It’s been almost a year, and Sang Joo “Joy” Knudtson is missed.
Her smile is missed as well as her charm and warmth, the characteristics that earned her the endearing title of Umma, Korean for mother, with customers and employees alike. For more than 20 years, Knudtson owned and ran Brail’s on Willamette Street with loving attention to detail to what was served on plates and memorizing the names of patrons.
“She lives on,” says Nicole Kneisler, the manager at Brail’s Restaurant who has worked at the restaurant for 12 years. “Brail’s is her legacy. I miss her. She’s an irreplaceable person. We have people come here and say, ‘Oh, we miss her so much, but we feel her presence.’ She was a mother to everyone.”
Knudtson died on Dec. 28, 2022, from complications of liver cancer, leaving the restaurant to be run by her son, Bryan Sung, and her incredibly loyal staff. She was 66.
Eugene Weekly is honoring Knudtson by retiring the Best Hangover Breakfast category in its Best of Eugene issue, a category that Frankie Gibson, who has worked at the restaurant for 23 years (15 years as a manager), figures Brail’s has won the past 20 years or so. This year, Brail’s was voted by EW readers the winner of Best Comfort Food category.
Knudtson took an established diner and elevated it to icon status in Eugene with her work ethic and Korean dishes such as bulgogi, a barbeque meat dish, and kimhi, small side dishes served with cooked rice in Korean cuisine, as well as the “loco moco,” a Hawaiian dish that puts an egg and a hamburger patty atop a bed of rice and covered with brown gravy. Both Kneisler and Gibson note that those staples remain on the menu.
Yet it was Knudtson’s sunny charm that captivated many. She left behind a wealth of friends and admirers from all walks of life. Brail’s patrons are an eclectic mix of church goers and hungover college students on the weekends, and on weekday mornings, it’s not uncommon to see groups of people commandeering a table for get-togethers.
“She was like a mom to the UO students,” Gibson says, adding that 40 percent of Brail’s clientele are UO students. “She knew everyone’s name. She had a memory like an elephant.”
Knudtson was also a mother-like figure to her employees, Gibson notes. “She took care of me and my family,” he says. “She was the best boss. She was a force. She was one of my best friends.
“We’re keeping it going.”