The Absolutely True Story of What Happened To Harrison Kho And Harry's Deli, As Told by Harry

Harry's Reuben
Harry's Reuben
Edwin Goei

May 5 is the fourth anniversary of an unfortunate incident that incapacitated the deli many loyal customers simply knew as Harry's. Once located in Sky Park Circle by John Wayne Airport, a fire was spotted, reported and extinguished late in the evening. It reopened not long before that, after an extensive remodel. Nobody knew how long it would take for the deli to be up and running again. Time passed, and Harry Kho went off the grid.

He reappeared before me during one of the previews for McFadden Public Market, looking even more trim than the one time we met up for lunch a couple of years ago. It took me a minute to even process that it was him in the flesh. I was dying to ask him questions, and he wanted to explain everything. What you'll read below is an account of what Harrison Harry Kho has been through since our team last reported on the deli. He worded it in the form of lessons, which (after all he's gone through) form a cautionary tale of how restaurant life is for a business owner.

Lesson #1: If you're poor, you're screwed
[Editor's Note: To put this in a frame of reference, Harry was in the process of working with his insurance and landlord to sort and fix the damage done to the deli. When things were looking more complicated, he reached out to a customer/friend/attorney for help.]

Without a war chest to do battle, there was very little I could do. I had to carefully tiptoe around the situation. Short of the long, I was stymied by the insurance company. Non-response and no progress was the name of the game. Weeks, then months passed. When I realized it was probably going to be a much longer process to figure out the deli situation, my thoughts turned to how I was going to proceed. I thought this was the time to start on other projects. An old friend who helped me remodel the deli had a friend who wanted to open a restaurant. This was when I launched a restaurant consulting business with my new partner.

Keep calm and Harry on
Keep calm and Harry on
Photo by Kimberly Valenzuela

Lesson #2: Don't run before you walk.

A wise and experienced restaurateur used to come to the deli regularly to get his lunch on. One day, I asked what advice he could give about expanding my concept. The first thing he said was, "Take it slow." He repeated it, with an emphasis on the word "slow". He went on to describe all the unforeseen issues that experience could advise one on their journey in this business. I took his advice with a grain of salt. Whatever troubles he had, I was sure I could handle with ease.

The concept for my partner's friend didn't end up working out. We turned our attention to other projects. We raised funds and started working on the buildout of a new restaurant and cocktail bar. Weeks turned into months again, and I continued to push to create business to feed my family. With my new partner, I felt like we had all the elements to go after it and do big things.

I started reaching out to anyone and everyone who could potentially need my services. We picked up multiple projects and got to work on putting them all into play. With the workload mounting, I realized we needed help. At this point, I should have pumped the brakes and reassessed our capabilities. But the overachieving, hopeless optimist in me kept pushing on. We built a house of cards, and without a much-needed injection of working capital to hire help for all our projects, we were doomed. Everything started crashing down around us. The conversation at the deli with the sage kept replaying in my head, "Take it slow..."

Lesson #3: Health above all things, in all aspects.

My physical and mental health deteriorated rapidly. It first started with my gut, as it always does. I couldn't eat, and was diagnosed with ulcerative gastritis. I couldn't sleep, and as each day passed I slipped deeper into depression. I cut off communication with the entire world, including my family. Throughout all this, I tried to keep up the charade at home that things were going to be okay. If it weren't for my immediate family, and the vibrant lives around me at home oozing life and hope, I really don't know where I would be at this point.

Time heals all, and as time passed and I slowly worked to unravel the stress and consume it, things started to turn around. I ended all of my commitments, performed to the best of my ability (considering the circumstances) and I felt the old Harry slowly coming back to life.

Lesson #4: Learn from your mistakes.

Once things started clearing off my plate, I was on the road to recovery. What I learned about myself and my relationships with others throughout this whole process is the bedrock on which I have been rebuilding. Without the lessons learned from the great trials and tribulations I experienced, I wouldn't be where I am today. I'm sure many more lessons are on their way, but I know I will have a leg up in how to handle things better moving forward.

Lesson #5: Make amends and make it right.

As I reflect on the entire ordeal, from the fire at the deli to today, I am most disappointed in my refusal to acknowledge the outreach from friends, family and acquaintances. To those who thought about me, reached out, provided assistance momentarily, in spirit or any other manner, thank you.

To my wife, Mercy, thank you for everything you are to me and our family. When you saw me giving up, you reminded me of who I was when you screamed, "YOU ARE HARRY KHO! NOW GO DO WHAT YOU DO, DAMNIT!" Again, thank you.

To my three daughters: Bethany, Abigail and Islay, Thank you for being  the light in my life, and giving me the inspiration to pursue my dreams.

To Harry's Deli fans, whom after four years still check in on me and ask when we're coming back, you are amazing. When I hear people talking about our sandwiches or experiences they've had at the deli, it truly encourages me to bring the deli back and get back home.

The Absolutely True Story of What Happened To Harrison Kho And Harry's Deli, As Told by Harry

Afterword

So what now? I am happy to announce that I am rounding the corner in finishing a project in Downtown Santa Ana. Harry's Deli is still in my mind, along with a million other projects I'd like to work on. For once, however, I will heed the advice of my sage and countless other advisers I have the honor of working with, and take things on to my capacity and ability.

Vacation is about cocktails and food from destinations around the world. Think of what you would get if you vacationed in Palm Springs, New York, Florida, South America, etc. We're bringing fun destination food and drink to Santa Ana. Our menu will be eclectic and regional; think lobster roll, steak tartare, charcuterie, a legit Cubano (!), raclette, etc. We're trying to play off a high brow/ low brow theme. A place where you can get everything, from an amazing craft cocktail and sophisticated eats, to some dirty nachos, a tall-boy and a shot. We're shooting for a June opening.

UPDATE: 5/4/17, 11:47 p.m.
From concept creator, Chris Parker. Vacation is all about amazing cocktails and food inspired from destinations and travels all over the world. Think of flavors and experiences one might encounter from NYC, Spain, Thailand and South America. We are bringing sophisticated, yet fun food and drink to Santa Ana. We are making all our furniture locally in Santa Ana with a focus on complementing the beautiful design elements gifted from our space in the historic 1913 Spurgeon building.

Vacation will be located at 206 W 4th St, www.vacationdtsa.com.


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