The Man Behind Shokudo’s Popular Honey Toast
He created Shokudo, Búho and, now, Bread + Butter.
Left: Honey toast with strawberry sauce. Right: Hide Sakurai at Shokudo.
Photos: Steve Czerniak
Eight stories above Shokudo, the man who brought honey toast to Hawai‘i searches for his next iconic dish. It irks Hide Sakurai that Búho, the contemporary Mexican restaurant he opened on a Waikīkī rooftop last summer, has yet to find a signature item like Shokudo’s best-selling tower of ice cream, honey and toast. As president of the company that owns both eateries, Sakurai worries the problem like an itch on the brain. It’s an expensive itch: Pre-honey toast, Shokudo lost money its first three years. After Sakurai put it on the menu—in recessionary 2008—honey toast turned the casual-chic eatery into a destination and launched an unbroken string of profits.
“Shokudo is not about great, great food, it’s Japanese comfort food. But there was no magnet, no killer dish. We needed something iconic,” Sakurai says. “Honey toast is comfort food with a gigantic visual impact. If every table has honey toast, people associate it with Shokudo. That kind of killer concept, I haven’t found for Búho.”
The honey toast problem offers a glimpse into the mind of the biggest restaurateur Honolulu’s never heard of. By the middle of 2016, Sakurai will have four, possibly five, restaurants under his belt: Shokudo, the success of which drew the venture capital for the rest; Búho Cocina y Cantina atop the Waikīkī Shopping Plaza; Bread + Butter, a coffee, wine and takeout-food bistro opening next to Shokudo this month; a yet-unthemed space behind Búho; and a slated Leeward location that’s now on hold.
Add to this the fact that Sakurai likes big spaces (Shokudo can seat 206 diners, Búho 283), distinct restaurant concepts tailored for each site, and both the local and tourist markets—and that he’s only 37. Who is Hide Sakurai, and where did he come from?
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.”
Búho’s outdoor dining area offers distinctive design—and plenty of space at the bar.
Photo: Steve Czerniak
When Sakurai considers a new restaurant, he always starts with the neighborhood. From a global perspective, Hawai‘i was a neighborhood—and it was a good one. Other restaurants the trio started in California ended up closing, so Sakurai looked for expansion closer to Shokudo, which is thronged from lunch to late night with twenty- and thirty-somethings who, still living at home and not yet saddled with mortgages and tuition, were spending their disposable income on the restaurant’s sushi pizza, balsamic beef sushi and saketinis.
Búho was a different story. The undeveloped 12,300-square-foot rooftop in Waikīkī was massive. Sakurai looked at Cheesecake Factory and Yard House, nearby and similarly large: They were packed, mainly with American tourists drawn to American comfort-food staples. Sakurai’s solution was lifted neatly from a trend he saw on the West Coast, home of one of Waikīkī’s biggest sources of tourists: high-end contemporary Mexican fare featuring local ingredients. But tucked high above Kalākaua Avenue and with higher prices, Búho has yet to find its groove.
Bread + Butter fell into Sakurai’s lap. Offered the space when Japanese spaghetti house Angelo Pietro ended its long run, Sakurai looked for a concept that wouldn’t compete with Shokudo next door. “I asked bankers, ‘Where do you grab coffee?’ They said the small kiosk by Pan Am Building,” he says. “All the banks and language-school students are around this area. Within a 1-mile radius, a lot of people live alone—which tells me they have not enough time to cook, no motivation to cook or don’t know how to cook.”
Slated to open this month, Sakurai’s third Honolulu restaurant will offer healthier grab-and-go lunch fare, and an espresso bar and coffee program designed by Honolulu Coffee Co. founder Ray Suiter Jr. After 5 p.m., there’ll be artisan pizzas, appetizers and desserts. And fresh bread, of course.
Then there’s that 10,000-square-foot space behind Búho and the one he’s waiting for in Leeward, tentatively planned as a Shokudo 2.0. And then? “Five, done,” he says. “My vision for the company is five restaurants and $20 million annually by 2016. We’re going to focus on five, maintain, brush up every year and build the brand. Then we should have enough so we can challenge ourselves to do something else—go to the Mainland, a different country, maybe a franchise business.
“I’m only 37,” he points out. “I don’t want to get bored.”
Right. Sakurai is picking his way through the construction site that will be Bread + Butter. This is his tiniest restaurant—only 50 seats—and, maybe, because of this, he’s gleeful about particular touches. He stretches his arms across the windows fronting Kapi‘olani Boulevard. “The ‘Bread + Butter’ sign will go here. And every night? At 5 p.m.? We’ll add a sign that says, ‘and Wine.’” He grins and gestures toward a nook. “That’s for our pinot bar,” he says. A pinot bar? “Pinot noir and pinot grigio,” he explains, “because I like pinot.”
Quirky? Definitely—and completely in character for the man who brought us honey toast.