October 2, 2012 by Christina Hamlett
A Conversation with Clarence “Koji” Wong
It’s nearly 11 a.m. when I have the good fortune of finding a parking space directly in front of Japon Bistro on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, California. Clarence “Koji” Wong, the proprietor, steps out from the kitchen to greet me, extending his right hand as he stifles an unapologetic yawn with the left. “I was down at the fish market at 6 this morning,” he explains, enthusiastically encouraging me to take a look at an enormous chunk of blue fin tuna that is in the process of being artfully incorporated into one of his house specialties. “Isn’t it gorgeous?!” he declares.
Japon Bistro had only been open for three years when I first interviewed Koji in 2006 but it’s clear from his kid-in-a-candy-store enthusiasm that the joys of being a restaurateur haven’t lost their glow. “It seems that the truly strong have the ability to stand the test of time,” he says, “as well as other seemingly disastrous events such as the ‘Great Flood of 2012’ that kept our doors closed for renovation for four months.”
With the passage of years, Japon Bistro has truly evolved into “the place where people meet, deals are cut and decisions are made!” It has won Best Sushi in Los Angeles with CitySearch.com, was a “Michelin Recommended Restaurant” in 2008 and 2009, made Zagat’s “America’s Top Japanese Restaurants” book in 2008, was featured in Pasadena Magazine, Rose Magazine, and was named “Best Sake Bar” and “Best Sashimi Platter.” Japon Bistro has also been named “Best Sushi” in the San Gabriel Valley by the San Gabriel Valley News Group in 2011.
Along the way, Koji ran for the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District in 2008 and came in second. “During this campaign I was outspent by $100,000!!! It’s no wonder I did not come in first.”
Although he was new to the food service industry when he debuted Japon Bistro in 2003, he was no stranger to the neighborhood. “I’m actually one of the very few native Angelenos,” he declares with pride. “I was born right here in L.A. at General Hospital and I grew up in the mid-Wilshire District.”
The inspiration to open the restaurant stemmed from being “quite bored” with his former career as an executive recruiter. “I was lucky enough for the last five years of it to be able to work out of my home. It was fun for the first three or so years but I knew myself well enough to recognize that I wanted to be around a lot of people, interact with friends, and have a place to get up and go to every morning.”
Politics and international relations, he explains, was actually his first love in college. (On a coincidental note, Koji and I both graduated from California State University, Sacramento within a year of each other and may, in fact, have even been in some of the same communications classes.)
What really pulled me into the restaurant industry,” he continues, “is my love of creative, modern food. Modern Japanese cuisine is so different than Asian fusion in the sense that it’s an authentic cuisine with a modern twist. A phrase that I had coined when we first opened was, ‘Creations Never Imagined, Tastes Always Remembered’. We create things here at the restaurant that are very authentic, all Japanese ingredients and we put together combinations that make people say ‘Wow!’ There are flavors you might never have imagined but the taste” – he smacks his lips together in a “mmmmm” – “you’re still thinking about it the next day or the next week and you want to come back and see what else you can try.”
Having friends who already worked in the industry and could give him start-up advice was a huge help, he reveals. “My entire life,” he says, “I’d been surrounding myself with people who loved food and knew food.” He laughs. “Just about every one of them tried to talk me out of doing this. It’s hard work. It’s challenging work, especially trying to keep coming up with things that are fresh and exciting and will keep customers coming back. But, hey, I went ahead anyway and here I am!”
With so many friends and consultants whose brains he could pick, what does he consider the best business advice anyone gave him? Without hesitation, he replies, “Always be good to your staff and maintain as high a level of customer service as you possibly can.”
Thorough and strategic planning, he adds, is also essential to building a business – “any kind of business” – from the ground up. “I basically did the construction management of the restaurant so I knew everything that went on at every step of the way. Any changes that came to mind, I envisioned them and implemented them right on the spot so I was able to control cost overruns and such.”
He explains that three previous sushi restaurants had occupied the same space. “What I came into, however, was pretty much an empty shell. There were no sinks, no faucets, nothing. It had an old ugly sushi bar that was falling apart, an ugly front bar for drinks, mirrored walls, a black ceiling, purple vents.” He sticks out his tongue and says “Bleah!”
It took him five months to transform the prior drekkiness into something that would be suitable for upscale dining. “I knew that if I had let anything go or made any mistakes during the construction phase, I’d have to live with it.” He grins. “I don’t like living with guilt! All the ‘should’ves and could’ves’ – I didn’t want to deal with them so I was just very careful to get everything right the first time out.”
I ask him to flash back to August 2003 when the doors of Japon Bistro first opened. He reflects on the question a moment. “Well, there’s always going to be butterflies. Then, there’s the exact moment when things happen and you’re not feeling any real anxiety, especially when you know you’ve done everything you can to prepare for it. The way I look at it, unless you open that door, you’ll never know whether you actually can. I always kid people when I say that I never operated a cash register before that first day of operation. It’s true!”
He recalls that there was a lot of buzz around town during the construction process. “People were curious about what it was going to be and what the food would be like. The first two days we were open, a lot of those people came in just to check it out. Interestingly, 90 percent of those customers are still with us.”
So what does he feel are the biggest challenges facing restaurant owners in today’s market?
Your question,” he responds, “hits the nail right on the head. When we talk about ‘today’s market’, things are very, very tough. The world economy is not in great shape. The world political climate is not good, either. It’s a hard time period to launch a new restaurant, especially a fine dining restaurant. In uncertain times, the first layer of people in the food industry to take a hit are the fine dining establishments. People start to have a guilty feeling over spending money for upscale food while there are other people who are not able to.”
“The number one priority in any restaurateur’s mind – whether it be a corner sandwich shop or an elegant restaurant that couples can go to – is focused on customer service. Customer service is king. I don’t care where you go or what you eat, if you don’t have good customer service, you’re not likely to go back, regardless of how good the food tastes. I really hate to say it but there are a lot of restaurants that are quite successful and have fabulous customer service and mediocre food. They’re doing gangbusters in business because customers like to feel that someone is paying attention to them and who really cares about them having a great time.”
Our conversation shifts to experiences that my husband and I have had in several Pasadena restaurants, especially when it comes to romantic occasions such as Valentine’s Day or Christmas Eve. When establishments become more obsessed by how many tables they can turn on what I call a “Hallmark-worthy” evening rather than keeping to their normal number of reservations and concentrating on stellar service, they are fairly quickly to lose our patronage.
The difference with Japon Bistro,” Koji points out, “is that we have a combination of many things going on that people come to recognize and understand and value as a place where they want to come and spend time. We have excellent servers, our food is pretty spectacular, and we have a comfortable environment that’s not pretentious or rushed. To open a restaurant in today’s market,” he says, “you have to have a passion for food and a passion for pleasing customers. If you’re strictly into it for the monetary side, you’re just not going to have a good product. For me, I can make money in any number of different ways. Accordingly, I don’t have to make money by ripping people off by thinking they’re getting good food when they’re getting something really mediocre. I tell everyone that I want them to leave happy, satisfied, and never hungry!”
Sake Pairing events at Japon Bistro have been the hit of the town since Koji’s inaugural Summer Sake Pairing Series 2009. There have been over eight Seasonal Series over the years, and as a result there are now literally hundreds of people that now have an elevated awareness of Sake, the national drink of Japan. Koji was the first to develop the concept of the “ism of Sake,” that “Sake is meant to be shared and paired; shared with friends and family and paired with great food. It’s like wine tastings where you have a different wine for each course. Did you know there are over 1100 different breweries in Japan? That’s a lot of sake to choose from!”
A lot of people, of course, only know sake as “that hot rice wine thing you drink out of a thimble”. Koji laughs when he compares it to rubbing alcohol. “Before I opened the restaurant, I never, ever ordered hot sake. I’d always order beer. The introduction of new grades and complexities of sake, though, totally changed my mind. Sake now is my beverage of choice!” A good Chardonnay, he offers for comparison, will hit 5 or so different notes on your palate; a good sake will hit 15 to 20. “I think sake should be shared with the world,” he proclaims, “and the sake pairing dinners are a fun way to introduce customers to the possibilities of making wonderful matches with different Japanese foods.”
So if he wasn’t running a restaurant, I ask, what would he see himself doing?
He chuckles. “My leisurely answer,” he says, “is that I would live in 3-4 different parts of the world a year. I would live in Central America for 3 months—Costa Rica, I think—then I’d live in Asia for three months, come back to the states for 3 months, and then who knows where I’d go off to for the next 3 months.”
I point out that between exotic travels and a white dinner jacket, he could become an international spy. As if on cue, his cell phone rings at that precise moment. The ring tone is the theme from James Bond. This cracks us both up. “Busted!” he exclaims. “But seriously…”
One of his servers walks by and has overheard my question. “The way you posed for pictures,” she comments, “you could be a male model.” This strikes him funny as well and he assumes a contemplative Jack Benny pose. “The cover of GQ maybe?” he considers. “I’ll have to think about that…”
Having had a political career and an executive headhunter stint, he believes he’d do well as a corporate event planner. “That would parlay my entire experience with politics, with people and, of course, with fabulous food and putting everything together into something spectacular and memorable.” He’s also entertaining the idea of one day becoming a philanthropist, adding in whimsical postscript, “in between spy gigs and modeling clothes…”
Back when we first met, he predicted that 2006 would be his defining year. “I knew it would be the year that would really determine the longevity of Japon Bistro and whether I was going to stay around for 10 or 15 years. I’m proud to say that I’ve stayed the course in hosting more sake pairing events, introducing more Japanese cuisine that people can get excited about, and always keeping my menu fresh and ever-evolving. If we have an improvement on the world scene, I’m hoping to see even more people coming through our doors and treating themselves to what the fine dining experience should be like.”
He adds that he wants to be “the small guy, the David that beats the Goliath of the sushi world!” He goes on to say that in the first year of operation, 80 percent of all new restaurants fail. In the second year, 50 percent of those remaining 20 percent fail. In the third year, there’s yet another drop-off ratio which is in the 50-60 percent range. “Having made it through my third year – and beyond! – I knew I was going to make it with style and originality and I guarantee you that no one is ever going to get bored with our menu!”
The start of 2012, however, dealt Koji a severe blow. “It was New Year’s Day. Tree roots from the City of Pasadena caused a catastrophic sewage back-up which resulted in the flooding of the entire building. Not being discovered until two days later, the flooding caused irreparable damage to the space and consequently Japon Bistro was closed for almost four months for demolition and rebuilding.”
After the Grand Re-Opening (complete with Taiko Drummers from the Shumei Temple), it still took three months to return to the level Japon Bistro once was. Koji credits his core staff of three with keeping the Bistro alive. “Working with new sushi chefs and new service staff was quite challenging for me as my standards are quite unique. It was impossible to hold on to my entire staff as they had to find jobs during the 3 ½ months we were closed, a problem compounded by the frustration that our re-opening date was an unknown moving target.”
Now that both of his Superstar Chefs are back, Koji is again feeling energetic and positive about the future of Japon Bistro, especially as he watches the current construction of a high-end development project directly across the street that is slated for opening in 2013. “The ‘new’ center of downtown is shifting to the heart of Pasadena’s financial district at Colorado and Lake, and I’m really excited to see the effects this dynamic will have on our lunch and dinnertime clientele.”
To learn more about Japon Bistro, visit http://japonbistropasadena.com