Yuka Ioroi and Kristoffer Toliao. Photo courtesy Cassava

InterviewsSan Francisco

Cassava’s Yuka Ioroi on Leading, Reopening, and Building a Better Restaurant Industry

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For local diners, Cassava has long been a staple of its Outer Richmond neighborhood, with owners Yuka Ioroi and Kristoffer Toliao creating one of the most hospitable, stylish, and delicious restaurants in San Francisco. As the city reopens in full, we spoke Ioroi about a wide range of topics, from tipping and labor to the path ahead for the restaurant industry.

During the pandemic, you’ve been such a strong leading voice among local restaurant folks, especially on social media. How have you approached that?

I don’t consider myself a leader for the industry per se, but I feel a moral obligation to be a good leader for my company. If I’m not a good leader, then I’m being irresponsible with people’s financial well being and their jobs. I realize that very thinking is not really common in the United States. The starting point for that is my role model as a business leader — my mom. 

How so? Tell me about her. 

My parents have a construction company in Japan. They specialize in flooring, and have been in business since the early 90s. In Japan, you don’t have to go to high school — it’s not mandatory, so some people don’t. Construction is one of the fields where young boys choose to enter directly, and not go to high school. 

One thing I always remember is that my mom would try to set up those young boys for financial security later, like setting up a savings account for them.

Also in Japan, health insurance, social security, sick pay, and all those things are a given. So that was my understanding of how a business should be run. Here in San Francisco, I appreciate that the SF Mandate makes health insurance a given, because it should be a given! If you get sick and can’t work for five days, then you shouldn’t get evicted for that. The very thought of an employer being responsible for an employee’s well being — for me, it’s a norm. But it’s not like that for everyone. The restaurant industry is so ready to profit on exploitation.

How has this mindset translated to your operations at Cassava?

I’ve always worked in the front, and my husband has worked in the back. And the pay gap was real. I feel like the people who are cooking have such a big work load. Why shouldn’t they get paid like the people in the front?

The pay system we have at Cassava is that everyone in the front and back get paid the same. It’s really great to see that things are changing, and that is becoming the norm. It’s in people’s minds now when they think about pay structure. 

Photo courtesy Cassava

As a restaurant that is so conscious about paying employees well, how do you make a restaurant work in San Francisco, numbers-wise?

I’m still figuring that out. Kris and I don’t own a house, or have kids. We don’t have investors we have to pay profits to. We don’t pay ourselves very much, because our own financial requirements are lower. I’m not sure how to be extremely profitable, but as long as we have enough to have a happy life, that’s fine. But it doesn’t work for everyone, and I also understand that people have different financial requirements. But how can you be OK with what is basically blood money if you’re exploiting labor?

Now that we have reopened in San Francisco, what would you like diners to know?

It was interesting — I was looking at the comments of the Eater article about Zuni’s service charge. I was surprised about how many comments were saying that service that doesn’t warrant 20% tip. That was a common theme. Right now, we have a 19% gratuity included in all checks and going straight to the pool.

If a restaurant is hospitable and really cares about a guest’s experience, we are asking for that charge to make sure that we are doing our best to make the experience memorable, so that guests can feel that we want them to have a good time.

So I think diners might have to be socially aware — and San Francisco diners, in general, are good about that.

What’s next for Cassava? You tried some interesting things during the shutdown. 

Takeout is going to stay, but I’m not sure if I’m going to keep Doordash and Uber. I feel like they’ll go back to the original pricing soon, and that’s not sustainable. The set meals — the family meals — the demand is 95 percent less now. People don’t want takeout. People want to go out and eat. 

On the food side, we started baking bread in house and making pasta. We’re keeping those. 

And you’ve got a set menu now. 

I think it’s a really good format. We’re realizing that people like knowing how much things are going to cost, and knowing what they’re getting. That makes for a nice experience. 

Photo courtesy Cassava

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