Sakawa Coffee is a renowned family restaurant in the east end. Serving quality Japanese comfort food, they provide a special experience that we've been lucky enough to enjoy on a few occasions. The restaurant is treasured by everybody who eats there, including the Japanese community in Toronto, who experience a comforting taste of home each time. Koki was kind enough to sit down with us for an interview.
Sadi: You’ve been open here since July of 2016. Why did you decide on this neighborhood?
Koki: Actually, I’ve had a restaurant before at this place. Authentic Japanese food called Sakawaya, from 2000 to 2008. At that time I bought the building, and after eight years, someone wanted to buy my business and in the restaurant business, you have to work all the time, and I was kind of looking for some sort of rest, so I sold the business. I was renting the space out. And the previous tenant asked me to take over the business. At the time I wasn’t doing anything so I started back. I had a business at St. Clair and Yonge about two years ago, and it was a restaurant that served noodles. I brought a noodle machine from Japan and I was making homemade Udon noodles.
Andrew: How long have you been in the restaurant industry?
Koki: A long time. I used to live and work in Los Angeles. I’ve worked at Sushi bars in Santa Monica, I used to work at Benihana Tokyo. That’s where I started actually.
Andrew: How did you get into the restaurant business?
K: I used to be a musician. I play oboe. I used to play in a symphony, on stage, that sort of thing. Making a living as a musician is very tough. I needed to get a side job. So I was a freelance musician in Los Angeles and I decided to work in the restaurant industry.
S: Do you still play the oboe?
K: Yeah. Sometimes we have a jazz night here and I’ll play. I’m a classical music guy. I haven’t played since we opened yet though, but many people have asked me.
S: What’s the motivation or the reason behind the name Sakawa?
K: It’s like the place I was born in Japan. The kanji translates to the smell of Sake.
S: What’s the most popular dish here?
K: Actually, I know we have ‘Coffee’ in our name so our coffee is very good here. But we focus a lot on Japanese comfort food. If you go to Tokyo and you go into the coffee shops, they provide some food too. Things like Omurice, Hamburg, Western Japanese food. We also have Ramen and things like that too. If you go to a family restaurant in Japan, that’s the kind of food you’ll get. Also we have Spaghetti, and I thought nobody would order it, Japanese style Spaghetti, but actually it’s very popular here.
A: How has the neighborhood changed in all the time you’ve been here?
K: Like there used to be so many Greek restaurants ten years ago, but not anymore. The Japanese population here is very small, like maybe 20,000. So if we kept the focus on Japanese people, we wouldn’t be able to run the business. But we have many Chinese customers, they want to eat Japanese food made by a Japanese chef. All around the city there are many Japanese restaurants but they’re not owned by a Japanese person. Also ten years ago people were crazy for sushi, not so much anymore. Now people are trying to go for Japanese curry, Ramen.
S: When you’re not at the restaurant, and you want to go out to eat, what’s your favorite place to go eat?
K: Maybe…Zakkushi. Yakitori. All Japanese people eat Yakitori with Sake once in a while.
A: And if you had one day left to live, what would be your last meal?
S: From where?
K: I would make it by myself.
S: Do you ever think about adding stuff like that to the menu here?
K: Maybe. This year, we’re going to start offering hot pot in the winter. For Winterlicious in February. My average prices for lunch time are $8-9 and dinner time prices are $10-12. And we’ve participated in Summerlicious (in the past), and the city required a three course set at lunch to be $18 and dinner to be $28. When I started that, I thought nobody would come because people were used to my restaurant being a certain price but I was surprised a lot of people came for the price fix. We try to do things that we think nobody else is doing.
S: Are there any other kinds of food that you’re surprised by in Toronto or you enjoy?
K: So many people use Japanese ingredients and influence. So many things…like the Sushi burrito. I don’t think nobody ever imagined that.
S: Have you tried it? What did you think?
K: Yeah…uh…it’s like…a new…thing.
A: Is there anything that bothers you about the way people think about Japanese food?
K: I think in North America, people think Japanese food is bento box, fast food. But it’s not true. That’s why…places like Zakkushi are important, they provide real Japanese yakitori. For example, Teriyaki is famous in Canada, but there is no Teriyaki if you go to Japan.
A: Do you read reviews about your restaurant?
K: Yes and no. In the beginning I used to read, but I don’t read much anymore. Too busy these days to look at it. But many customers just tell me when we’ve gotten a review so I’ll check it out then.
S: So you started in LA. Why or how did you end up finding yourself settling in Toronto?
K: I don’t know. I guess that’s my destiny. America is more demanding. Canada is more peaceful, I like Toronto. Because this is a big city, similar to London, Paris, still they have some racists or something. But in Toronto, there isn’t much. Even Vancouver! If you go to Vancouver, Montreal you’ll find they have, (racism). Only this city seems different. I don’t know why.
A: What were some of the challenges when you first opened the restaurant? Or was business always great?
K: So when I first opened, nobody knew this was a Japanese restaurant because we had ‘Coffee’ in the name. Why I started the coffee as well was because I realized there are so many places like ‘EggSmart’, and they close at 4PM, and I was kind of envious. If I could run the business only in the daytime, then I could make a living. But then I realized this area had no offices or anything, so I stayed open in the evening. People loved the food, but noticed maybe there was something in the name.
A: Is there anything that you’re worried about or anything that keeps you up at night?
K: No not really. We’ve established regular customers.
S: Are you getting enough sleep?
K: Yeah I think so. I’m living upstairs, so I don’t have to drive or take the TTC.
A: What is the best part about this job?
K: People enjoy my food. One thing that really surprised me was when I started serving Japanese breakfast. We served the Canadian style, continental breakfast but nobody ordered this. Many people come in the morning and afternoon and order the grilled fish, the traditional Japanese breakfast. Maybe because I think nobody is really serving the Japanese breakfast in the city. We are the first.
A: Was there any particular piece of advice you’ve gotten over your career that really helped you out in this business?
K: I don’t know. I’ve worked in 28 restaurants, over Japan, the States, Canada. That kind of experience really made me who I am.
S: What’s your least favorite part about this job?
K: People enjoy weekends and holidays. But in the food industry, we have to work during that time because people are vacationing.
A: If people were to open up a restaurant in Toronto, what piece of advice would you give them.
K: Don’t do it. Right now, rent is so expensive. If you have lots of money…it’s okay. But it takes at least three years. My accountant, when I opened this place in the year 2000, he told me, in Toronto, 50% of restaurants close in less than one year, and another 15% survive until five years before they close. I don’t think it’s just Toronto though. Tokyo, New York, same thing. The restaurant business is very very difficult. You can’t make money in half a year or one year. It takes time. That’s why so many places close after a few months. Even in this area too.
S: Well I know I speak for all of us when I say we’re very lucky to have you here Koki. Thank you very much for your time!
867 Danforth Ave.