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Once on the brink of homelessness, John Park of Toast Kitchen & Bakery pays it forward

Chef John Park
Chef John Park stands in the new Toast Kitchen+Bakery dining room in Costa Mesa.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

When entering Toast Kitchen & Bakery on Newport Boulevard in Costa Mesa, the unique magnificent pies immediately catch the eye.

A peanut butter banana pie with blueberry compote, topped with billowy whipped cream and pretzel streusel. An orange-hued thai tea pie with black sesame caramel. A sweet corn peach pie reminiscent of a summer afternoon on the farm.

Toast Kitchen & Bakery is a full-service restaurant featuring diner comfort foods, but it’s the pies that got executive chef and co-owner John Park’s culinary career back on track.

Toast pie
The peanut butter banana pie with blueberry compote, topped with pretzel streusel, at Toast Kitchen & Bakery in Costa Mesa.
(Catherine Pearlman)

Park moved to Orange County from Los Angeles four years ago after losing nearly $250,000 running three restaurants.

During his 16 months of unemployment, he and his wife Christina were nearly homeless, and they worried about where their two children would bathe and sleep.

Park thought if he was ever given another opportunity in the restaurant business, he would help those who are vulnerable to homelessness.

He vowed to hire veterans, felons and former drug addict, as well as anyone else who is homeless or from an at-risk population.


He also wanted to donate money every month to a local charity, no matter how the restaurant was doing.

Toast Kitchen & Bakery
Avocado toast with champagne-marinated grilled zucchini, pluots, cherry tomato, feta, nasturtiums petals with citrus olive oil at Toast Kitchen & Bakery.
(Catherine Pearlman)

As he was developing a concept for a new restaurant, Park made pies to sell to local restaurants like Tackle Box and Burnt Crumbs. And he’d give all the pie profits to charity.

“There are times we are giving when it hurts us too,” says Christina. “We are giving from a place where we don’t have much. When you don’t have a lot, you want to share because you know how precious it is.”

When Ed Lee, restauranteur and co-founder of Wahoo’s Fish Taco, learned about Park and his plan and, after Park proved he could cook more than just delicious pies, Lee joined on as a partner of Toast Kitchen & Bakery, which opened in Costa Mesa in 2018.

“I never thought about hiring homeless or working in a shelter,” says Lee. “His vision is pretty incredible: give forward. It’s not what I’m accustomed to.”

John Park (left) with Ed Lee at a table in their restaurant, Toast Kitchen & Bakery, in Costa Mesa.
(Catherine Pearlman)

Roughly 10 to 20% of Toast’s staff are people from shelters and church programs or those aging out of foster care. Park has built relationships with staff at local agencies that call him when they find someone motivated to work hard.

Clarence Williams has been working at Toast Kitchen for nearly a year. For all but the last three weeks, he’s been homeless and going to shelters in Santa Ana every night for showers and meals.

“John gave me the biggest chance,” says Williams. “He gave me a chance to save my life.”

Christina says that Park treats everyone the same and expects the same work ethic from all of his employees.

“I’m a big believer in things happening for a reason,” says Park. “We went through all of this for a reason. This is what I’m supposed to do. This happened so that I could pay it forward and understand maybe what it’s like to live that life.”

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