The Man Behind Shokudo’s Popular Honey Toast
He created Shokudo, Búho and, now, Bread + Butter.
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Left: Shokudo’s ishiyaki (stonepot) unagi rice. Right: Shokudo’s hamachi carpaccio.
Photos: Steve Czerniak
When you’re 17, the job world doesn’t hold open many doors for you—which partly explains why Sakurai got started in restaurants. His father was a product of the hardscrabble years of postwar Japan, when much of the country starved. He went on to create a successful systems engineering firm and raised his family in an upscale neighborhood of Tokyo. The younger Sakurai discovered the limits of his privileged upbringing when he asked for more allowance. “I’m not going to give you money,” his father told him. “If you want money, earn it yourself.”
Sakurai got a dishwashing job. Later, he tried again, this time for a more noble cause. High school in the United States, he suggested to his parents. No, they said. So he started prepping food, cooking simple dishes, waiting tables, bartending, supervising the floor at restaurants around Tokyo. When he turned down an offer to manage a TGI Fridays, it was because he had graduated college and finally saved enough for his dream trip to the U.S.
“What do you want?” the CEO of TGI Fridays in Japan at the time asked.
To travel and see the world, Sakurai said.
His boss offered a compromise. TGI Fridays Japan was about to acquire the Guam operation. If Sakurai impressed the leadership in a management role, they would send him to Guam. Sakurai ran TGI Fridays’ Shibuya and Ginza restaurants, his days stretching to 18 hours. He improved results, but it was the profit he produced at perennially troubled Minato Mirai in Yokohama that impressed. In eight months, he was general manager of TGI Fridays in Japan. His boss kept his promise and sent him later to Guam.
He met executives and franchise owners at conferences and shared contacts, marketing collateral, information. When two Japanese executives at American firms decided to open their own restaurant, they invited Sakurai on board. Only 27, he was primed and ready. The trio sat down and looked at the globe.
“To be honest, the European Union was a bigger market at the time, compared to the U.S., but the currencies weren’t the same and countries had different laws. Asia? It was completely out of control. It wasn’t governed by law, but by human networks,” Sakurai recalls.
“When we researched, the amount of rice consumed per capita in Hawai‘i was bigger than any other state. Close to a quarter of the population had Japanese blood. There was already a Japanese food culture—but nothing in casual Japanese dining. So Hawai‘i was the best place.”