Insights / Interviews / Q&A with Cassava's Yuka Ioroi: On Building an Ethical and Equitable Restaurant
Q&A with Cassava's Yuka Ioroi: On Building an Ethical and Equitable Restaurant

Back in 2006, Yuka Ioroi and Kristoffer Toliao first met while working in an Asian-fusion restaurant in Los Angeles. The two quickly fell in love, and soon after, they were on the move to San Francisco, eventually opening up their own restaurant, Cassava. Now in business for nearly a decade, the popular neighborhood spot is known for serving up modern California cuisine, ranging from buttermilk fried chicken with sous-vide chicken thigh to Baja striped bass served with mushroom-stuffed cabbage. 

But it’s more than just the food that gets a big focus at Cassava. From the start, the restaurant has been unshakable in its mission to create a restaurant environment that puts its staff first, while also striving to work solely with suppliers and producers who do the same. We sat down to chat with Yuka Ioroi about the steps she and her husband have taken to achieve their goals in becoming an ethically and equitably minded restaurant.

Tell me a little about what inspired your founding mission?

I’m originally from Japan, and my first job was in restaurants. I didn’t really understand about tipping. In Japan, everyone gets paid the same. Here, the pay gap is astonishing. And it’s demoralizing, racist, inhumane, all of those things. 

My husband and I met working in restaurants. He worked in the back of the house, and I worked in the front. I work in the same restaurant as my husband does, and I see how much work he puts in, and back in the day, I think he was making $13 an hour, and I’m going home with $200 a night, working six hours, whereas he’s there for 10 hours.

Can you share how your pay system works at your restaurant?

Right before the pandemic, the San Francisco minimum wage was around $15 an hour, and we were paying $17 an hour. Currently we’re paying $20 an hour because business decreased and tips are less.

From the beginning, we’ve always had an equal pay system from the front and back of the house. We compile all tips for the pay period of two weeks and divide it by combined hours worked by all staff to calculate per-hour amount. All staff get $20 an hour, plus the per-hour tip amount. That pay rate is the same for every person in our company right now. 

Management by law are prohibited from the tip pool. And I don’t have any manager statuses in the restaurant – that’s [by] design. I work as the general manager and beverage director, and my husband is the executive chef.

Have you had any staff raise concerns about the rebalancing of the pay system between FOH and BOH?

We have a very specific hiring ad. If you believe that front of house and back of house shouldn’t get paid the same, you don’t belong in this company. So we filter that out through the hiring. 

At the beginning, when we were a lot smaller, we only hired people that never worked in restaurants because we always thought that restaurants had such a toxic culture and we didn’t want to bring it on. They’d have to do dishwashing for three months, and then from there, they cooked or did service. We wanted to filter out people that looked at dishwashing as something beneath them. They could do multiple positions, but when dishwashing specific staff came in, they weren’t going to look at them as like, "Oh, he’s just a dishwasher", which is really prevailing in the restaurant industry and it's disgusting. 

We don't have that system anymore because we can't start everybody from a dishwasher right now. But no one disrespects the position, and everybody helps out. And the dishwasher gentleman never feels like his job is beneath anybody. There's no caste or class system, which is happening in most of the restaurants, and based on racism a lot of times.

You have 19-percent gratuity built into all checks, which goes into the one large tipping pool. Did you always have a service charge or was this something you implemented during the pandemic?

We did before the pandemic for larger parties and brunch checks. We were seeing people at brunch leave extremely little, and it wasn’t working out. But after the pandemic started, we added the 19-percent across the board, and took out the signature papers. If you want to leave more, you can leave cash. 

It’s just simpler. We have less paper that we need to go through, and it’s stabilizing. I think we could ask for 20-percent, but we say 19-percent for people that don’t believe in tipping more than 15- or 18-[percent]. It takes out the thinking on the guest part. We explain we have an all-inclusive pricing model. And we run the check at the tables with a handheld terminal, and a lot of people love the seamless experience. 

Tables turn faster, you don’t have to wait on people to sign the checks, so it’s also efficient. The only complaints from the guests is that there are people who want to leave more, and they don’t have cash. But 100-percent the reception is positive. And it makes us do everything in our power to make people feel that it’s an adequate charge. Once we move to the North Beach location, which will be a little bigger and more luxurious in setting, I think we’ll put 20-percent, but I don’t believe we’ll do more than that. 

You also offer benefits. Can you talk about the importance you see here?

We’re in a place that we’re able to say, "Hey we pay for your health insurance entirely, and dental coverage". And the benefit is, one, we don’t want you to get other people sick, and two, when you have a minor thing, we want you to take care of it right away so you don’t have to miss work for a long time. So it works both ways. 

Throughout the pandemic, you’ve committed to no layoffs. What went into making sure you could achieve that?

Government funding – solely that. I was able to get all of it, and I was lucky, we’re a minority women-owned business. The first months we didn’t have enough money, so we asked a couple people if they’d be OK to take a week or two off, and which gave shifts to people who needed it, and maybe three or four staff voluntarily took shift cuts, and so we were able to manage. Then we ran a GoFundMe, and the community helped us with $20,000 in three or four days, so we were able to pay everybody. 

You’re in San Francisco, one of the most expensive cities in the world. How do you make everything work?

Right now, I can’t. We’ve been at a loss every month since March 2020. The business condition hasn’t improved. But because we’re making a move to a bigger location, we’ve looked at the numbers, and it seems like it will work. Also half of our staff were born and raised in San Francisco, so they have steady housing. At the hiring, we explain to them how much they’re most likely to make. We only bring on people who agree both with the company philosophy of no exploitation, no toxic masculinity, no sexism, no homophobia, all those things, and that what they’re going to make is sustainable for their lifestyle.

Do you have any advice for other operators who are reassessing their pay scale and trying to reconfigure?

I don’t. The reason why I say that is because my husband and I, we don’t own a house. We don’t have children. So our life priorities are probably different from a lot of people. We’re not in a place to judge anyone. 

Throughout the pandemic, you’ve been very conscious of your staff’s health and safety, and were among the first restaurants to require guests to show proof of a booster shot. Now that San Francisco’s indoor mask mandate has dropped, what are your plans moving forward, and what steps do you envision taking to continue to protect your staff?

We haven’t changed anything. Luckily we haven’t had a single transmission within our restaurant. We had about four staff contract COVID, but it was all outside of work. So what we’re doing inside clearly works. We require double-masking for all staff who actively talk to guests. We require regular testing, and then if you feel remotely sick or had a possible exposure, we ask staff to stay out until they test OK. None of these things are going to change. And then we’re lucky in San Francisco, people are overwhelmingly still wearing masks. And we’ll still have the booster mandate when we move to our bigger location. 

It’s beneficial for us to have our stance [stated] openly in public because our clients tend to appreciate that. They like that we take COVID seriously, and they feel more comfortable eating inside at Cassava – we hear that all the time. We’re never going to be like, "Oh if you get it, you get it". 

You’re also open about mindful ingredient sourcing as being a key part of your mission, and I’d love to hear how you choose your vendors and what goes into avoiding exploitative sources?

A good example is how the company treats its drivers and workers. We actively talk to them, and we meet them first. 

There was a fish company that we had at the beginning that only had shrimp from Southeast Asia, and with Southeast Asia shrimping, the big boats are slave ships. And we asked if we could get gulf shrimp, but they weren’t able to meet that. Then we talked to people who worked inside the company, and some were unhappy. So we switched vendors.

Another example, if we were in a pinch, there’s a Trader Joe’s nearby and we’d go if we had to pick something up. But at the beginning of the pandemic, there were employees that pleaded to management to wear a mask to keep them safe, and they were like "Oh, you know, it’s not part of our vibe or our uniform, so no". We haven’t gone back since March 2020. I just can’t.

We only work with people that we like. Especially for us, as an Asian women in wine, if the wine rep comes in, a lot of times they could be rude to me until they realize that I’m the owner and the wine director. And then they change, and I’m like, nope, I’m not going to work with your company. If they’re rude to our staff, I’m not going to work with them.

In an industry with inherently tight profit margins and many moving parts, can you talk about the importance of taking time to be mindful about ingredient selection?

In San Francisco, it’s not difficult to choose good vendors. We’re privileged that way because a lot of companies already have a philosophy that protects producers and workers. So we’re in a position that’s easier to do these things. But if you’re in other parts of the country, you don’t have this luxury. So we’re not in the position to give any advice. We’ve chosen this route in San Francisco. 

But if you’re in those other states, and you feel OK paying $3 an hour to servers, that’s not OK. Tips are part of the income, but it’s hard to argue against [requiring] a serving job be paid minimum wage at least.

You’ve just finished a funding round to secure a larger space. How do you envision Cassava’s equitable and ethical goals continuing to evolve and grow as your restaurant grows as a whole?

Our number one goal is we don’t want the restaurant to be a dead-end job. We accumulated a lot of debt during the pandemic, so that’s the next step, but once we get that figured out, we want to transition the company to a co-op model. 

And we want to have a model where the people are really happy, and people see restaurants can be run like this, with livable wages, and a portion of that correctly invested – everyone has a 401K with us. I want everyone to have ownership, and if younger staff have other ambitions, we want to help them, and work out the schedule, all while they’re constantly saving.

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