Welcome back to IBJ’s video feature “Inside Dish: The Business of Running Restaurants.”
Our subject this week is Yokohama, a Greenwood sushi joint that opened in 2008 and was purchased by an employee and her husband in February 2011. For new owners Scott and Debbie Bennett, the venture that gobbled up most of their savings was far from a sure thing. The restaurant had developed a reputation for spotty and sometimes rude service, leaving a trail of scathing user-generated reviews on online sites such as Citysearch.com and Yahoo! Travel.
“They had some issues, and the business wasn’t doing as well as it could have done,” said Scott, 57, a retired foundry and assembly plant worker for Chrysler. “Business fell off. It wasn’t going well for them.”
The ace in the hole was wife Debbie, 51, a native of Taiwan and a former owner of local Egg Roll King fast-Chinese restaurants. She had left the food-service industry in part to care for her ailing parents, but began working for Yokohama in 2008 after an appeal from one of its owners, an acquaintance. Starting as a waitress, she soon graduated to sushi chef.
When it became apparent that the owners wanted to retire, Debbie immediately made an offer.
“One day, she woke me up and said, ‘What do you think if I buy that restaurant?” Scott recalled. “And I said, ‘OK, but let me think about it.’ And she said, ‘Well, hurry up, because we bought it yesterday.’”
They quickly decided to buy both the business and its real estate for a total of $280,000. They sank essentially all of their savings – $210,000 – into the purchase, borrowed $20,000 via credit cards and collected the remaining $50,000 through personal loans from family and friends.
“The Chinese community is very close-knit,” Scott said. “They would go to the ends of the earth to help each other. They don’t complain about the way the world is. They just make it happen.”
The new owners decided to keep the same name and décor. “All we did was put out one new sign that said ‘Under new management,’” Scott said. “People would come and look in the door to make sure it was under new management. Once they found out that it was Debbie, they were in the door.”
“It went by word of mouth and it went quickly,” Scott said. “Within 60 days, I’d say that we had 60 percent of our customers back.”
Scott staged an online public relations offensive, beefing up Yokohama’s Facebook presence and contacting customers who had written critical reviews to let them know ownership had changed.
They stabilized the wait staff by employing only family members, including two of Debbie’s sons, two of her sisters and two nieces. They initially delayed most compensation to help get the restaurant humming again.
“Without her family, there would be no restaurant,” Scott said.
Family members can be plugged into any position. “Every single person here knows how to be a waiter, can make sushi, can serve wine, can do kitchen jobs, work the deep fryer, wash dishes and sweep and mop the floors,” Debbie said. “Everybody can do everything. There is no, ‘This isn’t my job.’”
They also hired a chef for more traditional, kitchen-based cuisine and bolstered that section of the menu with items for those not interested in raw fish. Since the Bennetts took over the restaurant, food sales that heavily favored sushi have leveled to nearly an even split with kitchen-prepared items, Scott said.
Yokohama recorded gross sales of $231,000 in its first 12 months under the Bennetts. They already have been able to repay the $50,000 in loans they received from friends and family and make a dent in their credit card debt. They essentially live off of Scott’s military pension and income from a few rental properties, not relying on the restaurant for any income.
While the 40-seat eatery tends to be packed on weekends, the owners would like to see more consistent business during the week. Scott plans to leverage social media and e-mail lists of customers to encourage weekday business, but he eschews offers from couponing services like Groupon and Living Social.
“We’re focusing on quality of food, quality of service and the atmosphere,” he said. “People come here because they want to come here. They don’t come here thinking that they are going to get a deal. They’re not coming here thinking that it’s going to be cheap, and it’s not. It’s not the cheapest place to get sushi, but you’re not going to get it any better. I think that if you focus on those things, you don’t have to worry about what you are charging.”
For now, Mondays are off the table. The Bennetts decided to give family members that day off after Debbie’s father passed away in December. That move allows the extended family to spend more time together; Debbie still helps her mother with daily dialysis treatments.
Ideally, Scott and Debbie will be able to step back from day-to-day duties at the restaurant within 18 to 24 months, letting family members take over management.
“My wife and I would be able to travel, which was the original plan,” Scott said. “I’m almost 60 and I’d like to retire. I’d planned on it my whole life.”
In the video at top, Scott and Debbie discuss how they met and married and ended up back in the restaurant business. They also address how they were able to clean up Yokohama’s stained reputation.