For years, stumbling into the subterranean sushi spot Hasaki or the nearly undetectable Sake Bar Decibel in the East Village felt like falling down a secret passageway into Japan — in no small part because they had virtually no online presence. Today, though, both of their websites are beautifully designed, with high-quality photography and clear menus, and they have active Instagram accounts. Hasaki even offers delivery.
It’s a big shift, one that has Sakura Yagi’s fingerprints all over it. The 32-year-old is the chief operating officer of T.I.C. Restaurant Group, a sprawling collection of Japanese restaurants — and an authorized Toto washlet dealership — that was founded by her father, Bon Yagi, in 1984. Building his 18-restaurant empire and the foundations of Little Tokyo over the course of 36 years, Bon, 71, quietly became one of New York City’s most influential restaurateurs — and for the last eight years, Sakura Yagi has worked to bring her father’s restaurant group into the 21st century.
Yagi grew up in her father’s restaurants, with the first one opening just a few years before she was born; she jokingly refers to them as her siblings. So in 2012, when Bon Yagi was diagnosed with now-remissive prostate cancer, Yagi knew she needed to step in. “I thought, ‘Okay, there is no plan for after my father. What is going to happen to this company that my parents worked so hard to build?’” Yagi says. “What is going to happen to the people who work for us, their families, and the legacy?”
That year, Yagi paused her career in public relations to take over operations at T.I.C., where she expected to stay on for five years while coming up with a succession plan. She found a company whose inner workings were practically fossilized: Managers still counted employee hours by hand and faxed the totals to the main office each pay period; her father would then head to the bank, withdraw money, and pay employees in cash. (The company at one point also encompassed a private detective business, video rental, and beeper rental.) “This is 2012. I was like, ‘What era are we in?’” she jokes.
Coming from a modern corporation, she was accustomed to benefits and processes that have long been the norm at most companies, and she wanted to bring them to her family business. Adding things like email, direct deposit, 401k programs, and health insurance was a starting point.
It wasn’t an easy process, her employees say. Nozomi Horikoshi, Yagi’s assistant at the time and now T.I.C.’s vice president of operations, says that Yagi had to teach some long-time employees how to even use a computer — a skill some were not interested in learning. Many viewed her as simply Bon Yagi’s daughter, Yagi says, having known her since she was a child.
“It’s always difficult managing people who are older than you, but to manage people who are older than you but also knew you as a child is very difficult,” she says.
Yagi says that she also made some mistakes along the way, especially when trying her hand at the front-facing side of things; a private event space above Cha-An Teahouse flopped. “I don’t have the intuition that my father has, that antenna that he’s developed over the years,” she says. “Data is therefore that much more important to me to be able to make decisions.”
But by repeatedly tackling mundane tasks like fixing the internet, troubleshooting broken equipment, and other day-to-day operational duties, she eventually gained the trust and respect of the T.I.C. workers. She’s currently transforming the failed private event space into a cooking classroom, with several classes having already sold out.
It’s now been eight years since Yagi stepped in, three years longer than she planned to work at T.I.C. She says she stayed once she accomplished her initial operations goals because “the horizons opened up” and she saw more opportunities to shape the company’s future — and because of her commitments to her family and their employees.
According to Yagi, who subscribes to the “employees first” motto popularized by Danny Meyer, her primary work goal is improving life for her staff. “We’re not a company that’s obsessed with the bottom line; we don’t have shareholders we have to report to,” she says. “So we focus more on, ‘Okay, how can we make this better for the staff? How can we make more so the bonuses are higher?’”
Horikoshi notes that Yagi hasn’t changed just the systems at the company, but also the culture. “It’s not a typical Japanese corporation,” Horikoshi says. “We have a variety of people, not only one race or culture or religion, and Sakura asks them different ideas.”
On a recent sunny day, Yagi held court at the front window table at East Village sushi institution Hasaki. Employees interrupted repeatedly to ask her opinion about various decisions. A woman greeted her in Japanese with a quick question. A man with a ladder gave her a wave before setting it up to fix something outside. Several people asked where Bon Yagi was. Finally, her father appeared, tapping on the window to get her attention so the two could have a brief conversation.
It’s a sign that she’s deeply embedded now, both in the neighborhood and in the wider community. Erina Yoshida — also the COO of a company started by her father — who runs fellow legacy businesses Sunrise Mart and Angel’s Share, acknowledges that Yagi and T.I.C. have played a major role in how far the New York City Japanese restaurant scene has come.
“T.I.C. Group, as well as other places, really highlighted various types of Japanese cuisines and has helped the food culture flourish,” Yoshida says. “It’s nice to see that there are various other non-Japanese people opening up their types of restaurants and bars, or even chefs utilizing more and more Japanese ingredients within their cuisine. I think that’s really evident in New York City culture. What Sakura has done as second-generation is spread more awareness not just within the community, but also outside.”
Outside of work, Yagi has been raising her 1-year-old daughter, Tsuru, as a single mother. She’s also the co-council leader of the New York chapter of nonprofit group the U.S.-Japan Council, which focuses on fostering U.S.-Japan relationships through events like public happy hours and concerts. Yagi has broadened the scope of the group so much in her focus on rising generations that her co-council leader, Julie Azuma, says the organization has been given “new life.” “She’s the glue that holds this young professional group together,” Azuma says.
Yagi’s work with other young Japanese Americans on the U.S.-Japan Council “makes me feel accepted — neither Japanese nor American, just kind of a hyphenated identity,” she says. “I used to think about it as, ‘Oh, I have to choose. Do I stay authentic and go the Japanese way, or do I try to do something more of this age?’” she questions. “Now I see it more as, ‘Wow, there are so many opportunities because my father has created so many different brands.’ Being authentically Japanese has a place in being authentically American and appealing to more of the masses.”
In the future, Yagi envisions taking some of T.I.C.’s concepts to multiple locations both in the United States and abroad. She plans to stay on at the company to achieve that, and her younger brother has joined T.I.C. to help. Through it all, she’s cognizant of upholding the Yagi family name; Bon Yagi says that he wants his children to “continue this legacy” and be sure not to “blow out our candle.”
“A lot of people just dismiss me as Yagi-san’s daughter,” Yagi says. “You just have to understand that he’s doing something at a different vantage point than I am, but [understand] that my vantage point also has merit. And, slowly, people will start to accept me into that.”