s the most important thing. You don’t have that closeness anymore. If you go to a fancy restaurant, they don’t know you. They don’t know your name. They don’t know anything.”

The reliable routine, the simplicity, the good food, and the reasonable prices are all attractions of the Kingston Deli, Kim noted. “The most popular sandwich for lunch is called The Kingston — ham, salami, sopressata, mozzarella, roasted peppers, onions, oil, and vinegar,” she said. “Chicken salad, egg salad, and tuna sandwiches are also popular. People like something simple. They don’t want any weird stuff. They want something plain and simple. Lots of places put grapes and raisins and all kinds of fancy stuff in the food, but here it’s just very simple. They have so many choices, but here it’s just plain normal.”

She added, “People will sometimes call me and order their sandwiches and they just say, ‘I want my regular.’ That’s how comfortable they are here, and they’ll say, ‘I’d like to have my usual and also my son, my wife, or my daughter.’ I remember the sandwiches. Sometimes they don’t even know their kid’s sandwich or their wife’s sandwich, but I know. That’s the great thing, even a year later.”

You can get a sandwich and drink for under $10, she pointed out. “Other places you have to spend $20 or more,” she said. “That’s the difference. Essential workers — they work very hard for their money. It’s sad that they can’t afford to go to places and spend $20 for lunch.”

Though she seldom weighs in on the regulars’ discussions, Kim occasionally will intervene. “We have a lot of divisions here,” she said. “All the Republicans sit on the right side and the Democrats on the left. They fight and have arguments, so I have to yell at them and say, ‘No politics and no religion — you can’t talk about that stuff.’ Since I’m the only woman here, they listen.”

Kim, who came to the United States with her parents when she was a young teenager, now lives in Princeton with her husband and twin 12-year-old sons, who attend Princeton Unified Middle School. She has two older sons, who will be graduating from college this year.   

Aside from the deli her greatest outside interest is yoga. “I do yoga every day for 10 to 20 minutes in the morning before I come to work,” she said. “I love to exercise, but I have to do it on my own now at home because of the pandemic. Before, I took classes.”

As far as her sons are concerned, “I just want them to be happy,” she said. “They don’t have to make a lot of money. As long as they enjoy what they’re doing, I think that’s the most important thing.”

She shares that same attitude in her own life, for herself and her customers. “I just want my customers to be happy with our service at the deli,” she said. “That’s the most important thing. Of course, I want to make money, but I’m not here to be rich. I really enjoy what I do.”

She continued, ”I don’t like to sit in an office, looking at a screen all day long, looking at a computer.  I’m not that person. Here my job is interesting because I get to meet so many different types of people every day. Of course we have regulars, but I get people from all over the country and the world. And they tell me their stories, and I think that’s very interesting.”

For the future, as in the past, Kim wants to make sure her customers are happy. “I don’t want to be famous — maybe famous among my customers, but other people — I don’t want to be famous,” she said.

According to Robert Brian, a regular who was born in Kingston 84 years ago and has been coming to the Kingston Deli before 7 a.m. every day for decades, Kim is already famous.

“We come in, have our coffee and talk,” he said. “Sometimes we eat breakfast. Sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we get a little loud. Not too many people want us hanging around,” he joked, “but she puts up with us. Anything she needs we’ll do for her, and she doesn’t forget our birthdays, and on holidays she always has little donuts and treats for us.”