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Richard Hales On Sakaya Kitchen: “It Certainly Hasn’t Been An Easy Ride”

Sakaya Kitchen's Korean Fried Chicken & Waffle, photo courtesy Richard HalesSakaya Specials, photo courtesy Richard HalesBorek Farms heirloom tomato salad with cucumber and garlic/scallion/soy dressing, photo by lee kleinShrimp and Vegetable Rolls with Pumpkin Sweet & Sour Sauce at Blackbrick, photo by lee kleinSakaya Kitchen, photo by lee klein

The popular Sakaya Kitchen in Midtown Miami, hugely influential in the shaping of Miami’s current food scene, recently started its sixth year in business. It seemed like a good time to sit down and chat with Richard Hales, chef/owner of two Sakaya Kitchens (downtown and midtown), Blackbrick Chinese, and the Dim Ssäm a gogo food truck. We’d exchanged some emails and spoken on the phone a few times over the years, and I’d certainly seen him plenty of times working behind the line when I’d eat at Sakaya, but we had never before met. We started off by talking about what it was like to open Sakaya Kitchen, with all of the ups and surprising downs. That’s part one of the interview. The second, upcoming installment, revolves around other topics, including Blackbrick Chinese, Ruffles potato chips, being a vegan, and a Rolex that comes and goes.

Richard Hales, photo courtesy Richard Hales

ON SAKAYA’S FIFTH ANNIVERSARY:

I feel happy that we’re still here, because it certainly hasn’t been an easy ride. The beginning of the first year was rough. We almost went out of business. There was literally one night where I was laying in the dark, staring at the ceiling, and I told my wife, ‘I think we’ve gotta close the restaurant.’

At the beginning, nobody wanted to come in. We were overcoming the stigma of the business before us that closed (Captain Joe’s Seafood, which oddly served falafel and stuff). And we were serving something that the community had not seen before, even though I had seen a lot of it in New York City. We were making our own egg rolls and pork buns and things like that. I was just trying to cook for myself because I love going to Chinatown, eating at Momofuku and Ssäm Bar, and there was nothing like that here. I didn’t understand why.

I was very naïve about the whole business; I’d never opened a restaurant by myself. I spent all my own money, and I didn’t really have any money. Now I understand what it takes to open a restaurant and do it well from the get-go, but I mean I think I had about $20,000 in the bank after I paid for the lease and all. I got the lease, got the key from the broker, and walked out the door, and I was like, ‘Oh, I guess I have my first restaurant.’

I had a plan in mind, and things I wanted to do, but it was just such a massive undertaking from the beginning that we ran out of money right away. The twenty thousand dollars was gone. And I did everything I could. The first night here me and a buddy of mine ripped everything out, ripped everything off the wall, ripped down all the light fixtures, all of the light menus, part of the counter…and as I was patching the walls, he was behind me priming. We stayed here all night and by the next morning we had the whole place pretty much prepped, finished, ready to do whatever I wanted to do with it.

Sakaya Specials, photo courtesy Richard Hales

THE ORIGINAL CONCEPT AND MENU:

It was kind of weird. I listed six proteins -- pick your vehicle, pick your sauce, basically like that. Then I went, ‘What am I doing? I’ve no clue what I’m doing here.’

So at the time I had the idea of doing sort of a fast food restaurant, something modern and cool. I told myself, ‘Dude, don’t do what you think they want, do what you want to do, and if they don’t like what you want to do, then you’ve failed.’

I thought if I’m going to go out of business, I’m going to go out in a fucking flame. So I decided I would just list list ten things that I want to eat right now, and that’s what I did. I wrote it on the wall and I cooked ten things. Then I started buying from local farms and incorporating that stuff in there. That was just about the time that you came in -- it was our first review, and you liked it. You were a part of that initial blastoff that we had. Because we blasted off.  Blackbrick was very busy from the beginning and it’s stayed like that, slowly creeping up. This (Sakaya) was like a rocket. We did maybe eleven thousand dollars the first month. We could barely meet the rent with that. Then all of a sudden we were doing seventy thousand a month, eighty thousand a month, a hundred and twenty thousand a month…

Borek Farms heirloom tomato salad with cucumber and garlic/scallion/soy dressing, photo by lee klein

THE SECRET BEHIND THE SIGNATURE BRUSSELS SPROUTS:

My vendor sent me brussels sprouts. I called him and said, ‘Hey dude, you sent me brussels sprouts I didn’t order,’ and he said to just keep them. So I ended up making that dish on the spot, and people loved it. What’s weird is that they were frozen brussels sprouts, so I switched to fresh ones. And people said, ‘Oh, you changed the brussels sprouts. They’re terrible.’ So I had to switch back to the frozen ones.

MARKETING:

You’ve never heard from anyone but me, right? I’ve done it this way from day one. I hired a PR company for like three months before I opened Blackbrick, and then I said, ‘Why am I spending four thousand dollars a month, when I get more by doing it myself?’ And people appreciate it. I’ve had people respond to some of my emails (about events) saying, ‘I dig that you’re the guy, there’s nobody between you and me, and I can ask questions…’ I did it this way at the beginning because I didn’t have any money, but it turned out to be something I really like doing.

Shrimp and Vegetable Rolls with Pumpkin Sweet & Sour Sauce at Blackbrick, photo by lee klein

RENT, COSTS AND VALUE:

Rent isn’t the big deal; it’s something you know you’re going to spend each month. The hard part is managing the amount of money that you’re spending on your staff and food. If I were to spend $5,000 dollars more a month on food and staff than I should, that’s a lot of money that I can have in my pocket.

Since I opened Sakaya Kitchen, food costs have risen about 24%. We’ve tried to keep the prices down. I’m cooking, I’m running the business, I do the hiring, run all the special media accounts -- Twitter, Facebook -- from my phone, I do all the purchases, pay the bills, my wife does the books...

Some people think we’re expensive, but I don’t see it. For the amount of food that we give, and the food costs I run in the restaurant, I think you’re getting a lot of value here. That’s what we’re about.

Sakaya Kitchen, photo by lee klein

THE MAKEOVER:

2013 was our worst year. We started to get lower in sales, and the staff I had at the time was not working out. I’d given them a bunch of warnings, telling them that honestly, I’d rather close the restaurant and hire and train new people than continue the way we were going. Nothing changed, so I closed the restaurant for a week last December (2013) – I don’t think anybody really noticed -- let the whole service staff go, put paper over the windows. Guy Fieri was coming and had already notified me of that, so I figured it would be a good time to revamp, to make the place look nice. We changed the interior, hired a new staff, brought in a new manager (Tony Falcon), and it totally turned around. It was like (here Hales mimics holding the yoke of an airplane as it’s plunging downwards, then drastically moving the yoke back up and skyward).

THE INFLUENCE OF SAKAYA & BLACKBRICK:

I think we were part of the movement in Miami to smaller, more independent restaurants. I’ve had more than a few restaurateurs say to me, ‘When I came to Sakaya Kitchen, it changed what I wanted to do at my place. I decided it’s okay to do a counter service, or it’s okay to do the cooking and run the place without partners.’

To this day, I’ll see some of my things from Blackbrick on other menus. I think it’s great, although I wish I’d get credit for it sometimes – not publicly, but if someone wants to take something they can say to me, ‘Thanks, dude.” I mean I do it.

But I’m just happy we’ve been able to do something good.