Former restaurateur crafts teddy bears for the grieving using sentimental fabrics

She’s investing in a bear market.

A once-successful Wall Street restaurateur whose business was 86ed by the pandemic is cashing in on an unlikely second career — sewing one-of-a-kind memory bears for families across the country.

Jin Kim, 64, spent her first 30 years in New York City catering her raw fish and rice delights to power brokers at Niko Niko sushi deli.

But after seeing her beloved eatery twice shutter — first by Superstorm Sandy at 80 Wall Street, then by COVID after relocating to nearby John Street — the mom of two turned to her sewing machine and got back to work.

She now creates roughly 150 memory bears a week through her booming Etsy shop, turning fabrics such as blood-soaked clothing and baby blankets into beautiful custom bears, quilts and pillows, mostly for grieving clients.

“Since the clothing means a lot to the person, it means a lot to us when they send it to [us],” Kim told The Post from her newly acquired studio in Palisades Park, New Jersey.

After a career as a restauranteur, Jin Kim has turned to making teddy bears from sentimental material such as baby blankets. Etsy / JinBearsLLC

“The clothing holds a story and a memory, so it’s meaningful that people send it to us and trust us with that piece of clothing and trust us with the creative process of making a bear or quilt.”

After launching JinsBearsLLC on Etsy, Kim was flooded with orders for her cuddly creations from customers looking to memorialize their loved ones in sentimental style.

The bears are made out of materials like old shirts, T-shirts, uniforms and favorite sports jerseys of lost relatives, but sometimes people send in the blood-spattered clothes that were cut off by medical crews.

Kim was once sent a blanket from a mother whose baby had died.

Sometimes the materials sent in to be used for a bar are stained with blood. Etsy / JinBearsLLC

“The mommy sent me [the blanket] to make a memory bear,” said Kim, who said the heartbroken mother later sent her pictures of her late baby and of the bear. “So sad, my heart broke.”

Kim initially started sewing mini bears for sale — then expanded to 12- and 15-inch creations.

“People would send T-shirts and be like, ‘Hey, this is like my son’s T-shirt that he always used to wear. He’s no longer here but I would love to make it as a memory bear,’” explained Grace Kim, Kim’s 26-year-old daughter and business partner.

Finding success

Jin Kim has made memory bears out of wedding dresses Etsy / JinBearsLLC

Jin emigrated to the US from South Korea with her husband and 2-year-old son in 1991, settling in New Jersey. After working menial jobs and saving for two years, they took their first foray into the food business, opening a deli near Madison Square Garden.

The Kims eventually sold the deli to fund their first restaurant venture, which was unsuccessful and drained their bank accounts.

Jin, who also speaks Japanese after studying abroad earlier in life, went back to full-time work with a Japanese food supply company.

She and a colleague partnered to launch a sushi deli called Niko Niko in Secaucus, New Jersey. Its massive success spurred them to dream even bigger — and open another Niko Niko on Wall Street in 2000.

The soft-spoken but plucky entrepreneur spent decades waking up at 4:30 a.m. to make the schlep from her home in Fort Lee to the Manhattan eatery.

“I was a very hard worker. Almost 30 years in the restaurant business, [they] were so hard for me actually,” she said. “Thirty years of really, really hard work.”

Niko Niko suffered catastrophic flooding during Superstorm Sandy in 2012, which also coincided with their lease ending. So Jin and her team packed up and relocated a few blocks away to 133 John Street until COVID forced the city — and her business — to close completely.

“All the companies shut down. Buildings were all black, no light,” Jin recalled. “No business. Next door deli store shut down. So we finally decided no business, no more business.”

Family values

The bears started after Jin made one for her grandson as a Christmas gift. Etsy / JinBearsLLC

The pandemic brought a period of respite for Jin — and a newfound creative streak. She sewed her very first bear as a surprise Christmas present for her grandson, Lukas, who was 3 at the time.

“I don’t want to buy something, like toys — that has no meaning,” said Jin. “So I planned to make something for Lukas as a secret.

“My daughter and Lukas’ mom see [it] and say, ‘You made it?! Really, you made it?!’ Yeah, I made it,” Jin said with a smile.

The pair urged her to open an online shop to sell her handmade keepsakes but Jin wasn’t so convinced, until they posted a photo of Lukas’ bear on Instagram — and her first real orders started pouring in.

“My best friend [Liz] actually bought one of the bears,” said Grace. “She said, ‘Oh my god, it’s so cute, here’s some money,’ and then she was like, ‘My boyfriend wants one,’ so now they have matching mini bears. Liz and I really pushed my mom, ‘You should sell these, they’d really be a hit.’”

JinsBearsLLC launched in 2021 out of Jin’s bedroom, then overflowed into her living room and then her basement before she and Grace got a studio in October. They also hired four employees to keep up with the demand.

“That used to be my bedroom, the basement, but I moved out because the bears were taking over!” Grace said. ”That’s when I think I realized we were on to something. It was paying the bills, paying employees.”

Jin has made nearly 7,000 sales on Etsy and has racked up more than 3,000 five-star reviews. Her page boasts custom pillows made out of neckties, handsome fabric bears with bowties and vests and colorful memory heart ornaments. 

Keeping memories alive

Jin’s Etsy shop boasts thousands of 5-star reviews. Etsy / JinBearsLLC

One of Jin’s customers, Julia Goodyke, was surprised by her daughter with a special bear in honor of her late brother Mark, who died of colon cancer in 2022.

“I was surprised because I knew she’d gotten one for my mom. And little did I know, boom. She got me,” Goodyke told The Post. “It’s funny because it’s wearing a Chicago Bears shirt.”

“As soon as I come down the stairs everyday, I see that [the bear] and his picture that we used for the funeral. He was one in a million.”

The magnitude of precious memory is not lost on Jin.

“This is very from the heart,” she said. “When I touch the clothes I’m thinking of the person that passed away, that person’s life.

“So that’s why it’s [not just about] the business but [it’s] very meaningful for me. Fulfilling.”

Written by New York Post