Japanese Restaurant Owners Evolve Their Neighborhood, Venue, and Menu

by Gil Zeimer on March 23, 2011
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Mari Takahashi and Gil Payne ran Sozai, a successful “Izakaya” in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District for over a year. Though they enjoyed running this traditional Japanese restaurant where people enjoy Asian tapas and sake, they yearned for a larger venue and a more vibrant neighborhood.

Now, for the last 16 months, they’ve been operating Nombe Restaurant, a 100-seat gastropub in San Francisco’s Mission District, which has a decidedly different vibe from the Avenues. We asked them, as small business owners, how they’re coping with the challenges of running a much larger venue.

ISBB: Why did you move from your first residential neighborhood restaurant to the Mission?

Ms. Takahashi: I would say the answer is “location, location, location.” Running a daily restaurant is hard enough, so we wanted to have a venue with more foot traffic. Now, at 21st and Mission Street, we attract many more walk-ins because we’re closer to other restaurants and to public transportation, especially to MUNI and BART (the Bay Area’s subway), where we’re three blocks away from both the 18th Street and 24th Street stations.

How many partners do you have?

Myself, my husband, Gil Payne, and our new chef, Vince Schofield, are the three partners. Vince is a graduate of the California Culinary Academy and his initial background was European (Italian and Mediterranean) food. But he worked in Japan for four different Japanese Izakaya restaurants, so he’s the perfect chef for us.

How are your restaurant reviews?

We’re extremely proud that Nombe was mentioned in a recent Michelin Guide. We were named one of the Top 100 Bay Area Restaurants in 2010 and also earned 2.5 stars from Michael Bauer, the SF Chronicle’s food writer, less than three months after we opened Nombe. That helped attract many new customers to our seasonable, sustainable, and locally sourced tapas, along with a wide selection of sake, cocktails, and beers.

How do you advertise your restaurant?

Because my background is technology, we have a great website, use Twitter’s Street Food Menu, advertise our daily specials on Facebook, and have a monthly online newsletter. But most of all, word of mouth from our satisfied customers helps to spread the word about Nombe.

Your new restaurant seats more than three times as many people as your first. How do you handle that volume?

We work very hard, but we’re very happy. Fridays and Saturdays, we highly recommend that you make a reservation because we get so crowded. We now have more employees (13 at Nombe vs. five at Sozai) and many more customers, so we’re not just a family-run restaurant anymore.

What do you like the best about having a bigger restaurant?

Compared to a small restaurant, we can do a lot more things. We’re testing sake tastings. We can try a lot of different dishes before we put them on the menu. We can attract more people. And we enjoy meeting them all – some are local businesspeople and some live nearby. We can also have bigger parties.

What’s one of the biggest surprises about your new restaurant?

We’re open late compared to other restaurants – until 11pm on weekdays and 1am on weekends – so we host many restaurant industry people who want to eat here after they work somewhere else.

What do you miss most about owning your own catering company?

We still do a lot of it through Mari’s Catering. It’s a great help now that we have a bigger kitchen because we can do events in-house or off-site. We don’t offer sushi on the Nombe menu, but we still do a lot of sushi catering for weddings, corporate parties, and sushi cooking classes.

What challenges have you overcome?

Ironically, the San Francisco Giants’ success last October was very tough on us and other local restaurants because the baseball fans would rather stay home and watch baseball than go out to eat. We definitely had some very slow nights, as did our neighboring restaurants. Now, we’re happy every night when we see lots of customers!

How is your husband helping to run the restaurant?

When he lived in Japan, my husband fell in love with sake, so as our “Sake Sommelier,” Gil walks around to different tables and asks if our guests want suggestions for ordering sake. We offer more than 75 sake selections, eight local and Japanese beers on tap, and several organic fruit shochu cocktails, so there’s a lot of sake tasting going on!

Any words of advice for people who want to open a restaurant?

After 16 months, we’re still experiencing growing pains, so I suggest studying all the positives and negatives before you open. Have a very strong business plan. Line up a few investors, but not too many. Learn how to live on less sleep than you ever imagined you would. And you must love to be around people all the time.

For more information or to taste foods and drinks at a Japanese gastropub, visit Nombe Restaurant, located at 2491 Mission Street, San Francisco.

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