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PS Kitchen founder April Tam Smith tells her story of gratitude, generosity, and food for the soul.
The one question April Tam Smith must surely have been asked more than any other is: why? Why would a successful woman, already working crazy hours on Wall Street, take the time, money, and emotional energy to open a restaurant that gives 100% of its profits away? And provides jobs for some of the most marginalized people in society? Why? What’s the motivation?
Her story begins back in China, with an immigrant family making enormous sacrifices for a better life, and a mother who started working full time at the age of 11.
That knowledge instilled in April a huge sense of gratitude from a very early age.
“Being a girl — an Asian girl – getting to stay in school, that’s still not true for a lot of women around the world.” In college, she started volunteering at a community center. And when she arrived in New York, she mentored a high school student in the Bronx.
“One thing led to another,” she says. “I took my first trip to South Africa and served at an orphanage for HIV positive children when I was 25 or 26, and that really impacted me. I started to see that there was nothing I’d rather do than spend my money and my energy and my vacation in this way.
“I strongly believe that we’re all created to help people,” she says. “And, having worked for Wall Street for so long, I see that there is really nothing that money can buy that would give me the same joy and fulfillment.”
She took her first of 14 trips to Haiti, to volunteer with an organization called Share Hope, which has created over 1,700 jobs in the garment sector there. It provides a living wage for the workers, and all the profit goes back to the factory. “My boss actually calls it my Hai-cation – it’s my double life.”
April was inspired by the CEO and founder of Share Hope, Cynthia Petterson, a single mom who mortgaged her home to launch the business. “I told my very new husband – husband of like a week at the time, because we spent our honeymoon there with her: ‘If she can do this, we can do this.”
Back in New York, she and her business partners poured their time, energy … and a significant amount of money into their dream: an upscale vegan restaurant that would donate all of its profits to organizations committed to disrupting the poverty cycle. And, more than that, one that would offer a hand up, not a hand out, to those in need by providing real jobs.
“It took us two and a half years to open,” she says, “and there was a point, a year-ish in, when we’d poured so much of our life savings in, and there was still no restaurant. Some really, really caring people in my life who truly believe in our mission were asking me, ‘Are you sure you want to continue? Maybe it makes sense to just cut your losses.”
PS Kitchen finally opened last summer, with chef Gary Barawidan at the helm creating dishes including their famous PS burger, buffalo maitake wings … and mixing a mean old fashioned behind the bar. She somehow combines her work there with a day job that sees her in the office by 7.45am.
“People think about work-life balance,” she says, “but I feel that my day job, my night job, my board … this is what encompasses me as a whole person. And I feel very comfortable with the idea that I might never be as passionate about finance as I am about the work that I do outside.”
Which brings us back to the why “I think my purpose statement, if there’s such a thing in life, is about affirming significance and inspiring hope,” she says. “I just love that moment I get to tell someone who feels like they’re not worthy, ‘No, no, no, that’s a lie. You’re more than worthy, you’re important’ And that’s who I want to be.”
The original version of this story appeared in the October 2019 issue of W42ST magazine. Stay in touch with W42ST and be first to read stories like this when you subscribe to our daily newsletter at w42st.com