From market stall to bricks and mortar: A food entrepreneur learns the ropes

Photo: Amy and Jackson Smith Photo: Amy and Jackson Smith

Riki Tanabe opened Mochiko, a restaurant devoted to the Hawaiian food of his youth, two years ago. And while the business has grown from a farmers market stall to a food truck to a brick and mortar location, Tanabe is not resting on his laurels.

“You have to be humble,” he says. “You have to be realistic about your expectations.”

Tanabe spent years working in hospitality before deciding to launch his own business. He’d cut his teeth at the Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia, and he’d spent 17 years at Charlottesville’s Albemarle Baking Company, working as a pastry chef and learning what he could from master baker and co-owner Gerry Newman.

After nearly two decades, Tanabe wanted to do something for himself. He got the idea to open a restaurant serving Hawaiian comfort food: fried chicken, teriyaki beef, macaroni salad, and Spam musubi, for example.

But Tanabe had much to learn about running his own shop. He decided to seek help from the Community Investment Collaborative, which encouraged him to generate a proof of concept before diving into the game chef’s hat first.

“We asked, ‘How can you start smaller, can you start as a food truck?,’” CIC President Stephen Davis says. Starting with lower overhead, he says, means “you can sell your food profitably and [then later] take on the bigger rents.”

Still, when Tanabe moved out of his food truck and opened his restaurant in The Yard at 5th Street Station last fall, challenges remained. He hadn’t realized how fully he’d need to commit to the nearby community. He overestimated sales. He underestimated costs.

Tanabe says he and his CIC cohort obsessed over rent: specifically, how to keep that expense down. Since opening his brick and mortar location, though, he thinks about rent differently. “I could have paid twice as much on rent because sales would be higher,” he says. “When I talk to other people who want to open restaurants, I say, ‘If you really want to do this, go where you get the most traffic.’”

As he’s done since he started his Mochiko journey at the farmers market, Tanabe has committed himself to learning on the job. He now better understands costs— “compared to labor, rent is insignificant,” he says. And he continues to discuss ownership issues with other entrepreneurs and would-be restaurateurs.

“I never cared much when I was an employee,” he says. “You’re on a different level—you talk about what everyone did on the weekend. When you’re an owner, you talk about the nuts and bolts of running a business: sales or managing labor, what accountants do you use, and how much are you getting them for.”

TANABE’S TAKEAWAYS

Tanabe offers three tips to help entrepreneurs enter the market.

1. Reconsider rent: “A lot of the people in CIC, when they talk about opening a restaurant, they talk about the concept of rent. You can’t look at rent as the only factor—it’s not even the biggest expense.” Paying a higher rent can be worth it if results in more traffic and higher sales, he says.

2. Connect with community: “It is more than just your technical skills and ability to manage the restaurant. It involves knowing the community, getting their support, and learning how to leverage that support.”

3. Channel Kendrick Lamar: “Be humble. A lot of restaurant owners think people will flock to them and everyone is going to love their food. That might be true. But when you hear it from friends and family, of course they are going to say that.”

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