Credit: Sen Restaurant

With hit New York restaurants Sen Restaurant and KOA, Tora Matsuoka has perfected his recipe for success: 40 percent service, 35 percent cuisine, and 25 percent atmosphere.
Matsuoka, now 33, has been in the hospitality industry since age 13: he’s worked every position in a restaurant, starting as a dumpster cleaner. In our interview, Matsuoka reflects on how to pull off his formula and encourage great service as current managing partner of 100 employees across three locations.

The biggest challenge Matsuoka faces today is “finding the right people,” he says. “Human capital is in short supply! That is the greatest challenge I face now, and probably will continue to be so into the future.” Once he does find these quality people, the key is keeping them motivated in such a fast-paced environment:

“Today’s staff member is different than from a couple decades ago, or even a couple years ago. The main difference I see is the ‘new age’ worker is more interested in a job that allows them a better life balance so they can have a life outside of work, rather than just focused on making money. I’ve noticed that creating an environment that incorporates staffs’ input (keeping them involved with the on-goings of the business) and allowing them freedoms to enjoy their lives is what continually keeps people motivated. If they are happy in their life, they will be happy in work. That means they must have a life outside of work, which normally comes from the element of time. Gifting time, or giving people a structure where they can take off work when needed or wanted, seems to be the best thing I’ve experienced in keeping people engaged in the long term.”

With an engaged work staff, Matsuoka can focus on continuing to develop an infrastructure to “work smart” across his restaurants. The key to this infrastructure is to find ways to “operate multi-units at very high levels without your physical presence.” With a growing portfolio of locations, Matsuoka has to transition away from a traditional management style to one more mobile, and it’s not easy:

“For me, the benefit of a traditional management role regarding communications is that you see your team all day, every day. By being in direct proximity to your team, you can easily communicate with them as things come up because you can actually see issues as they arise and address them. As I’ve expanded out of my original market place and now oversee operations remotely, I’ve had some issues in my ability to communicate consistently, easily, and seamlessly – not just because of distance, but also because of everyone’s increased operational workloads and responsibilities. As the company grows, the operator can’t be in every location all the time – the reality is, I probably won’t be in any location at all after we reach a certain size. I’m currently in the growth stage of being too big to be small and too small to be big, and the main issue I face is my ability to stay in close communication with the teams I’m not physically in contact with frequently.”

Matsuoka’s new KOA restaurant. (Credit: KOA)

Adapting to a mobile management style is even more difficult when you’re “in an industry that is still behind technologically.” Matsuoka’s advice? Don’t shy away from failure – it’s the best way to learn:

To be honest, I really wish I had had more mentors. I seem to have taken the path of learning by fire. I’m actually going to speak next week about a subject close to my heart: Failure and its importance to success. My management style has been refined through trial and error, the hard way: losing money I’ve made and operations I’ve bled for. Fortunately or unfortunately, I think it’s the best way to learn because we don’t easily forget things that have caused us pain and suffering. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my past and have learned a great deal from them, and using these lessons I’ve continued to grow and improve my business. And I will continue through this ongoing cycle of screw-ups, learning, refinement, higher level of execution, repeat.”