Michael and I met working at Midtown, a now defunct restaurant, bistro, and coffee shop. I had been hired as a Barista right out of high school, it was my first service industry job, and I loved it. Michael’s workstation was across from mine, and I was always catching him staring at me, but it took years for us to have a real conversation. Once we did talk, we were pretty inseparable and our relationship moved really quickly, despite my friends’ protests. We were really different, I was into vintage vespas and soul nights, and he was into skateboarding and metal, but it didn’t matter. On our first date at Belly, Michael got me to try rabbit tureen, even though I had grown up with bunnies and at 6 had vowed never to eat rabbit.
Both of us grew up in Eugene with odd, foreign parents, his mom was from Germany, and my dad from England. We had both been raised with big gardens, stoned parents, and home cooked meals on the table. I grew up going to the Japanese Immersion School, and visited Japan with my class in 5th grade. The experience had a huge impact on me, and solidified my interest in Japanese culture. When Michael told me he’d made sushi for years, I was smitten, and after he made sushi just for me, I was pretty sure I was in love.
In 2011 we made a decision to move to San Francisco, but first, Michael signed up to work another season fighting wildland fire, and we moved into a trailer in my parents driveway for a few months to save up. The next week, our plans, and our lives changed irrevocably. My dad had been having back problems, but we didn’t realize it was all that serious until a test revealed that he had multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells in the bone marrow. A moment like this would be surreal under any circumstances, but it felt that much more bizarre considering that Michael’s mother had died from the same rare cancer when he was 13. I’ll never forget the look on his face when I told him, he had the horrible burden of knowing what we were in for. Despite my misgivings, my dad eventually convinced me that I needed to go. I am so grateful that he did, at 22, I was ready to leave Eugene, no matter how much it hurt.
We were lucky enough to have friends whose couch we could stay on when we reached San Francisco, it was in a small apartment in the Tenderloin, but it was above the best bahn mi shop in the city. Michael had a lot of fun going to working interviews all over the city, and he was offered a job at some great spots, but the first job he took was at 25 Lusk. His time under Michelin-star awarded chef Matthew Dolan elevated his culinary skills, and expanded his perspective on food and the guest experience.
We only had one day off a week, so we’d plan it well. Usually we’d go to a tiki bar, often to JapanTown for dinner and a shopping trip to the Japanese dollar store. Another favorite would be to hit our two favorite dumpling shops in ChinaTown, head to the historic Vesuvio bar, and then over to the Fisherman’s Wharf. San Francisco is unique in that people who’ve lived there forever even like to go do all the touristy things.
I never felt too far away from my dad, we emailed and spoke on the phone constantly. He loved hearing about our explorations of the city, and once I went back to school, we had even more to talk about. He started most calls and emails with “hello ducky.” It's common in Nottingham to call your loved ones “me duck,” but I was the only one he ever called ducky. I switched my major from Japanese to Asian History because it gave me and my dad more to talk about. He loved history as well, he’d follow along with my research projects, and was delighted to proofread every essay I wrote. Every two months I would fly back for a few days, and every summer I’d stay for a month to take care of him so my mom could get a little break from caregiving. None of my employers liked this schedule, but it was necessary.
By far my favorite job was at Sandbox bakery, it was owned by a couple, Mutsumi had been the pastry chef at the Slanted Door for years, and Chez Panisse before that, her husband was a contractor/pitmaster who made the best brisket I’ve ever had. It was a very quaint neighborhood bakery that served Japanese and french pastries, and were well known for their curry pan. It was a challah style dough filled with Japanese curry, and I still dream of it years later. We now make something similar. Mutsumi and her family lived above the bakery, I loved the way the edges blurred between family and business.
The apartment where we lived for most of our time there was a studio apartment in SOMA that was 230sq/ft. That size apartment is actually illegal, but it was all that we could afford. It’s amazing we even got it, it was right before rent prices really skyrocketed, and there were 50 people viewing it with us, with 50 more when we were done. It was only $1100, but it faced the brick wall across the lightwell, and received no natural light. It also came with bedbugs. For years we tried everything, and nothing worked because the building had them. The only way we ever got rid of them was when we left to come back to Eugene, we rented a heater and shut it in the bathroom so it would reach 140 degrees in there. Then we’d cook our belongings in the bathroom and move them immediately into the U-haul. It’s wild that we didn’t start a fire or pass out from the heat. Truly hellish moving experience.
In the six years in San Francisco, Michael also worked for a little French bistro in Nob Hill, a Morrocan and Spanish place near Union Square, a corporate SteakHouse, and finally, at a massive Japanese restaurant on the pier. He learned a lot at each restaurant, and met some amazing chefs that would mentor him to be the well rounded chef that he is today. For a time, our schedules were so opposite that I would sleep in two four hour chunks so that I could see him after he finished work. We would take long walks late at night with the dog and he’d tell me about work and everything that he was learning, and I’d do the same.
By the time I graduated, it was clear that we needed to return to Eugene. The previous summer I had to drop everything and return to care for both parents after my mom had a fall and broke a few bones in her arm. While I was there, they found a lemon sized tumor in my dad’s lung, they removed it and started radiation, but treating two kinds of advanced cancer was a lot for just my mom, now in her 70s as well. So, we said goodbye to the city we loved, that had been our home in some of the best albeit difficult years of our lives.
Michael and I had grown very fond of my aunties, and we were devastated to find out that she had terminal cancer like her brother. When we went up to Vancouver, BC., to see her one last time, she told us that she would be leaving us some money. We were a bit surprised, and on the drive back down the I-5, we did what the two of us always did on long drives, dream up our restaurant. Only this time, it was actually feasible.
In the same week that we essentially said goodbye to Aunt Lissy, we got another blow. We were waiting for my dad’s latest scans, and we all had a bad feeling, so my mother came to the oncologists office. During his 7 years with multiple myeloma, we had gotten really lucky, new medications were being developed constantly, and any time something stopped working, there was something new to try. When his lung cancer had been discovered, I had been trying to get him into a research trial, we wanted him to try immunotherapy, during the rigorous screening, the lung tumor was discovered. He might have survived years longer, but that day at the doctors, we were told that all there was left to do was radiation, the lung tumor was back and a few weeks later, he suffered a stroke.
As difficult as it was, I am proud to have been there for his illness, and for his death. He ultimately had a fall that put him into a brief coma, and he died at home with my mom and I at his side. It’s not super common for someone in their late 20’s to spend a few years taking care of a sick parent, but I’m glad I got to. My dad and I were extremely close, and it was a beautiful thing to be a caretaker in his last years of life.
It took time to grieve my dad, but despite my sadness I was motivated and ready to make big moves and make up for lost time. I was guided through writing our business plan in a class at the local Small Business Development Center, and before long we were meeting with investors and looking at locations. I had powerpoints on the styles I would be drawing from for the decor, and Michael had priced out every piece of equipment we would need. We thought we’d end up in some nook of a strip mall, but when we walked into the ground floor of the Eugene Hotel, I saw how perfect it would be. With its huge windows and tall ceilings, I exclaimed to the realtor how many plants I could fit in there! It was intimidatingly grandiose, but it was in our budget. The property management company was eager to lease it, it had been a Starbucks for years, and wasn’t well suited to restaurants because it couldn’t accommodate a hood. A nigiri focused sushi restaurant though- was perfect. The process was giddying, we met with the property managers and excitedly described our vision for Uki Uki. Although I felt like it went well, part of me was shocked when we were sent a lease to negotiate and sign.
Once we had the keys, the real fun started. I had already compiled all my references and ideas, and I quickly added paint and fabric swatches. As much as I love interior decorating, this project was daunting, I had to combine a fine dining sushi restaurant with an open kitchen, with the kitsch of tiki, in an art deco building, and without being culturally insensitive. Die hards from the tiki community scoffed at me for not including masks and wooden tiki idols, but I didn’t waver, and I’m glad for it. I completely overwhelmed myself with color palette options until I decided to just stick with my favorite color combo, pink and green. While pondering all that, and getting the bar plans settled with the contractor, I set to decorating the bathrooms. Their themes were based on two of my favorite spots in San Francisco, Ken Ken Ramen, and Beauty Bar. One with fake foliage layered among little lights to give the impression of being in a little jungle cove, complete with sound effects, and the other bright pink layers of glitter and gold accents. The success of those very involved projects gave me confidence to attack the bigger ones.
We had told everyone the buildout would take two months, and everyone laughed, but we knew if you want to get it done in three, you have to tell yourself two. I won’t bore you with the usual trouble working with the city on permits, plumbing issues in the hundred year old building, and wheelchair accessible seating that could only go in the middle of the sushi bar, according to the unmoved city employee. My dedication to doing mostly everything myself probably went too far when I insisted on painting. So many hours were spent up on the scaffolding, painting the crown molding with a neurotic level of precision. My friend and I hung all the wallpaper ourselves, and remarkably, it turned out! The tiki bar was a blast to decorate, Michael imitated the front of a now long gone tiki bar for me, and he hid a few carved love notes to me around the bar. Our wonderful server and dear friend helped me recreate the fiber optic starry nights sky of a new tiki bar in San Francisco. She sewed an enormous amount of black felt, and I used clearance christmas lights to mimic the effect. The bartender built me some beautiful planters so that I could line the windows with tropical plants, and in the last year, they’ve grown to make it feel like a solarium here. The planters are now lined with full spectrum LEDs to keep the plants healthy, and to backlight them. The effect is that even in our dreary winters, it provides a bit of an escape, guests comment on how it feels like they’ve slipped into a little vacation.
In the first few months of opening, I know that we learned a lot, but looking back, it's a bit of a blur. Our grueling schedule became relentless, and although we eventually adjusted, I know we made plenty of mistakes. We did all the usual things, hiring too many people, seating too many tables at once, trying to make everyone happy. One of our mistakes was thinking that we could make do with less capital than was realistic, and we were lucky to have friends and peers in the community provide smaller loans to get us by, so we made it through those tumultuous early days, but barely. It has always been terrifying that we don’t have family resources to lean on, but I would at least like to think that it’s made us more creative problem solvers.
In January 2020, we celebrated our year anniversary with our two tried and true employees, Leia and Parker. Leia is the most incredible server that I’ve known, she’s a talented saleswoman but it comes from a place of passion, she is truly caring and charming to her core. We met twelve years ago both singing backup in a soul band. Parker was a dishwasher who is now our line cook, him and Michael met while fighting wildland fire the summer before we opened. He was going to go to school to become an EMT, but fell in love with cooking and has now gotten to the point where he makes a good sushi roll, usually that takes years! I took over the bar after the first six months, I had planned on bartending someday, but I’m glad I did it when I did, the bar has always been my baby, now more so than ever. We’re a small crew, but we work together in such a way that we’re able to manage a busy night with just the four of us, plus a dishwasher. We always end the night with family meal, Michael drops clues about what he’s planning on making all day, and we get time to unwind and chat amongst ourselves. I’ll usually go get the dogs, it's really not family meal without Freddy and Deegs.
Our sense of self as a restaurant has grown much more clear now that we’ve passed our first anniversary. The atmosphere at Uki is serene and calm, but without being stuffy, it's also playful and jubilant. We’re all truly glad to be hosting people and exposing them to what we know is incredible food. I try to describe the feeling when you eat Michael’s nigiri, and I always fall short, but it's a bit of a fish “high.” There is something very special that happens when you nourish yourself and delight the senses, it’s a very wholesome thrill. We are lucky to live in a town that recognises the value in that, our community is really wonderful, and I think they must really trust us to let us test things like our coffee koji reduction or hazelnut chocolate miso.
Just before that year mark we had a meeting with our property manager and our investor, we showed them our sales from the year, and our projections for the next year. We felt that we had our customer base, we had the perfect team, and that now we were going to start actually making a profit, not that I don’t love living with my dear mother. We didn’t really have a bad week after that, just like I projected, every week we hit our exceeded our sales goal. At the end of february we had our best week, I remember crying and saying, “we could actually be successful!” After the first year of owning a restaurant, if you have any optimism left at all, you're doing good, and I was really feeling like we’d gotten to the point where we’d start seeing things going upwards and onwards. This is the point in writing where I had to just sit back and have a good long cry, because I really do think I wasn’t wrong when I said that, but we just didn’t know what we were about to get hit with.
Since Oregon shut down in March, we haven’t left Uki, this is our home now, and not working towards our goals for any amount of time is not an option. We immediately began serving takeout, I made an online ordering system in an afternoon, and Michael decided on a few meals to serve at first. We didn’t initially serve any sushi, just things we could get out the door with the two of us here. We now sell rolls, but are unable to get the fish that are central to our business. There is no substitute for the fish that Michael served, and until the supply chain recovers, our business won’t recover. We’ve had some extra time to put finishing touches on the bar, build outdoor seating that will facilitate six feet of separation between patrons, and I’ve taken up roller skating. Most of our time had been spent worrying about getting approved for loans or a grant from the government so that we may eventually recover. At first, the PPP wasn’t eligible for Bank of America customers without a credit card. Well, we aren’t eligible to apply until the business is two years old. This worried me, I hoped there would be protections in place for new businesses. We knew very well that we wouldn’t be eligible for credit until we hit the two year mark, and we weren’t planning on needing one, but no one could plan on Covid-19’s devastation. We have since been turned down for the EIDL loan and the PPP, and are running out of options. I know that the world doesn’t owe us anything, and sometimes things don’t work out, but I want to keep a little bit of hope alive that if you work yourself into the ground, you pursue your passion relentlessly, you’ll have a chance at success. To ask for money feels very odd, but I can promise that if we are able to keep our business, I will continue to give it my everything, and eventually contribute to my community that I love so dearly.
Post script: My vision for the future of Uki is to get the chance to keep building on what we created. This business is our baby, it’s been brought into being with a huge amount of love and care. We had always planned on sharing our skills, teaching workshops, having students from the local highschools get a chance to see what working in a kitchen is like, and hopefully encourage the next generation to fall in love with food. I can’t wait to see Parker make his first successful pair of Nigiri, and I hoped to someday go on a staff trip to Japan, and come back with fresh ideas to share with our guests and friends. This time has encouraged my sense of strength in my community, I’ve witnessed people make many sacrifices and ingenious alternatives for the health of this beautiful city, and I’m proud to be a part of that.