Sakura Yagi, with her daughter, Tsuru // Photo Courtesy Sakura Yagi

Restaurant DiariesNew York

For Restaurants (and Parents), a Year of Purgatory

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In May, Sakura Yagi, the chief operating officer of T.I.C. Japanese Restaurant Group, wrote about the heartbreaking sacrifice she made to be separated from her 17-month-old daughter during the pandemic lockdown. T.I.C. owns and operated 16 different Japanese food establishments in New York City, like Sakagura, Shabu Tatsu, Hi-Collar, and Sake Bar Decibel, all of which have reopened. It was founded by her father, CEO Bon Yagi, in 1984.

At the end of May, she finally reunited with her daughter and, since then, she’s been doing all she can to keep the family business alive. Her words follow.

***

To wrap my arms around the little tiny body of my 17-month-old daughter — and just breathe her in — was the best thing ever.

I had been isolated from her for seven weeks, trying to keep her and my elderly parents safe while I tried to keep my family’s restaurants afloat during the first months of the pandemic. When I hugged Tsuru that first time, she was almost surprised. “Mama?” I knelt down and I wrapped my arms all around her and squeezed, and she kept saying “Mama, Mama.” I didn’t have any words. I was just so relieved. I still tear up thinking about that feeling, the combination of pain and happiness.

During those seven weeks of isolation, we would talk on FaceTime and things like that, but I was nervous. I was nervous she’d be upset with me or reject me, like she did when she was seven months old and I’d spent a weekend attending a friend’s wedding. I was so devastated then. It might seem silly — of course she remembers her mom — but for every parent, to be away, it’s so hard. 

I reunited with Tsuru right before Memorial Day weekend, and it really made me appreciate what military families have to go through. It’s great to have the technology we have now, but there’s nothing like real life. Like a real hug.

Reuniting with Tsuru after being separated because of the pandemic // Photo Courtesy Sakura Yagi

I think a huge toll of the pandemic that’s not totally measurable yet is how much we’re all impacted mentally. I can see the burnout in some of my staff and I can feel it in myself, too. That’s something I have to figure out. To deal with the emotional toll and try to find a solution, because things are going to get even harder. How do we reinvigorate or re-energize ourselves? Where are our batteries?

Tsuru recharges my batteries but she’s also a reminder that I’m being half of a parent to her. I’m not here for her like I want to be. But also, I feel that way on the restaurant operations side, too. I’m trying to do both, and seemingly failing at both. 

I know that a lot of parents feel that way. So many parents, especially women, have had to take back seats at work because they can’t do everything. I don’t know what I would do without my nanny and my mother. Even with that help, I feel like I’m doing a half-assed job at both roles, and that eats away at my self confidence and throws me into the vortex of negativity. 

I find myself often wondering: How can we refill our cups? What can we do to help each other?

I think about that not just for myself, but for my staff, too.

Right now, for so many of us in the restaurant industry, this pandemic feels like purgatory. 

***

Even with all the uncertainty right now, I’m so grateful to be reunited with Tsuru because of the pure joy she brings into my life. I forget about all the difficulties of parenthood with one hearty giggle from her. 

How I feel about Tsuru is, in a lot of ways, very similar to how my father feels about the restaurants. The brands, the concepts, are like his children, too, scattered across New York City. He’s birthed them and helped them grow, and to kill off one of them is just too difficult for him to bear and it doesn’t help that I keep pushing him to make the impossible decision to choose between his children. Sometimes working with family is like a recipe for disaster because you can’t turn off your emotions. 

Right before outdoor dining was about to start in New York City, I strongly suggested to my father that we combine locations for brands so we save on rent but not kill off the concepts. It was so hard for him.

Eventually, I convinced him it was the right thing to do. So we put a lot of our quick-service concepts together in one location. We closed three of our Curry-Ya locations. We put Curry-Ya into Rai Rai Ken’s space, and we just added Otafuku to it. Hi-Collar moved to the street that houses Sobaya, Hasaki, Cha An BonBon, and Decibel, which are all open. The original Sakagura in Midtown reopened for dining last week. Also last week, as (un)luck would have it, ConEdison turned off the gas to make repairs, so Shabu Tatsu is doing hot pot outdoors and inside with induction heaters. We’re barely holding it together, but streamlining the businesses is helping us break even or get closer to it.

Rai Rai Ken’s East Village location is now home to two other T.I.C. restaurant concepts: Curry-Ya and Otafuku. // Photo Courtesy Sakura Yagi

But one thing that’s kept me going all this time is our customers. Whether you’re ordering takeout or dining in person, you’re spending your money and choosing our places to do that. You’re actively choosing a place that’s run not by a venture capital firm but by my father, somebody who didn’t go to college and who built this from the ground up. I can’t thank you enough. 

When you’re in this purgatory of not knowing what’s next, hope is so essential, but it’s so dangerous and painful, at the same time. It’s silly, but the only analogy I can think of right now is that it’s really cold out and you’re going into shock from hypothermia. But you’re given this hot potato that you can hold on to, but it’s so hot you’re going to burn yourself. That’s what hope feels like right now for me. It’s so important to have, but I just can’t hold onto it sometimes because it’s too painful, it’s too hot in my hands. My hot potato hope, I suppose. Hope is what got me through the spring when I was separated from Tsuru. It’s what I’m turning to now, too. 

Sakura Yagi is the chief operating officer of T.I.C. Japanese Restaurant Group.

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