A Restored Pratt Street
Through improved and restored retail storefronts, renovated residential spaces, and curated programming, Pratt St is being rediscovered.
HARTFORD — Downtown’s Sunberry Cafe & Catering built a strong base of business with its Korean-themed menu, but the deli’s financial footings turned shaky when the pandemic hit in 2020.
“They were closing down everything,” said Jane Yon, a partner in the family-owned business on Pratt Street, said.
“We weren’t making a profit. So, we were like, ‘OK, well, what if we try to change the business a little bit into a restaurant-bar because there is certainly a nightlife in Hartford,” Yon said. “And maybe if we could switch that around, we could make up for the lost profit. That’s how this idea came.”
The recent debut of Sunberry Restaurant & Bar is the newest venture for the Yon family, who immigrated from South Korea in the late 1990s and spent more than a decade in New York City building a deli business. The family had relocated to Hartford in 2012 to open Sunberry on Pratt Street.
The opening of the remodeled eatery was largely made possible with a $150,000 grant from the city’s Hart Lift program, and the Yons worked with their landlord and secured other grants. The $6.7 million program, rolled out in late 2021 and funded by federal pandemic relief funds, aims to fill vacant storefronts and keep others, like Sunberry, open.
Pratt Street is the epicenter for the Hart Lift program. There are 12 businesses approved for grants, seven are for restaurants or bars. The storefront leases come as apartments have been added to former office space above retail spaces on the south side of Pratt where more are planned.
For decades, Pratt Street seemed to have all the ingredients for revitalization: cool, historic architecture; a central location across from the XL Center; and, more recently, storefronts along a brick-paved street. But vibrancy proved elusive.
At a recent ribbon-cutting for Sunberry, Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said almost all the storefronts on Pratt — many of them vacant for years — are now leased and the fortunes of the street are now shifting for the better, with more business to open in the coming months.
“What is exciting about this is as we reinvent and reimagine Pratt Street, they reinvented and reimagined their restaurant,” Bronin said.
Sunberry was closed for five months for renovations and emerged with a top-to-bottom makeover.
Gone are the utilitarian counters of the deli. A custom bar hewn from maple emphasizes the restaurant’s expansion into offering beer, cocktails and more wines — moving beyond the saké and a more limited wine selection of the former deli, Yon said.
Wide pine planks over the walls in the bar area, the scent of the wood still lingering. Black paint adds a touch of the modern, and new front windows open to blur the lines between the restaurant and Pratt Street.
“We wanted to give it that rugged look, a natural look, just make people feel comfortable,” Jane Yon said. “That was a real goal because if you think of it like a cafe, it’s that coffee, that comfortability. We really want to translate that into the restaurant business.”
The menu, while keeping many of its signature dishes, now pushes more deeply into dinner items such as the Shabu-Shabu, or “Hot Pot,” and the Hinoki Steamed Box, which gives off the aroma from the conifer from which the box is made.
The upbeat vibe of the grand opening, however, is not so far removed from a time when the Yons worried that they might lose their restaurant.
Sunberry Restaurant & Bar is a dramatic departure from its grab-and-go predecessor. But the family has confronted change ever since Jane Yon’s parents, Je Woo and Kyunghee Yon — who came to be known as John and Kay — arrived in New York in 1998 with their two children. Jane Yon was just three at the time.
It was natural that John Yon would go into the food service industry. He developed an interest in cooking early at age 9, learning from his mother. As a teenager, John Yon would cook for his friends.
“Once he came to America, he couldn’t really get a corporate job here,” Jane Yon said. “He doesn’t speak English that well. But I feel he was able to speak English, in a way, through cooking.”
John Yon started learning the business working at a deli in Manhattan’s financial district. But he lost his job after the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 closed down the deli, just several blocks from where the twin towers collapsed.
“The whole area was completely shut down,” Jane Yon said. “That’s when my Dad started thinking about opening his own place.”
John Yon worked his way up in the deli business until he owned a cafe and catering business in Brooklyn. But in 2012, the Yon family decided to move to Hartford where it was less expensive to run a restaurant, bringing their experience running a deli with them.
John Yon, now 61, remains at the helm of the business as chef.
In addition to running the restaurant, the Yons all live downtown.
Jane Yon graduated from college with a biology degree, but she decided to join the family business once Sunberry was awarded the Hart Lift grant. She’s also encouraged by the changes she’s seen so far on Pratt Street.
“It’s a big change, in the right direction, of course,” Jane Yon said. “We just hope that it will keep going on this path, and we will see where it leads.”
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