Perseverance is the key ability of any restaurateur. The ability to take whatever the business world can throw at you, craft a response that works to your advantage as well as that of your business, and then learn from the whole incident and file it away in your head.
Unfortunately, as Shakespeare once wrote, “ … troubles come not single spies but in battalions,” meaning you can be sure that you’ll wind up dealing with more than one “incident” at the same time, and that this (or these) incidents could be related to one another.
Such was the scenario confronting Mr. Siu Lam, proprietor of Johnson City’s very popular Yamato Japanese Steakhouse in the fall of 2018.
The first issue — the old neighbor
In business since 1998, Yamato’s Japanese Steakhouse continues to be a popular and family-run Asian cuisine restaurant. Lam, known as “Mr. Dan” to everybody, believes in working hard to get what you want, and that any adversity can be overcome.
One such adversity occurred in 2014 when Food City, the main tenant in the Markets West at Franklin shopping center where Yamato is located, decided to build a new store further along on West State of Franklin Road.
Word of Food City’s move caused the remaining tenants at Markets West to start looking for other locations, with most leaving. Yamato’s was not one of them. Being a restaurateur, Mr. Dan knew the value of the clientele he had painstakingly built over some 16 years. Here was something he didn’t want to lose by moving. So, after discussing it with his family and with his landlord, Brumit Development, Mr. Dan decided keep Yamato’s right where it was and await further developments.
The second issue — the new neighbor
In 2016, Brumit Development announced that Publix Supermarkets wanted the old Food City property for their new Publix Supermarket in Johnson City. Publix was amenable to keeping some of the remaining tenants where they are. Unfortunately, Yamato’s storefront needed to be torn down to make room for the Publix Pharmacy’s drive-thru window, Rather than bowing to the situation, Mr. Dan worked with Brumit Development to keep his restaurant on the property.
While all of this was going on, the winter of 2020 saw the COVID-19 pandemic’s arrival in Johnson City. To stay in business, Mr. Dan had to shut down his dining room and switch Yamato exclusively to carry-out, all this while negotiating with Brumit Development for the move to Yamato’s new location.
The third issue — government “assistance”
Brumit Development and Mr. Dan approved the move that summer and, in August 2020, Yamato Japanese Steakhouse began moving its fixtures to a much larger and more spacious storefront nearby. While they were moving Yamato’s did no business at all.
Mr. Dan was able to re-open Yamato’s doors in October 2020.
Yamato’s re-start was a rocky one. Though Yamato had brand new quarters, Publix was still building its supermarket. The construction site’s frequent blockage of Yamato’s customer parking cut into Yamato’s business.
Publix’s completed construction in May 2021, with a projected opening day of June 16. Now what Mr. Dan needed for Yamato Japanese Steakhouse was a new infusion of employees to handle all the new customers he was sure would show up.
However, the federal government issued stimulus checks to those who’d been furloughed from their workplace by the pandemic. As a result, many employment prospects who would normally have returned to work once they could do so were making more money by simply staying home and collecting their pandemic-related government checks.
This government-inspired labor shortage is what Mr. Dan is currently working on at Yamato Japanese Steakhouse. Not having these additional employees means that Yamato’s current staff is dealing with both serving their customers in the dining room and also doing preparation work in the kitchen.
The road ahead
Mr. Dan arrives at the restaurant before 8 a.m. each day to begin preparing the ingredients that will be used in menu items and specialties. Though Yamato’s dining room closes between 8 and 9 p.m. during the week, clean-up and preparation for the next day’s business can find Mr. Dan sometimes leaving for home at 11 p.m. or later.
Naturally, all that has and is currently happening has taken a toll on the fine folks at Yamato Japanese Steakhouse. Yet through it all, Mr. Dan, his family and his employees are maintaining a positive attitude.
“Yes, it is hard,” said Mr. Dan in conversation with me, “but I am not a quitter. Though I may feel low, I will put yesterday behind me and know that tomorrow will always be better. I know that when Publix is open for business, it will bring more customers to my door and that my business cannot help but grow. Perseverance succeeds.”