- Food and Cooking
A Really "Stupid" Japanese Restaurant
It seems to me, anyone seriously considering going into business would research the project first. If you were going to sell cars for instance, wouldn’t you find out what kind of cars the public were buying? One wouldn’t expect to find a Ford pickup at a dealer who specialized in Italian sports cars. The same would hold true for restaurants, I would think.
Consider this scenario. An American husband and wife, who have never been out of the country, know absolutely nothing about Japanese food, culture or history; decide to open up a Japanese steak house. They choose Florence, South Carolina as the location since at the time of this story, the mid 1980’s, there was only one other Japanese restaurant in town.
In addition, they probably figured even if they didn’t actually know what they were doing,who in this mid-size southern town would know the difference? And what they didn’t know they could copy from a successful chain at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina…the Nakato Japanese Steak House. Somehow they never got around to visiting that establishment.
Enter my wife! She was Japanese, had a passion for cooking and was excellent at it. Have you heard of Colonel Sanders? Well, meet the General.
After being honorably discharged from the Marine Corps, “Tommie” and I decided to move to Florence where most of my family lived close by. I nicknamed my wife Tommie since most Americans had trouble pronouncing her Japanese name.
Since we had just moved to town we were both seeking employment. Tommie was one of those wives who had to work. She wasn’t content with being just a house wife. Therefore, when I saw a newspaper help wanted ad seeking help for a soon-to-open Japanese steakhouse, I told my wife about it. She was ecstatic. This was something she had always wanted to do. However, her enthusiasm was about to be deflated.
Tommie went to be interviewed and discovered for herself how little the couple knew. She was hired, but not in the capacity as a chef, which is what she had hoped for. Two men had already been hired for that position. Professional Japanese chefs are usually male. Tommie was hired as kitchen help.
However, it seems the two men had slightly exaggerated their qualifications as chefs. They had come from New York where they had gained their extensive culinary experience flipping burgers in an undisclosed diner. And it wasn’t long before their lack of skills became obvious. They spent most of their time smoking outside and eating the expensive cuisine.
The owners were in a bind since they had to fire the two unskilled free loaders Fortunately, they discovered the gold mine of talent and knowledge my wife possessed. She was immediately promoted to “Head Chef."Tommie had her work cut out for her if she was going to turn this restaurant into the real deal.
Although Tommie wasn’t trained to put on the “juggling” show most Americans are so impressed with, she did manage to acquire some impressive moves of her own. But it wasn’t entertainment that kept customers coming back. It was her superb cooking and word of mouth. I suppose your wondering what was wrong...other than what has already been mentioned that would make it stupid.
First, take the name of Bakato Japanese Steak House. An obvious attempt at copying the afore mentioned successful competitor. The name was arrived at by substituting the first letter of the owners’ last name and adding akato. It sounded like a good idea, except for one thing. The pronunciation of the first part of the name, Baka, is directly translated in Japanese as “stupid”. So there you have it… a stupid Japanese Steakhouse.
Tommie pointed this out to the owners. But they had already invested a large amount of money in menus and the large sign out front so it was too late to change the name. This was only the tip of the iceberg.
The waitresses had been attired in Kimono’s. If they had been the proper type, it may have been alright. But these were “Geisha” kimonos, and the waitresses also had their faces caked in white makeup which gave the establishment more of a brothel appearance than a restaurant. Not a good idea for visiting Japanese.
Next on their list of mistakes was the décor. Apparently, they didn’t know the difference between Japanese and Chinese because it was half and half. Tommie was able to fix that. She also suggested it might be a good idea to buy a Japanese flag to put on the wall. At least everyone would know it was supposed to be a Japanese restaurant. The owners agreed.
The Japanese flag they bought was Japanese. But, it was a Japanese Naval flag used on ships. Not the country flag with the big red circle surrounded by a white background. This being the south, they thought that symbol represented a liquor store. There were many other mistakes made, but this gives you an idea of what Tommie was up against.
During her stint at Bakato’s, Tommie gained a measure of fame and was written up in several local newspapers. The local competition also tried luring her away with offers of higher pay. Not that they needed her, but if they could steal Bakato’s main asset the business would soon fold. Tommie was grossly under paid, but she didn’t care. She was doing what she loved…and fiercely loyal.
They needn’t have worried. The venture lasted less than a year. Not because of Tommie’s cooking, but by the owners' mishandling of the business. Not only was the husband a heavy drinker who guzzled up the profits, but he loved to play “big shot” with elite community leaders giving away free meals to them and their friends.
Maybe the restaurant idea was stupid in more ways than the name!