"Tsukiji Tamasushi" is a sushi chain restaurant which is expanding through ideas appreciated by young people and women, such as the "all you can eat" menu, which was not something available in the industry. Founded in Tsukiji after the Great Kanto Earthquake, the company rapidly grew its network during the Showa period, only to store huge debt after the collapse of the bubble economy. Back then they were facing critical financial situation that you cannot now imagine.
Yohei Nakanosato, who took over the family business is the fourth head of company. What was the driver which enabled him to realize what you may call a miracle recovery? We interviewed Mr. Nakanosato's enthusiastic comments on his experience during his overseas study programs where he learned the importance of team building, and his difficult negotiations with banks and landlords of the restaurant venues.
(Interview by Minoru Sengoku, Certified Accountant and Tax Accountant/ framework: KK Floor)
Founded in Tsukiji after the Great Kanto Earthquake, expanding network in the Showa era
Sengoku(S): Please tell us about the history of Tamasushi.
Nakanosato(N): My grandfather Eizo Nakanosato founded in March 1924. The previous year in 1923 there was the Great Kanto Earthquake which turned Tokyo into a burnt-out land. There rose rumor that the market in Nihonbashi will move to Tsukiji. My grandfather who was a tuna wholesaler in Shizuoka thought of starting a sushi shop in Tsukiji to seize the opportunity. He was given permission to use the "Tamasushi" brand form the shop in Azabu where he worked as a trainee.
However, the shop got completely burnt during WW2. My grandfather also passed away due to cerebral hemorrhage. As he left as his last words to my grandmother to look after the Tamashushi, she was making ends meet by selling dried potato in the market, as the Occupied Forces prohibited their business for 3 years, rebuilding their restaurant afterwards.
My grandmother was telling herself that she would make sushi by herself as there were no sushi chef remaining in the restaurant. However, she seems to have had bad experiences as she actually was not a sushi chef. Afterwards they were able to find a good manager and a chef, while she was still running the place.
S: Your father succeeded in 1965 as the third head of company.
N: My father had good sense as a businessman.
In 1964, the year of the Tokyo Olympics, the no-longer existing Tokyu Plaza was built in Shibuya. He asked Tokyu Plaza to let them open their second shop in the top floor, which was accepted. The place gained good business introducing ideas such as laying samples to showcase menus, and a clear billing system which was not usual for the sushi industry back then. Eventually these ideas made it easier for female guests to enter, making the shop successful.
The moment this new store surpassed sales of the first, my grandmother passed over the head position to my father. Right after we made expansion mainly throughout the Kanto area. Assume we were successful back then partially thanks to the good times of Showa, when we simply saw long queues in every shop we launched. It was also those days when we did not have to deeply consider staff training or strategic shop launches as in today's degree.
Noticing the importance of teamwork during the overseas study program
S: Heard you have studied in the U.S. to learn restaurant business. Obviously, you had in mind to take over the family business in the future?
N: I was conscious of my family background since my college days.
I had been working part time starting from Tamasushi, then a wholesaler in Tsukiji run by a relative, followed by another restaurant during my college days. This was all to gain experience in the restaurant industry. In those days, people in the industry were pushing those there as subordinates quite hard. They would often tell you big stories of horse-betting and other gambling. To some extent it was annoying when I had to imagine I would be one day surrounded by these kinds of people! I thought I would not able to stand further unless I will somehow be able to comfortably tell myself that restaurant business is something that is interesting with value.
It is because of the restaurant business I've learned in the U.S. that I was able to change my mindset. I still make use of the experience even today.
Back then I had an interesting experience. We had a so-called "team project" as our final assignment which was considered the toughest of all assignments.
We had to conduct a market research as per the level of what a consultant would do being paid, in a team of four. This very intense assignment was to analyze on what will be the most profitable way to run a hotel in the area and why, by studying size of hotel in number of rooms, concept, theme of hotel, etc.
In an instant, there were groups formed among the skilled students. I had to team up with the left-over two Japanese men, and one Italian who doesn't even attend class. Classmates were making fun of us in a guess we would end up in last place.
However, after five weeks the brightest team broke up. A member did not want to give way to another member in the same group, making the group unable to perform as a team. On the other hand, it was us who started to run well as a team.
These projects require two aspects, statistical analysis and writing. Japanese have a drawback in English, but good at math. Writing can be coordinated by our Italian friend which is his bread and butter. We eventually marked the highest score.
This is when I've learned that best performance comes when you do something under good teamwork with contribution of each one's strength, and not necessarily from the height of the skill of an individual member.
S: Such teamwork may be effective when it comes to gathering sushi chefs having craftsman's mentality.
N: Yes indeed, they have strong personality to start with.
No matter how good you are as a chef, you cannot run a restaurant all by yourself. That is why I instruct all to create a good mood to have everyone enable to contribute as a team. I've learned through my experience at the studying program that by a chemistry effect, forming a team having members contribute on each one's strength is most unbeatable.
I don't follow the idea that a company will go down unless it hires talented staffs. On the contrary, I believe a pattern for a group with good teamwork will likely to succeed. So many of our sushi chefs are those who create good atmosphere rather than having good cooking skills, which I believe it’s good for us.
Sushi is a dish which makes seafood at its best
S: Heard Tamasushi’s policies are “make use of the ingredients”, “nurture staffs”, “handle tools with care”.
N: What highlights seafood at its best I believe is sushi. It’s all about freshness, not adding flavor by sauce. We think about how to emphasize the taste within the fresh ingredients of the season. So, I believe it is a profession to carefully choose from the best ingredients.
We are now training new staffs. It is important to teach them by simply showing how we cut the fish rapidly instead of explaining piece by piece. You need to know the structure of fish to be able to do so. That is why we teach them to sharpen their skills in order to make use of the ingredient.
Why we “nurture staff” is because we think it is important to be a human being to make sushi, not a robot. What kind of person you would like to have sushi made by? Of course, someone who knows what hospitality is all about.
We strictly tell our chefs not to focus only on techniques, and think about being desired by customers to make for them.
In the 90-day program, we intensively train cooking, hosting, and human character.
And to “handle tools with care” means, by carefully taking care of your tools, your doings will help you in some way, and in fact they will break if you treat the vice versa. Same for the restaurant itself. If you thank the shop all the time keeping it tidy, strangely customers will never stop coming. However, if you leave it dirty not cleaning it properly, performance will drop.
A tough start, with continuous crisis
S: You once described in an interview the financial situation of the company when you took over as “a floating leaf on the surface of a pond”. What did that actually mean?
N: after the collapse of the bubble economy, value of our investments plunged, ending up to have debts. In fact, our borrowings were 1.4 times of our annual sales. Our annual profit was wiped off just by paying back the interest. Not having our own capital, we couldn’t invest for our future. There I stood up to revive the company by creating a five-year plan, explaining the details towards 8 different banks. It was quite a tough start.
Before I became president of the company, my father told me a story.
“In Go (a board game played mainly in East Asia), there are stones for sacrifice, and those to keep. Stones for sacrifice may be taken away, but if you allow the same for those to keep, it will drastically change the game against your favor. For Tamasushi, we can throw away visual assets and honor. I sold our house, and stepped down as President. There are others who can inherit such assets. However, only someone from the family can inherit deficits, such as yourself. Will you be our keeping stone?”
I didn’t feel bad at all to be told of this. I’ve thought that if our brand is in such crisis, why won’t I do something about it. After all, I’ve been preparing for this all the time. Therefore, I took over.
S: Was there anything you had struggled by taking over?
N: I was told harsh things when I presented our plan to banks. But they were actually testing me, thinking I wouldn’t pursue if I felt down just by being told that way.
In the first year, we were on track with our plan. However, there came a second challenge. We were suddenly told to move out from the JR (railroad) shopping facility.
They were explaining from now they want to focus on women ranging between the age of 25 to 35, so they do not need sushi restaurants which are preferred by elders. I went to ask the president of the company about 3 times telling them it is wrong to think young women would not prefer sushi. They declined my appeal twice. In the third occasion, their president said we must give up Shinjuku, but may continue other venues. This had really helped us.
But, the story of retreating from Shinjuku was known to our banks. We were given doubts against the integrity of our plan. Immediately our relation became awkward, even being told we might be legally liquidated by a 90 percent chance.
S: This was surely a crisis!
N: Honestly, I felt not going to work anymore.
But one day when at home I was called by a person in a bank who was at that time barking at me the most. He told me “I was using harsh language, but actually meant to support you at the same time. If you can prepare an additional plan covering the loss from the Shinjuku store within 3 days, I will support you.”
What seemed once helpless, started to move forward once again. And my additional plan was accepted.
Opening of “Tamashushi college”, nurturing the next generation
S: Your passion must have done a great deal to persuade that person in the bank.
N: Good I did not give up. I was able to hang in there because of my love and pride towards the brand. Actually, in November 2017 we are going back in to the place we were for the first time in 14 years! People managing the JR facility now also have changed their views saying, “Even for venues aiming women, we do need sushi restaurants.”
S: Anything new to try at this moment?
N: We are facing serious shortage of sushi chefs. The reason is obvious. We don’t have a clear method of training talents, and the sushi industry’s working conditions for chefs remains in lack of transparency.
In midst of such situation, we opened the “Tamasushi college” in April 2017. This is not just a sushi cooking school. We will nurture you as human talents, training the three pillars which are cooking, hospitality, and human characteristics, in a period of 3 months.
By making the curriculum clear, anyone can develop according to their will no matter who is the instructor.
This is an investment in advance. Those who take these courses shall bloom its talent in 10 years. 30 years later they may be representing our “Edomae” sushi (Sushi using fish originally from Tokyo under its own style).
S: Please leave a message to our subscribers.
N: Like myself, I believe there are those who are feeling nervous about taking over a family business, and worrying about the outcome. It will be quite important to know what your predecessors were thinking about when they came over their difficulties during their times.
We are standing on a path drawn by our predecessors. You may lead to a good pass-over to the next generation if you continuously dig in and realize the idea that was there since foundation of the company.
Yohei Nakanosato (President and representative director, KK Tamasushi)
Born in Tokyo, 1972. After earning a B.A. at Gakushuin University, Faculty of Law, Political Science, Nakanosato attended and graduated from the “HRTM” program at the University of Denver, which is considered as the “MBA of restaurant business”. Joined Tamasushi in 1999, became fourth head of company as President and Representative Director in 2005. Now continues his journey to develop a sushi enterprise for the new era.
Name of company: KK Tamasushi
Brand: Tsukiji Tamasushi
Business details: Sushi cooking and sales (Edomae style handmade sushi)
Headquarters: 3rd floor, Tsukiji MK Building 2-11-26 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
Representative: Yohei Nakanosato
No. of outlets: 29
No. of staffs: 630