As part of an ongoing series hoping to explore the experiences and perspectives of restaurant workers in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, we’ve spoken to and shared a few of the stories from those on the frontline.
Sakura Yagi is the chief operating officer of T.I.C. Japanese Restaurant Group, which was founded by her father, CEO Bon Yagi, in 1984. T.I.C. owns and operates 16 different Japanese food establishments in New York City, among them Sakagura and Sake Bar Decibel.
The hardest part of all of this is being away from my daughter.
I’m essentially choosing work over her, which I can’t help but feel guilty about. I hate to put it this way, but I’m choosing to keep this business alive over seeing her because, if not me, then who? I’m a single mom and she is just over a year old, so my parents have been the ones watching her. And I’ve self-isolated from my family to protect them.
At the end of the day, all I want to do is see my daughter and be comforted by her. I just want to hold her. She’s almost 17 months old, and I just missed a month of her life.
I work for my family business, so do I choose to keep the family business alive or do I choose my daughter? They’re both family. I’m so grateful for my parents, and as long as I know she’s safe and that my parents are, that’s all I can ask for.
But, to not have the most perfect moment of the day when I come home and see my daughter? That’s been the hardest part.
I am not a chef by any means. But I used to work at our East Village restaurant, Curry-Ya, when I was in high school, so I knew enough to be able to do it. I’m lucky and grateful that I had those summers. It’s like riding a bike: I still know how to do pork katsu, our number one seller.
I reopened Curry-Ya by scheduling multiple hospital donations first. Then I fundraised. I wanted to make sure there was enough demand from the hospitals to warrant me opening up the shop, and that I had enough momentum to keep it going. It was a one-woman operation. I’ve personally delivered over 1,000 curries to hospitals since April 4.
Once the hospital drops started, I decided I was comfortable enough to open up for delivery with a very limited menu — just two to three items. At that point, the menu was laughable, but I’m grateful for the customers who still placed orders to support me, because that’s how I was able to hire people back.
Thankfully, the real kitchen crew is back now at Curry-Ya. We are doing about $1,000 in takeout and delivery, a little more on the weekends, which is about 20 to 25% of what we used to make. So far, we’ve been able to rehire four out of 255 employees we had to lay off, and 21 who were furloughed.
What we’re probably moving toward is a business model where we have multiple brands in one location. If that’s the definition of a ghost kitchen, then yes, that’s the way we’re going for some of our brands. We can’t pay multiple rents.
Even before this, we were already heading toward an age of convenience that we hadn’t yet seen totally manifested. A lot of restaurants will now have to decide whether to evolve more like the Amazon model, in the sense that everything is at the customer’s fingertips. It’s on your phone. You can order whatever, whenever, whenever you please.
But for some people, like my father, he’s never ordered online and he does not use Amazon or Seamless or Grubhub. He doesn’t understand how prevalent this is. It’s hard for me to explain to him that this is the way the restaurant industry was going and where many will go, if they don’t shutter.
What made us so happy before was people coming into our restaurants. Now, we don’t see or know who our customers are, but we’re preparing meals the same way as if they were coming into the restaurant. We are just as excited about each and every order, and especially when we see familiar names.
Sometimes, I feel like I’m running on fumes and I wish I could do more to help, but I just focus on the work. The most rewarding part of this is the reminder of how resilient we are. How we can all come together in so many different ways, whether that’s restaurant owners coming together or people making masks for each other. These hospital drops. Raising money for City Harvest. It’s former staff coming by, with brownies in tow.
It’s the reminders of how we’re all connected.