The Customers’ Happiness Comes First
The branch restaurant that Yamamoto became head chef at, Wakamiya Hassho, seated forty people, including eight counter seats. The average price per customer was about ¥12,000, a little bit less than the main store. When a young, inexperienced cook became the head chef, sales dropped somewhat, but that was expected. The real question was “How would he bring those sales back up?” Yamamoto reflects on the challenges to earn the recognition their regular customers.
Did you have any experience working at the counter before becoming head chef?
The main branch, which I had been working at until then, was a ryoutei (a traditional-style restaurant), so the kitchen staff never saw the customers. Suddenly, I found myself standing behind a counter, face-to-face with my customers. They were all elite types, presidents and chairmen of local companies. It’s no surprise they were a little confused when an inexperienced youngster showed up at their favorite restaurant, telling them he’s the new head chef. I received a lot of disheartening comments, like, “You’re pretty young. Are you sure you can handle this job?”
That must have been rough. It’s hard enough just getting used to a new position.
It was a mess. Other parts of Japan may not know this, but Gifu has really busy shopping districts, and there is a lot of Japanese Cuisine. As you can expect, our customers were very picky. If they were the least bit dissatisfied with the food, or if the service was a little bit slow, they’d just stand up, say “Forget it. I’ll go somewhere else.” and walk out.
But I just kept pushing forward, doing everything I could to make the customers happy. I read every cook book I could get my hands on, I researched local restaurants that our customers recommended, I developed new dishes… Just as the master had taught me to, I learned by watching my customers and finding out what they wanted from their food, and by putting that into practice myself.
It wasn’t until about a year later that our team finally came together and the restaurant made a recovery in sales. Suddenly, we found ourselves filling the house and having to turn down reservations daily.
When you were 28, you moved to another branch, Kogane Hashou. They really valued your skill, it seems.
It was the branch in the group with the slowest sales, so the master asked me to take over. I had finally developed good rapport with my staff at the current branch, and the thought of starting all over was daunting, so I wasn’t very excited about it.
Also, as I mentioned earlier, I wanted to master my craft by the age of 30 so I could open my own store at 31. I was running out of time. The master said a two-year contract was fine, so I accepted, thinking of it as my final test.
This time, the staff was all younger than me, and they seemed pretty happy about me becoming the head chef, so that was a nice change. The problem with this location was that everyone seemed to have lost heart.
There was no eagerness in their work. They did everything out of habit – no one was enjoying themselves. As expected, we couldn’t communicate very well, and I had trouble coordinating with the servers. I knew I was going to have rework things from the bottom up, so I started with the team framework.
I assigned everyone roles, struck up conversations with them, went drinking with them, and invited them to my test-cooking sessions to show them how cooking can be fun. At first, the customers made remarks about how the prices had risen or how the store had gotten a little too full of itself, but I kept working on repairing the team while trying to earn the customers’ respect. After about three months, the staff had more energy in their steps, and after about six months, we had reached our goal in sales.
The Fight to Make it Alone in Tokyo
Having revitalized the team at his second branch and developing it into a profitable restaurant, two years passed and Yamamoto stepped down from head chef to study management under Master Takada. Then, following his original goal, he went independent at 31, opening his own restaurant, Seizan, in Mita, Tokyo, where he found himself facing whole new challenges.
Why did you choose Tokyo as the location for your new store?
Ever since I became interested in cooking, I wanted to try to make it in Tokyo. I also hoped that my work there might generate a little more popularity for Takada Hassho back in Gifu. Another plus is the fact that I don’t have to compete with my old coworkers from Gifu.
I don’t have any relationship with Mita in particular, but one of my favorite French restaurants is there, which left a strong impression on me. The atmosphere created by the staff and customers at that restaurant is amazing. I decided on my current building and made the down payment on March 10, 2011 – the day before the Tōhoku earthquake.
You opened your store three months later, correct?
At the time of the earthquake, I was still in Gifu, so everyone was against me opening a store in Tokyo. There were even some people who were kind enough to offer funding the store if I would just set it up in Gifu.
However, it had always been my dream to open a shop in Tokyo, and I’d finally found a place I liked. I managed to get the contract signed, putting what little savings I had into it. At that point, not following through was not an option.
Did the mood from the earthquake in Japan at the time make things difficult?
I started out with zero customers in Tokyo.
I had some help from customers in Gifu, who were kind enough to take bullet trains down to eat at my restaurant. Still, I had hardly any customers for the first three months, and I was starting to break mentally.
I had prepared enough funds to run the store for about six months, but I had already hired four workers and I couldn’t just let them go like that. I found myself thinking about where I could borrow money from if I ran out of funds. I was so desperate, I even tried making sample sushi with leftover ingredients and handing them out to locals, though most of them turned me down. I understand now that they were just being cautious, but at the time, I couldn’t help but feel like Tokyo was a merciless place.
So when did things start looking up?
It was probably about half a year before it felt like the seats were filling up.
It was thanks to a well-known writer who happened to stop in for a meal. He said my food was unique and that he’d like to write about it in his column.
At the time, this was more than anything I could’ve hoped for. After that, people who saw the article started showing up, and I started gaining some popularity on the internet by word of mouth.