For more than 20 years, owner and operator Sang Joo Knudtson (aka Joy) has been the face of Brail’s Restaurant, a popular American diner with a Korean twist and two Eugene locations. Brail’s is long known for its friendly service and the breakfast food that Eugene Weekly readers have declared time and time again to be the best cure for hangovers. Knudtson died Wednesday, Dec. 28, from complications of liver cancer. She was 66 years old.
Knudtson is remembered for her nonstop work ethic and a family environment that she created at her restaurant, earning the name “Umma,” Korean for mother, with customers and employees, says her son, Bryan Sung, while sitting at a table at his family restaurant on a chilly January day.
Knudtson was born and raised in Seoul, South Korea. When she was 19 years old, she and her husband decided to move to the U.S., Sung says. The move wasn’t driven by economics or politics, he says, but it was characteristic of her to embark on such an endeavor. The two moved to Alaska, where her sister lived. She and her husband separated there, and she relocated to Seoul for a few years and then moved to Eugene.
Before Knudtson bought Brail’s, she had other jobs, such as beautician and cleaning lady. That job history set her up perfectly to be a restaurateur, her son says. “She just knew how to work with people,” Sung says. “To be able to own a restaurant, it takes a lot for you to succeed, especially when you start from brand new. Her work ethic and people skills translated perfectly to being in a homey restaurant like this. It just fit her.”
Knudtson took over Brail’s more than 22 years ago. When she bought the restaurant, it had already been an established diner for decades. But she added menu items that are now what make the restaurant a Eugene icon, offering Korean food and “loco moco,” a Hawaiian classic dish that puts an egg and a hamburger patty atop a bed of rice then is covered with brown gravy.
Knudtson put Korean items on the menu, such as bulgogi, and rice and noodle bowls, Sung says, so she could take it home for her family, too. Today, it’s common to see people eating omelets with kimchi on the side at Brail’s, he says. “She wanted to add a little bit of herself into it,” he says.
When Knudtson first bought Brail’s, the restaurant had only three rooms and it was much smaller than the Willamette Street location is today, says Ian Gray, who worked there for several years and became close with the family. “It drove her nuts that people had to wait,” he says. So she took over the neighboring beauty salon and expanded the location’s footprint. “She never never wanted people to wait and wanted food to come out quickly.”
The restaurant has been a melting pot of Eugene’s unique communities, a place where hungover college kids are side-by-side with people getting out of church waiting outside for a table on weekends. It’s a popular restaurant for visitors and even Oregon Duck football royalty. Oregon’s head football coach Dan Lanning memorialized Knudtson in a Dec. 31 tweet with a photo of her and his family.
Many workplaces today call offices and staff “family,” but Sung says that Knudtson worked hard to create a family atmosphere with her employees. “She actually cared a lot,” he says. “We’d always say, ‘Mom you can’t take care of everyone.’ But she had such a big heart. She cared about people so much that she’d go out of her way if the employee was having trouble, she’d want to help out somehow. She was a very motherly figure to a lot of people here.”
Gray is one of the restaurant’s employees who says Knudtson was like a mother to him. She invited him to family dinners over the weekend and was there for him when he dealt with deaths of loved ones or relationship breakups.
“Brail’s is cool because anybody that comes in here becomes a part of a family,” Gray says. “That’s the brilliance of Brail’s. She created the atmosphere that for college students who are from out of town, they felt like a part of something.”
Brail’s has been voted by readers to be the winner of EW’s “Best Hangover breakfast” category in the Best of contest every year since 2004. Knudtson took pride in those awards, Gray says, renting limousines to attend Best of Eugene parties that EW organized in the past, even supplying food at times.
Sung says Knudtson was a workaholic and told him, “If I don’t work, I make trouble. So I gotta work.” But when she wasn’t at the restaurant, her son says she would spend time with loved ones and also enjoyed playing golf with friends and family and singing old Korean songs on her karaoke machine at home.
Knudtson’s work ethic extended past being in the kitchen or serving. Sung says that she took the time to remember customers’ names. He says he once asked her how she could do that after seeing them once or twice. She told him that she’d go home and reflect on the day and the people she met.
“She would say their name over and over again in her head and try to remember the face,” Sung says. “The work ethic that she had, not only to do that outside of work when she got home, that’s just how much she cared about the community and the people who came and supported her.”
Sung, who also runs Brail’s on 5th and owns the two Tailored Coffee locations, says he’ll take over the restaurant on Willamette Street with the help of his younger sister, who lives and works in Seattle. What he’s learned from his mother in running a restaurant is the drive and motivation she had and how much she cared about the local community.
“It’s very important to me that I keep her legacy alive through this restaurant and work hard to keep it how it is,” Sung says. “It’s going to be very hard to do, and I don’t know if I can do it, but I’m definitely going to try my hardest to keep it going and keep her legacy alive.”
A celebration of life for Joy Knudtson is 3:30 to 6:30 pm Saturday, Jan. 21, at Brail’s Restaurant, 1689 Willamette Street.