Images by Jonas Maon
Hide Sakurai is too big for his niches. This is why the 39-year-old Honolulu restaurateur, who debuted Shokudo in 2005, Búho Cocina y Cantina in 2014, and Bread and Butter within a year of that, is already moving forward with his fourth concept and sketching out a fifth in his head.
Born in Tokyo, Sakurai worked in restaurants throughout high school and college. His big break was not earning the law degree he was studying for, but rather was working his way up the ranks of TGI Fridays, where he began bartending in Shibuya, then graduated to managing the chain’s Shibuya and Ginza locations, and then rose to general manager of TGI Fridays Japan. In fact, Sakurai so impressed the CEO of TGI Fridays Japan, Tetsuya Emura, that the two partnered to start their own empire. They zeroed in on Hawai‘i, with its developed Japanese community and what Sakurai calls a “rice culture”—a large consumption of and love for rice. This is where they would start their first venture.
Their restaurant, Shokudo, dazzled diners when it opened. At night, the 200-seat, glass-walled space lights up in bright white and red, arresting attention on the corner of busy Kapi‘olani Boulevard and Kaheka Street near Ala Moana Center. Soaring ceilings, an enormous hooped chandelier, and tiered dining tables make each meal a spectacle—one that often ends with the restaurant’s towering honey toast.
A conversation with Sakurai is a lesson in market research. In Hawai‘i, which has been home to families of Japanese ancestry for more than a century, and continues to draw more than a million Japanese nationals annually, he noticed that diners loved Japanese cuisine. But despite these affections, he found that no casual, well-designed Japanese restaurant existed. On one end of the culinary spectrum, there were izakayas, Japanese bars that average $50 per person for a few hours of drinks and small dishes, and on the other end, were budget-conscious mom-and-pop Japanese joints. Shokudo was his answer to the need he saw for an affordable Japanese restaurant that also offers the ambiance of a nice night on the town.
Sakurai loves well-designed, big spaces, counting on them to translate into big numbers. This paid off with Shokudo. His friends worried for him, though, when he first opened the 12,000-square-foot Búho Cocina y Cantina in bustling Waikīkī, on the fifth floor of the Waikīkī Shopping Plaza—a location which translates to zero street frontage. “But I see the future,” Sakurai says. “I pictured it. If you think about niche marketing, who else has a good, massive rooftop in the middle of Waikīkī, where you can get a full meal?” Búho’s initial year was slow, but by its second year, the restaurant drew $4 million in revenue, thanks to the spectacular views of the Waikīkī skyline, live music at night, a bar that stretches along the entire length of the restaurant, and its upscale Mexican dishes. Wait, upscale Mexican?
“Look at who’s successful in Waikīkī with [our target] volume of business: Cheesecake Factory, Yard House, Duke’s, all of them in $30 to $50 price range,” Sakurai says. “Who’s there? Most likely Americans. A lot of people think Japanese-Japanese, but the Japanese tourist market doesn’t have more than 30 percent market share. Mainland U.S. tourists hold more than 50 percent market share on O‘ahu.” Sakurai couldn’t compete with the chains and local heavyweights in American food, so he built a menu based on another cuisine beloved by Americans: Mexican.
The restaurateur has a head full of numbers, such as square feet, revenue, market share. But he doesn’t let numbers dictate everything. For instance, Bread and Butter, a café and wine bar next door to Shokudo, has yet to find its groove. “I don’t need to look at the financials for that,” he says. “It’s too slow. If you look at number, number, number, [you think] shrink, shrink, shrink. You can’t do that. You need to think of the customer first. Close the book. Then feel what it is exactly they want. You need to feel it.” At present, Sakurai’s gut is telling him that Bread and Butter diners want $20 paella and pinot nights.
In the meantime, Sakurai is working on his fourth concept, a 10,000-square-foot space behind Búho. For this, he’s considering a late-night destination centered less on drinking and more focused on pool, darts, and karaoke. There will, of course, still be a bar, and—this being one of Sakurai’s signature spots—an interior announcing that you have arrived in a place unlike any other in Honolulu.
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This story is part of our Migration Issue.