Kristina Lee chopped fresh produce, wrapped fillings and watched egg rolls sizzle to flaky perfection. As the smell of fried food filled the air in her kitchen, thick with the aroma of Korean seasoning, Lee’s mind drifted to news headlines.
Cities announced lockdowns as a new virus spread across America during March 2020. In Omaha, hospitals started to fill with COVID-19 patients. The pandemic had upended life for almost everyone in the world, including Lee, a contracted hairstylist who could no longer work.
“I was like ‘What am I going to do?’” Lee said. “I’m gonna be okay for a little bit. But what happens when my savings [are] gone in December?”
What she was going to do, she decided, was make egg rolls.
Lee’s friends always loved her cooking. Maybe other people would too. So Lee decided to try and sell 100 egg rolls per week for a suggested donation price. By week two, she sold about 150 egg rolls per day.
Now Lee’s left the salon to run Nice Rollz, a Korean fusion pop up serving everything from breakfast to bulgogi out of Archetype Coffee in Little Bohemia. Through the journey, she’s accrued a devoted fan base with 2,000 people following her on Instagram and Facebook.
While it might seem an unlikely success — selling food swimming in gochujang from the back of a third-wave coffee shop — Lee said her love for her community has been behind it all.
“Money is rarely, I feel, the fixer of people suffering,” Lee said. “People just want a meal or conversation, or just to have someone listen to them.”
‘They showed me how to survive and fight’
Before Nice Rollz there was Hastings, Nebraska. Lee was born in Lincoln but lived in Korea until age 5 when her parents moved to Hastings, a small town about 20 miles south of Grand Island, in 1991. Over the years they worked their way from factory jobs to owning their own restaurant, Lee’s China.
“They showed me how to survive and fight,” Lee said. “They came here without speaking any English and they’re still here, you know? I owe everything to them, they’re literally my heroes.”
Lee learned the food industry from them and fell in love with its smells, sounds and excitement. However, she also faced a sense of alienation in a town where approximately 1% of residents are Asian, according to census data.
“I didn’t always understand why I’m different than the person next to me.” Lee said. “I was embarrassed of my culture for so long, because I was the minority. I was the black sheep. And then learning more about my culture as I was getting older. It’s like, damn, I love being Korean. I love what my family stands for. They had to go through hell to get here.”
She left Hastings in 2006 to study business at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, but didn’t like the order and restrictions of lectures and higher education. During one visit home, Lee talked with two neighbor girls, both frustrated with their natural Asian hair. Lee pulled out her flat iron and styled it.
“[One of the girls] started crying,” Lee said. “She couldn’t stop looking at herself and touching her hair. And I was like, that made me feel so good, but to me, I just straightened your hair. But to her, it was the world.”
That night, Lee broke down in her parents’ restaurant, telling them she wanted to leave college 13 credits shy of her degree. But Lee’s parents were never the type of people to force their kids into anything, she said. Now they just wanted her to follow her passion.
“’We don’t know why you didn’t ask sooner,’” Lee remembered them saying.
By 2019 she’d made a career in hairstyling and traveled the world, but felt exhausted. She wanted to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Though the pandemic derailed those plans, Nice Rollz sales grew and eventually she moved into the kitchen at Archetype Coffee in Little Bohemia, which had also just opened prior to the pandemic.
During the day, Lee baked pastries. At night she made breakfast egg rolls. Now, Archetype Coffee offers those as well as Korean egg bread every morning, and features her breakfast sandwiches and pizzas on the weekends.
Lee’s goal with Nice Rollz is not to perfect Korean cooking. Instead, she wants to shoehorn the cuisine’s flavors into something everyday Omahans would try, until it eventually becomes a craving.
“For me, Fusion is so important,” Lee said. “If people haven’t had Korean food before, I can sit here and be like, ‘Oh, it’s so good. It’s delicious. I promise you’ll like it.’ That doesn’t gain [the] trust of anybody. That’s more like forcing what you think is good to somebody else.”
Lee’s bulgogi burgers for example require a full week of prep before burger night is announced on social media. People can reserve the spicy/sweet sandwiches until they’re sold out—which happens most nights. For Sara Scott, a creative specialist at Olsson Engineering who’s only missed one burger night, it’s the details that make Lee’s cooking so special.
“The thing that makes it for me though are the cucumbers, the pickled cucumbers on it [have] a sesame kind of flavor to it,” Scott said. “It is just like the perfect bite of flat, tender, juicy meat and cheese mixed with this like crunch of the cucumber and it all comes together perfectly.”
Nice Rollz rise hasn’t eased Lee’s desire to give back, though. Her motto is “Nice AF” (nice as fuck in laymen’s terms). Nice Rolls wouldn’t exist without Omaha’s support. When its people needed help during the pandemic, she pitched in.
“We got to donate so much food and so much to families that needed food,” Lee said. “People helped me. So now it’s my turn to help other people that can help and hopefully put them in a position to where they can then give back to somebody else.”
Most restaurant and hospitality jobs demand hard work and long hours for little pay. Now they’re paying the price as employees are reluctant to return following the pandemic, causing labor shortages. Lee remembers being in that position and makes sure her employees are valued.
“I pay my people very, very well because they do very, very well,” Lee said. “And because of them, I’m successful. I just don’t get where that disconnect is [for other business owners].”
Uni Joe has seen those qualities in Lee since they met at a hair styling convention a decade ago. Recently Joe moved from Chicago to Omaha in order to support Lee’s dreams.
“She is my sister,” Joe said. “Any project, any crazy thing she’s wanting to do, I’m just down to help her because she always has the best interest at heart. Whether it’s me, her parents, the people that she’s working for, she’s always gonna go above and beyond for people, and that’s just kind of the type of people you want to work hard for.”
Customers like Scott notice Lee going that extra mile.
In July 2020, Scott and her husband had just cancelled their wedding. They didn’t want to risk spreading COVID-19 to their families or catching it themselves as they both have diabetes and are immunocompromised. They saw Lee advertising small bookings for traditional Korean dinners on the outdoor patio of Archetype Coffee. In lieu of a wedding, maybe they could have a private dinner to celebrate their marriage.
Lee gave the newlyweds the patio to themselves, serving traditional Korean sides with garden produce on a perfect summer night.
“I get teary eyed thinking about how awesome that meal was,” Scott said.
The Community in Cooking
The orders came into the stainless steel kitchen.
Egg bread with a side of sweet and spicy sauce. Egg rolls. Hash browns.
Though Lee’s professional life has been a whiplash these past few years, the work doesn’t stop. For her and so many other new business owners who rose out of the pandemic, it feels like there’s more space than ever for creativity, diversity and local flair in Omaha’s food scene. But for Lee it isn’t about being a part of a trend. It’s about the past—her parents, her own journey to Nice Rollz—and looking toward the future.
“I have a lot of passions, and those are my vehicles to people,” Lee said. “Because it’s just like, I am passionate about doing hair and makeup because of what it does for people. I love what food does for people. But at the end of the day, my truest passion is for people. Just bringing people together and working together for a common goal.”
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