“I have so many regular customers,” says Ben Kwon, owner of Bell’s Diner. “They know everybody in town. They talk about who passed away, who is in hospital. Sometimes it can be sad. They come in to share the daily news, you know?”

It’s 7:30 a.m. and Kwon is in the kitchen of the West Stadium restaurant, frying eggs and hash browns while simultaneously directing workers preparing traditional Korean dishes for lunchtime. A stocky fifty-six-year-old with salt-and-pepper hair under his golf-themed baseball cap, he waits for a lull, then steps out into the compact, sixty-eight-seat dining room to chat with his customers. Al Raymond, who sold the diner to Kwon in 1987, still stops by every weekday “at seven-fifteen exactly,” the owner notes. Raymond and his buddies, mostly retired Michigan Bell and U-M employees, update Kwon on who’s retired, what’s going on in the neighborhood, and local politics and sports.

The pace picks up again at lunchtime. Now Kwon stays in the kitchen, cranking out plate after plate of Korean favorites like bibimbop (a one-dish lunch of vegetables, seasoned meat or tofu, and rice, topped by a fried egg), plus the occasional burger and fries. The midday crowd is a mix of area employees on break, young families, pairs of friends dining together, and a few retirees back for their second Bell’s meal of the day.

When Kwon bought it, Bell’s was a basic American diner. He introduced the Korean menu gradually. “I was kind of afraid if people would like it or not,” he remembers. But the new offerings soon garnered a loyal following, and today four out of five lunch customers order Korean dishes–bibimbop and bulgogi (marinated barbecued beef) are favorites. Local bloggers get a kick out of what one calls the “odd combination of Korean and American diner food.” Another writes, “The only thing that would tip you off to the fact that there is anything unusual on the menu here is that bottles of soy sauce stand along[side] the packets of sugar and other condiments.”

The restaurant business isn’t easy. In 2000, a fire started by an extension cord closed the place for six months. More recently, like other West Stadium business owners, he was plagued for over a year by road construction that turned the street into an obstacle course. To keep customers coming, Kwon started offering free coffee at breakfast.

Kwon’s wife and partner, Anna, also cooks; most of the rest of the staff belong to their extended family. A nephew, Andrew Kwon, left to open Biwako Sushi, with locations in Saline and on South Main. Bell’s itself is becoming more of a restaurant, too, having recently added dinner service Tuesday through Sunday. “I’m busier than ever,” Kwon says.

Growing up in Korea, Kwon was taught by his mother just the right blend of seasonings for traditional dishes. Later he helped his brothers run a restaurant southwest of Seoul, and while doing army service, he managed a military kitchen. In 1980, at age twenty-six, he pursued his dream of a “better life” in the United States. He recalls the first glimpses of his adopted country, through airplane windows: “I fly over the ocean to California, then to Seattle, then Detroit. I feel like, this is huge country!” He laughs and shakes his head, remembering his amazement. “Not like Korea–we don’t have much land. I feel there is a lot of opportunity here.”

He found work at an auto parts plant in Hamburg. In the summer of 1984, he went back to Korea and married Anna, a traditional Korean dancer and musician. They purchased Bell’s with the idea that he’d operate it, with Anna, as a second job. But within a month, convinced he had to work full time to be a success, he quit his job at the plant.

“He’s an ambitious man,” says Al Raymond. The Kwons, he says, “have worked hard to give their children a better life.” Son Chris, twenty-four, studies economics at the U-M. Seventeen-year-old Lydia is a senior at Huron High.

Bell’s longevity is about more than bibimbop, says Kwon’s sister-in-law, Nami Lee Kennedy. “I don’t see it just as a business,” she says. “This is how my brother-in-law connects with people.” West-siders who ate short stack pancakes at Bell’s as kids now bring in their own children. “At this place everybody eat healthy and be happy,” says Kwon. “That’s my hope.”

About that golf cap. In 2001, Kwon bought the Augusta Pines Golf Learning Center, south of Ypsilanti. During the warm months, he teaches golf after leaving the diner in the late afternoon. “I enjoy it,” Kwon says of his busy schedule. “I enjoy the cooking. I enjoy the playing golf. I enjoy life.”