In an industry where longevity is measured in dog years (at best), Yoshi's Cafe has proved the test of time and established itself as a dining legacy in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood. How does one accomplish such a feat? Yoshi Katsumura and his wife Nobuko provide some insight.
In the restaurant sphere, 10 years is a long time to be in business. Which makes 32 years a Herculean success story. Yoshi's Cafe has been a keystone along Lakeview's Halsted Street corridor longer than I've been alive, a point we all laughed about recently as I feverishly sipped water trying to hide my self consciousness.
"I think you can count on two hands how many restaurants have survived for 32 years in Chicago," mused Katsumura, articulating the inevitable truth about the transient field. But the duo know what they're doing, and they know what it takes to run an establishment, adapt over the changing years and trends, and re-affirm itself as a community staple.
"When we opened 32 years ago, the food was not like what we're serving now. Food was very basic, but we started introducing new wave cooking," explained the chef, who steadily started fusing his French culinary training with Asian - specifically Japanese - cuisines. After doing that for 10 years or so, in came the American influences, notably Californian. Around this time, Yoshi's Cafe started becoming popular, at which point they started infusing bits of Spanish influences as well. The results are a timeworn melting pot unique to Chicago, distinct for its menu as well as its enduring hospitality, which proved to be a key component for the restaurateurs.
The biggest shift in the paradigm for the restaurant was a change from formal French to more casual dining after roughly 13 years in business.
"It was hard for my regular customer to take that change," Katsumura said. "We had switched completely to casual dining and some of those customers never came back because they don't like casual."
Although the change came with mixed emotions for the couple, as Nobuko said, it worked out for the best, explaining how their customer base broadened to young diners, older diners, and even families with kids. Even many of the initial naysayers came back once they warmed up to Yoshi's proclivities for casual but serious cooking.
"In the 1980s when we opened, people's eating habits were different. They dressed up and went out for nice dinners and our weekends were really busy because of special occasions," Nobuko said. "But in the 1990s, people's habits changed to more healthy eating and they went out more casually, but they still like serious food."
And thus they adapted to reflect that.
"Like fashion, food keeps changing," Katsumura said. Heavy French cooking used to be very in, then came healthier Californian cooking, then Asian influences. With changing menus came changing space, eventually resulting in Yoshi's Cafe doubling its space by expanding next door.
Nowadays, Yoshi's Cafe has left such a legacy that the restaurant is serving loyal customers that span multiple generations.
"Customers are very attached to this restaurant," they said, a sentiment echoed by the loyal waitstaff, some of whom have been at the restaurant for upwards of 20 years. "When people come in, they feel comfortable like they're at home."
This would explain why 60 to 70 percent of customers are return patrons, who feel like they're in somebody's living room. And speaking of families and generations, their very own family has begun branching off in the restaurant industry as well, with both their son and daughter going off to cooking schools and working at Acadia and Grace, respectively.
After running a restaurant for 32 years, how does one not get burnt out? Simple, according to Katsumura: "This is our passion and we love what we do." Both Katsumura and Nobuko are at the restaurant every day, and although every day is a challenge, that passion makes all the difference.
"I can't wait to come into the kitchen every day."
And likewise, customers can't wait to come into the restaurant.
Photos: Yoshi's Cafe
Be sure to also check out this clip from our Beyond the Loop series profiling Yoshi's Cafe!