When Peter Moon saw Helen Kim’s profile on the dating app Hinge on Jan. 8, 2019, he swiped right immediately. The answer she had provided to an app-generated question about the one word her mother might use to describe her — “disobedient” — had stopped him cold.
“That was the thing that got me, other than that she looked cute,” Mr. Moon said. “In the Korean Christian community, everyone’s obedient. No one wants to cause any trouble.”
The early months of the coronavirus would find him associating a different word with Ms. Kim: determined. He would learn to think of himself in a new way, too. Instead of just rebellious, he was game.
Mr. Moon and Ms. Kim, both 29, are the owners of Coffee Lab & Roasters, a coffee shop in Chicago’s Lake View neighborhood. Before March, Mr. Moon had little experience with the slow-drip cold brew they call their specialty. Coffee had been Ms. Kim’s passion. She bought the shop in May 2019. But as the pandemic started sending small businesses into a death spiral in the spring and, one by one, her employees no longer felt safe coming to work, Mr. Moon tied on a barista’s apron to fill in. By August, the couple had narrowly escaped financial ruin. They had also established themselves as a backbone of their community, rallying to support causes that kept it from unraveling.
Mr. Moon and Ms. Kim met for a first date the day after they matched on Hinge. At Luella’s Southern Kitchen, in Chicago’s Lincoln Square, they sailed past topics other couples might have bonded over, like being native Chicagoans and their traditional Korean families. Both were navigating a period of self-discovery personally and professionally that compelled them to look beyond obvious similarities. For Mr. Moon, total transparency was essential.
“I wanted to make sure I wasn’t hiding anything from her,” he said. “So I was like, OK, I have to tell her this because it matters.” Ms. Kim had liked his profile picture because it showed him with a cat. “It’s very rare to come across a Korean man who likes cats,” she said. Before she had a chance to ask about the cat, though, he revealed that he was giving it back to his former fiancée. “I explained that I was in a four-year relationship that ended the previous summer,” he said, “and that the cat that was in my dating profile photo was from my previous relationship, when I had a cat and two dogs.”
Ms. Kim was less disappointed than intrigued. “He basically sat down and said, ‘This is me, take it or leave it,’” she said. “Neither of us was in a place in our lives where we were interested in playing games. Him telling me stuff from the start was really refreshing.”
She knew some of the stuff wouldn’t sit well with her family. Ms. Kim grew up attending what she called a diverse nondenominational church in the Chicago area. Mr. Moon’s family is devoutly Presbyterian. But about a decade ago, his faith started wavering.
“When gay civil rights started picking up more traction, I remember thinking, ‘Why do gay people deserve persecution just because of who they love?’” he said. “It didn’t make sense to me. That was the beginning of my journey to leaving the church.”
Over dinner at Luella’s, Mr. Moon also told Ms. Kim about his love of metalcore, a musical genre that blends heavy metal and hard-core punk, and the recent career setback that had caused his move back to Chicago from Waukegan, a suburb. The story, he warned, is “spicy.”
After the breakup with his former fiancée, he took a job at a friend’s Waukegan sushi restaurant. The friend found out that a server he was interested in romantically was attracted instead to Mr. Moon. “He got upset to the point where he punched me in the face,” Mr. Moon said. “I felt like I had to get the heck out of the suburbs.” At the time of the first date, he was delivering packages for Amazon and studying health sciences at Rush University in Chicago. He graduated in April.
Ms. Kim was more established in her career, though not the one she expected to pursue after receiving a bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a master’s degree from Northeastern Illinois University. She studied counseling. “But counseling is actually quite stressful,” she said. Her work as a barista during graduate school was less so. She decided her future might be in coffee.
“I love the industry,” she said. “I love connecting with customers.” By the time she met Mr. Moon, she had been promoted to general manager at the shop she would eventually buy. Professionally, her life was satisfying. Romantically, not so much.
“No one had ever shown much interest in me,” she said. “The year before I met Peter I was kind of OK with the idea of being forever single. I was like, I’ll just get older and live alone with cats.” Her cousin, Hannah Yoon, remembers spending New Year’s Eve 2018 with Ms. Kim. “We were talking about the future and the year ahead,” Ms. Yoon said. “She was pretty hopeless, like, ‘I’m never going to meet anyone.’”
Mr. Moon drove Ms. Kim home to the apartment she shared with her brother, Paul Kim, in a building owned by her parents, Helen and Moody Kim, at the end of their Louella’s date. In the car, she floated what seemed to her not a hasty proposition. “Are we boyfriend and girlfriend now?” she asked. Mr. Moon didn’t hesitate. “I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’”
Love rushed in. “One night, maybe a month and a half after we met, I was talking to him and I said, I want to tell you something, but I don’t want to say it unless you want to say it back,” Ms. Kim said. Mr. Moon responded with “I love you.” By then, they had already cleared a hurdle neither had anticipated: “My dad had made a profile on Facebook so he could stalk Peter,” Ms. Kim said.
When Ms. Kim told her parents she had a boyfriend, and that he was not exactly a Christian, her father let go his reservations about joining social media. When Mr. Kim found his way to Mr. Moon, he figured out his daughter’s suitor was a fan of the metalcore band Ghost Iris.
“My dad was very concerned,” Ms. Kim said. “He said, ‘I don’t believe someone who listens to this music is suitable.’ Peter’s cover photo also had the ‘F’ word in it. He was having a heart attack.”
But Ms. Kim had faith in Mr. Moon. “Peter is more of a Christian guy than a lot of so-called Christian guys I’ve encountered personally,” she said. “So I said, ‘Just meet him.’” Soon after, over lunch at a Chinese restaurant, Mr. Kim conceded his approval. The Kims knew of the Moons’ church, and vice versa, which was enough to persuade them of the values instilled by his parents, Jin and Spring Moon. Paul Kim helped, too. “He pretty much took my side over the crazy devil music thing,” Mr. Moon said. “We had Ghost Iris solidarity.”
Ms. Kim’s introduction to Mr. Moon’s family, including his two sisters, Aileen Park and Alice Moon, was less unnerving, though Ms. Kim has had her own religious misgivings. “I’m not the kind of Christian they imagined, in that I’m much more progressive in my views,” she said. “But everything felt very natural with them.”
On Sept. 19, they got engaged. During a video game of Mario Kart at his apartment, she joked that he was her hubby. A minute later, he was on his knee before her holding a $76 cubic zirconia ring. They had started talking about the possibility of marriage that summer, and Ms. Kim had insisted on practicality. “We agreed we’re not materialistic people,” Ms. Kim said. “I told him, do not spend more than $100 on a ring.”
“It was the most low-key engagement ever,” Mr. Moon said. The wedding they planned for March 21 at the Greenhouse Loft, a Chicago wedding venue, was less so.
“Both our families wanted a big affair,” Ms. Kim said. Soon they had a guest list of 175, with bride and groom envisioning a pizza delivery interrupting a night of nonstop dancing. March 21 ended up being the date the Illinois governor issued a shelter in place order. But by then, Ms. Kim and Mr. Moon had put the disappointment of having to postpone their wedding behind them and turned their attention to Ms. Kim’s vulnerable business. When several independent Chicago coffee shops closed their doors in April and May, and even the Starbucks up the street closed temporarily, she felt desperate. “I was stressed out of my mind. I didn’t know what would happen.”
Coffee bean sales helped at first. “That was when people were hoarding toilet paper,” she said. “A lot of people consider coffee an essential household item.” When those sales stalled and customers were scarce, she and Mr. Moon slashed the store’s hours in half and built an online ordering system. By summer, slow-drip sales were picking up.
“We started getting new customers who were working from home in the neighborhood, and we also got some traction from people taking their daily walk who’d stumble across us,” Ms. Kim said. From March to June, she and Mr. Moon, who had abandoned his job search in the health care field to help Ms. Kim, drew no salary. But that didn’t stop them from responding to crises outside their doors as well as within them.
“We felt a lot of tension in the area after the murder of George Floyd, and we felt like we needed to help,” Ms. Kim said. In June, they started offering Donation Days. Once a month, they would give 100 percent of sales and tips to local groups like Mothers Against Senseless Killings, a nonprofit organization aimed at interrupting violence. “The reason we were able to stay in business was because this community supported us through a rough patch,” she said. “We didn’t want to wait for big companies to do something about all the heartbreak we were seeing. We want to be part of the support network.” Since June, they have raised about $3,500 for five organizations.
In July, they decided marriage was still a priority, too. On Sept. 12, with support from both families, they hosted a wedding for 20 friends and family members in the Moon family’s Wilmette, Ill., backyard.
Sam Toh, a youth minister at the nondenominational University Bible Fellowship in Chicago, officiated, praising them for their love and teamwork amid unimaginable challenges. Before he pronounced them married, he said, “Peter and Helen, you did it.” They high-fived before they kissed.
On This Day
When Sept. 12, 2020
Where Wilmette, Ill.
Korean Flair The mothers of the bride and groom wore traditional Korean wedding garments. Before the ceremony, each placed a tall taper on either end of a rectangular table. During the wedding, the couple lit a third candle together using flames from the first two, to celebrate the miracle of oneness.
Well Deserved After Mr. Moon and Ms. Kim celebrated over sushi platters and Korean food with their guests, they went home to the apartment they share in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago. Coffee Lab & Roasters was closed on Monday so the couple could enjoy a day off.
Selfless Bond Before the wedding, Ms. Yoon reflected on the bond Ms. Kim and Mr. Moon formed while battling to stay afloat during the pandemic. “It was not Peter’s plan to be working at a coffee shop,” she said. “But they went through this together, and it’s made their relationship so much stronger.”