SAMURAI01 February 2019 Written by By Stan Le
Published in February 2019 Articles
BRINGING ADDITIONAL FINE FOOD & FUN DINING TO EAST COUNTY RESIDENTS
“I CHOSE THE NAME SAMURAI BECAUSE IT IS EASY TO REMEMBER, AND BECAUSE I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN FASCINATED BY LEGENDS OF THE JAPANESE SAMURAI WARRIOR CLASS.”
We opened Antioch’s Samurai Japanese Restaurant in December. We offer two styles of Japanese cuisine grilled and sushi. Diners choosing grilled have a further choice between food prepared in the kitchen or teppanyaki style. The word “teppanyaki” comes from two Japanese words “teppan,” which means iron plate, and “yaki” the Japanese word for grilled, broiled, or fried. Teppanyaki is a style in which up to ten diners sit around an iron grill.
The dining space is divided into three sections: 12 teppanyaki grills serving up to 120 diners, a table area that can seat 50, and an enormous central bar. A private room in back will seat 20 people for special events. A semi-private area is also available for groups of up to 40 people. The two spaces can be combined for a special event seating as many as 60.
We do food service right! Being a successful restaurateur in charge of a thriving enterprise like Samurai requires training, experience, skill, drive, and intelligence. A diner at one of the teppanyaki grills enjoying his steak and vegetables or sitting at a table enjoying his unagi donburi cannot imagine the amount of behind-the-scenes planning, training, coordinating, and scheduling that are required to maintain our crew of 15 table servers, seven teppanyaki chefs, five bartenders, four sushi chefs, four kitchen helpers, three bussers, two managers, two hostesses, two dishwashers, plus my sister Holly, wife Connie and me.
Opening Day was a great success following a decade of hoping and dreaming. Back in 2008 I was attracted by the venue’s premier location and style. It had begun as Qins Bistro and Bar. The original owner spent a lot of money, time, and energy to create one of East County’s finest dining establishments, featuring an amazing circular bar that people drive for a long way to see.
I was delighted when the property opened up last fall and signed the contract in September. We wanted to open before the holidays so spent three months working around the clock installing the teppanyaki grills plus carrying out the major remodeling and rebranding required in order to convert the space from the original Chinese ambiance to the Japanese style that I needed. We made it before the holidays! Opening Day was December 18. We were at near capacity for a hugely successful New Year’s Eve party when 270 revelers gathered to greet 2019.
Creating Samurai was made easy by the fact that I have been a restaurateur doing this kind of thing for a dozen years. It was also easier because the restaurant replicates the menus, style, and service of our Shirasoni Japanese Restaurant, which is located only a mile-and-a-half east down Lone Tree Way. Even that was made easier because it was a copy of the original Shirasoni Restaurant located in Stockton.
When we opened Shirasoni in 2009, residents were glad for the high-quality dining experience we offered, as well as the group-based fun that diners could have around our teppanyaki grills. Almost from the beginning, people were drawn in ever-increasing numbers by Shirasoni’s quality dining experience through excellent food, premium customer service, and the opportunity of watching a chef’s skillful performance that provides almost as much enjoyment as eating the food.
Part of Shirasoni’s excellent customer service was minimizing wait times. However, the challenge of moving people into their seats in a timely manner became progressively more difficult as the restaurant increased in popularity. For example, a customer might make 6:00 p.m. reservations for eight people and at 7:00 six of them might still be sitting around waiting for the arrival of a couple whose baby-sitter wasn’t showing up.
They finally are seated at 7:15, which causes problems for diners coming in for their 7:30 reservations. That isn’t a problem when you are running 50 percent capacity, but when you are at 90 percent, you end up with angry people who can’t understand why they are still standing and sitting in the foyer a half-hour after their reservation time.
Therefore, we opened Samurai as Shirasoni’s sister restaurant to balance the flow of customers. We wanted to use a different name in order to avoid confusion. I chose the name Samurai because it is easy to remember, and because I have always been fascinated by legends of the Japanese Samurai warrior class. The name is particularly appropriate because Shirasoni is the name for the white tiger that, according to legend, would protect the samurais.
I spent a decade as a highly successful Stockton real estate broker. I would probably be doing that still if it weren’t for a chance encounter at a 2006 party. I took my team and family members out for Christmas dinner at Stockton’s original Shirasoni’s restaurant.
The restaurant owner was a client of my business. My life made an unexpected turn when he approached me and said, “Hey, brother….” (For some reason, when he spoke to me, I was always his brother.) “We’re moving to Florida, and I want to sell the restaurant.”
“What’s the sale price?” I asked.
I was amazed when he said it was only $650,000. As his agent, I knew how much profit the restaurant was bringing in and questioned him about why the price was so low. Of course, if he sold it for the higher asking price that I thought more appropriate, my commission would increase. But he was adamant about not raising the price. Since it seemed such a good deal to me, I decided I would buy it myself. My parents had retired from a successful grocery business, and I imagined they could use their grocery experience to manage the restaurant, especially with the help of my younger sister Holly, so I bought the place and set them up.
“TEPPANYAKI IS A STYLE IN WHICH UP TO TEN DINERS SIT AROUND AN IRON GRILL.”
Someone told me that everything is more complicated than you imagine if you don’t know anything about it. Well, that happened to me. I didn’t know anything about the restaurant business and it really is complicated. For one thing, my parents and Holly quickly discovered that managing a restaurant is nothing like managing a grocery store. Even worse, however, when the owner moved to Florida, all my teppanyaki chefs moved with him. Even though I wasn’t doing any work on the premises, I posted a CLOSED FOR CONSTRUCTION sign on the door and went shopping for chefs. I began visiting all the teppanyaki restaurants in the area. When I found a chef I liked, I would give him a big tip and my business card, asking him if he would like to make more money working for me.
Fortunately, my efforts were successful, and five chefs finally followed me into my Shirasoni Restaurant. I took down the CONSTRUCTION sign, opened for business, and 12 years later it is still providing good food to hungry people. (By the way, all five of those chefs are still working for me.)
I always put 100 percent effort into everything I do, and it turned out that I have genuine gifts as a restaurateur. Besides my Shirasoni brand restaurants, I have been involved in helping to open, manage, and consult with more restaurants than I can remember. Restaurant owners who are having problems invite me to assess their business and suggest improvements. Sometimes after only 30 minutes of looking at the situation, I know what can be done to make the business more successful.
I flip restaurants just like some people flip houses. I purchase them, fix their problems, put processes and procedures into place, and then sell them at a profit.
I’m looking forward to 2019. Life is satisfying when you find something you are good at and then work hard to make yourself and the people about you happy and successful, as well.
Photos by Casey Quist