Annie Choo’s family background may have prompted her culinary destiny (her dad is Samurai Sushi chef and owner, Yun Choo), but it’s her own passion for plant-based cuisine that motivated her entrepreneurial spirit. In 2017, she purchased local restaurant AVO, solidifying her place in the Nashville restaurant scene. Preparing to have her first baby in March, Annie is simultaneously growing her family and her restaurant, and she’s finding enough time to give back to the community that has rallied around her, too. Please welcome our newest FACE of Nashville, the enterprising and philanthropic Annie Choo.
Your family has quite a culinary background. Can you tell us about it and how your own passion developed?
My parents actually met through hotel management; they both worked at Hilton in Korea. So, I always saw my parents living the “restaurant life.” It wasn’t always glamorous. I saw the inspiration of food, but I was just like, “I don’t want to be in the restaurant world because it’s long hours, you never get any breaks, and there’s no family time.” So, I went to Georgia Tech and pursued corporate marketing. I still had a love of food, of trying everything out there, but I just wasn’t quite interested in pursuing a career in it. After being in the corporate world for about three years, I was sitting at my desk and thought, What am I doing with my life? I think a lot of people go through that when they try to [look ahead to] the next 20 years of their life. What’s next, you know? I decided to quit my job and do a little bit of soul searching. My dad was in Nashville, and I was still in Atlanta at the time, and he said, “Hey, there’s a restaurant that’s up for sale — it’s a vegan restaurant.” He knew I was interested in the plant-based dining concept, and he knew I was soul searching, too. Being a dad, he tried to help me out, and he said, “Just try it!” We had that talk at the end of December 2016, and we looked at the business in January 2017. On February 1, it had new ownership under me. It happened really fast!
The love of food has always been within me. The hospitality is ingrained in me, too, but I just never knew how much I loved it until I came to AVO and started working firsthand and experiencing it full on. It has been a good journey so far; I don’t regret my decision to leave the corporate world at all.
What drew you to the plant-based dining concept?
I’ve always been interested in a healthy approach to life, but what I didn’t know until I got to AVO is just how much plant-based dining has impacted people’s lives. Cancer patients come in and say how it has changed their life 180. People have gone from having heart attacks to having a healthier, breathable life. And people who are doing it for the love of animals — that was very eye-opening for me. I love animals, but I never thought about it from their perspective. It made me think of veganism on a whole different level than I was used to … AVO is focused on using vegetables to make the dishes delicious rather than relying on imitation products. I wanted to keep that concept the same and then see where the menu went.
What’s in your culinary future?
I definitely want to open a second location of AVO, and I think COVID has made me open my eyes to what a different type of service could be available. We used to be a full-service sit-down restaurant, but now we’re counter service. It’s a fast-casual concept that’s working for us, and I want to pursue that idea for the second location. And Kindred Bar Catering has been a business that I’ve wanted to try for over two years. I have an actual horse trailer that has a bar inside of it. Thankfully, the trailer is finished, but because of COVID and the pregnancy, it has been a crazy year for me even to sit back and look at Kindred. It’s my November-December project to get that up and running again!
Can you talk about your passion for local philanthropy?
Once I moved to Nashville, I felt a love from the community I never really felt in Atlanta. We have such a strong, tight-knit bond within the Nashville community, and that inspired me. When AVO came about, and our business started picking up, I wanted to make sure that the love we got from our community was given back. So, in 2019, we started a nonprofit initiative where we work with one nonprofit per month to give back a certain percentage of our sales to an organization that helps our community flourish. For example, the Nashville Repertory Theatre, animal organizations like Gentle Barn and Bonaparte’s Retreat, and even the West Nashville Dream Center. When the tornado hit Nashville, that was a turning point of how I saw our city flip a switch. Everybody was out in the streets, helping, no matter where. Thankfully, my business wasn’t affected by the tornado, but I saw this one tornado crush everybody on the Eastside and in North Nashville. One way I could help at that point was to dedicate a weekend of sales to tornado relief.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
My parents were never the type to tell me, “This is good for you, and this is bad.” Being an adult made me realize how inspiring that is. Growing up, my dad always said, “I just want you to be happy.” His advice was to find happiness rather than thinking about the monetary aspect of life, which was comforting. That’s what I want to teach my children — find your happiness, and eventually, that will lead to what you want to do in your life.
Outside of faith, family and friends, what are three things that you cannot live without?
My two corgis, Peanut Butter and Ramen. I can’t live without my first baby, which is AVO — even though it’s work, I don’t see it as work. It’s more about where this exciting project takes me next on my journey. There are a lot of exciting plans ahead! And lastly, nature. It brings peace. Whenever I need to take a breather, I step out in nature, and it gives me a refresher. It puts me in Zen mode, where I can be present with myself, so I love that.
Thank you for sharing your story, Annie, and thanks to Josh Bethea for the images.
To learn about more inspiring Nashville women, visit our FACES archives.