An Exclusive Interview with Chef Roy Yamaguchi
Chef Roy Yamaguchi started as a chef and over the years has built the Roy’s Restaurants empire. A James Beard Award winning chef, restaurateur, television personality, cookbook author, and philanthropist, he has uniquely branded his modern Hawaii-inspired cuisine. Trained at the Culinary Institute of America, he took his culinary skills and parlayed them into a business, launching restaurants, products, and partnerships. With 2018 marking the 30-year anniversary of the original Roy’s Restaurant, Melissa down with Roy Yamaguchi for a candid, exclusive interview about his journey. The result was an honest and inspiring depiction of what it is like to follow a dream, start a business, and master a craft.
Melissa: I know you started in your career by getting expertise and building your culinary skills. Where and how did you actually pick up the skills on the business side of it.
Roy: [Before I opened Roy’s,] I opened a restaurant called 385 North in Los Angeles…The four years that we had the restaurant, the restaurant almost went bankrupt. We actually ended up selling that restaurant for basically 10 cents on the dollar. That period of time was where I probably learned the most about what to do, what not to do in our industry. So, when I first started and opened Roy’s in 1988, basically four years later, I was more prepared to do something that I wanted to do from the prior years but wasn’t able to accomplish.
Melissa: What would you say the biggest lessons were in that first go around?
Roy: There’s not just one thing. It’s a combination of things that just compiled and compounded…I think starting from just getting too many people involved in the restaurant as far as the partnership went. That was wrong. And not being able to account for the business we were doing and plan for the future was another. And we were kind of caught up on a day-to-day basis of running the business but weren’t really aware of taking care of the finances to run it, to look for the future, and to plan, and by the time we got things kind of rolling to make all of that happen, we were too far in debt… I’m very very thankful that I went through that period of time and learned a lot, but yet not happy that it happened, because you know you don’t want anything bad to happen.
Melissa: How do you now evaluate the partnerships that seem right for your business and decide which opportunities to pursue?
Roy: To me, everything is personal. I do a lot of things because I feel a certain way. And I try to make sure my personality and how I feel is attached to everything that I do…If it means a lot to me, and if I want to participate 1000%, it just makes all these partnerships or what I do even better, right?
I’m a true believer in a win-win situation…I try to figure out what can we do to work together and to make this great so that we can all participate and feel great about what we’re doing and where we’re going to go.I’m a true believer in a win-win situation…I try to figure out what can we do to work together and to make this great so that we can all participate and feel great about what we’re doing and where we’re going to go. - Roy Yamaguchi… Click To Tweet
Melissa: As you’ve accepted these opportunities and formed new relationships, how did you make sure to keep clarity in your brand?
Roy: When someone puts their life into [a business] – not meaning that you put 100 hours a week into it – but you put your own stamp on it, your own DNA. When you start putting your own DNA into something that you do, it becomes personal. When it becomes personal, it becomes a company that runs on the idea and the philosophy…As you move forward the individuals that you bring on that hopefully have the same vision and goals as you have – because that’s why you’ve included these people into your company and your life – most likely these people have the same idea and vision as you do, and they can help you make that happen even more.
At the end of the day, people want to come to our restaurants because they’re looking for something that’s not common…quality and creativity at a higher level. When we deliver that and we give them that wow factor it’s a win for all of us.
Melissa: What do you consider the biggest accomplishment of your career?
Roy: There are small accomplishments and big accomplishments along the way that could be monumental at that stage in life, so something big doesn’t really have to happen…The guests are coming in, the guests are extremely happy, you get a good review, or your peers tell you how great you’re doing.
In a 30-year life span – because we’re celebrating our 30th anniversary – maybe some of those things aren’t as highlighted or as big…but yet as you move along the way on a year to year basis, some of these things are extremely important in how it makes you feel to even do better.
With all of that said and done, because I am a chef to begin with and that is what I built my career on, my winning the James Beard award was extremely huge for me…that doesn’t happen to a lot of chefs. I was lucky to be the first James Beard award winner in Hawaii and now there’s two more: Chef Mavro and Chef Alan Wong. So there’s only three of us in the history of the state of Hawaii. That’s a pretty big accomplishment.
Melissa: What was the most stressful moment of your career?
Roy: I look at stress as a state of mind. Depending on how you take stress and how you can throw it off or bounce it off it’s another thing. I think that from when I started Roy’s, my life has been less stressful because it’s been fun. At the end of the day you go up and down, that’s how the business cycle and life is. You just have to be able to deal with the ups and downs and the setbacks, you just have to look at that and figure out what you’re going to do and what your next move is going to be. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to withstand a lot of that pressure and stress to a certain extent because I love the battle.
With that said, when I first started 385 North, it was basically four years of compounded things that went wrong. So, for four years I lived in a situation where things were just pretty bad. But even at that time I wasn’t crazily stressed, I just tried to figure out what I was doing wrong and how I could make things better.
Melissa: What would you recommend to [other entrepreneurs] or advise them to think about as they’re putting their products and services into the world?
Roy: I’ve been fortunate to be able to surround myself with a lot of great talent, a lot of great people that care, some people that believe in me, people that I feel confident that if I ask them that they would give me the truth. To be able to surround yourself with people like that is extremely important…I am also fortunate to have great friends and great staff that I can also say, “Hey, what do you think about this idea?” and get feedback.
I think communication is extremely important…when people start to close their minds and their eyes, I think that’s when trouble begins.
As we wrapped up the conversation, Roy Yamaguchi shared more about the 30th anniversary of the original Roy’s Restaurants and the success it has achieved against all odds.
Melissa: A lot of us long to have the business savvy before we get started, but we’re not always in the position to have that.
Roy: If I would have gone to a business school, maybe I would have known a lot more about business. But at the same time I think that being naïve…I was able to take a lot more risk and not really analyze a lot of things that a business person might have done. I was going by instinct and going by my gut.
When I opened the first Roy’s, I mean this was all done on instinct. My cousin told me to come out and look at this site, I came out here, I sat on the patio, I looked around, and I felt something special. I felt that this could be a really good restaurant.
In reality, every architect that went to help me put drawings together for this first restaurant I was building in Hawaii – the first original Roy’s in Hawaii Kai – everybody told me not to open there. Every architect, every person that I ran across said do not open a restaurant on that site, because if you do you will fail. Because Hawaii Kai was called the “graveyard for restaurants.”
I wanted a restaurant that we can call our own in a neighborhood. I wanted the neighborhood to be proud of Roy’s and how it started and where it started…I really felt that I wanted to be in this neighborhood. I wanted to hire our staff from this neighborhood, and I wanted the neighborhood to be proud of who we were and what we were doing as a community. I wanted people to drive to this site and to plan an evening for it.
I just felt that it would be a great place to be, and now we’ve been here for 30 years. We’re celebrating our 30th year being on this same location. Sometimes knowing less is achieving more.
I’m very proud of the team that we have that has worked with me all these years, and we have a lot more to accomplish, a lot more to go. I think everybody’s hungry for the creativity and they’re hungry for making it better. And at the end of the day, what we want to do is give great customer service to all of our guests that come to our restaurants day in and day out, believing in what they hear and all of our quality. They’re coming here to receive great service and great food. It’s up to us to continually make sure we can give that wow factor to our guests and to our staff that work with us on a day-to-day basis.
Roy’s story has some important lessons for small businesses everywhere. Read Melissa’s takeaways from this interview here in this Marketing Tip of the Week .
Listen to the entire interview here.
ABOUT ROY YAMAGUCHI
Roy Yamaguchi is the chef and founder of Roy’s Restaurants, Roy’s Beach House, Eating House 1849, Humble Market Kitchin and Asian Market Kitchen. Of his many culinary awards, he was the first person from Hawaii to receive the James Beard Best Pacific Northwest Chef Award. He hosted six seasons of the PBS series, Hawaii Cooks with Roy Yamaguchi and was featured on the Food Network’s My Country, My Kitchen. He has published four cookbooks, co-founded the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival, and is the founder of Roy’s Annual Golf Classic. Through all of his success, Roy gives back to the community through philanthropic work. Learn more about Roy and Roy’s Restaurants at https://www.roysrestaurant.com/.