A January Meeting with Sakura Yagi
by Alexis Agliano Sanborn
On a walk through New York’s Japan Town in the East Village, you will stumble again and again upon restaurants of the TIC group (“Enjoy Japan Without the Airfare!”). Each specializing in something different (rice burgers, Japanese café culture coffee and eats, soba, teas…the list goes on!), they offer a diverse array of gustatory glory. Bon Yagi, the founder of these delights, is a renowned name in the field. He was one of the trailblazers, bringing authentic flavors of Japan to our shores throughout the seventies, eighties, nineties, and into today. Thanks to efforts like Yagi’s and others, elements of Japanese food are becoming more widely accepted in the United States and the restaurant scene is thriving.
Now, the younger generation is beginning to build upon the work of their predecessors. In the case of the TIC group, Yagi’s daughter, Sakura, is leading operations and commanding the helm. Sitting down with her one cold, rainy afternoon in January, we met at TIC’s East Village headquarters, just a stone’s throw away from three or four of the group’s restaurants. Surrounded by the staff quietly going about their business, boxes coming in and out, and discussions distantly in the background, you feel part of a smart ship crew. With an adept captain and first mate, TIC, Bon, and Sakura seem to navigate the constellation of restaurants through their New York galaxy. This office is the command room. Sakura begins by prefacing that she did not start off with dreams of being a restaurateur or even going into the family business.
“My father always encouraged me to do something he couldn’t have done,” she explains. “He wanted me to have the freedom of choice. You know, like a doctor, or lawyer.”
Graduating college with a degree in International Relations with a focus on China, Sakura worked in public relations before fate intervened and she joined the TIC group while her father while he was recovering from an illness. Rolling up her sleeves, Sakura dived into a familiar yet unknown world. While she had grown up encased by the restaurant world, she admits, “It was all very new to me.” The deeper she delved, the more she realized how she could be of service to this traditionally mom and pop industry. “I have different skills that I bring to the job.” One of them was interest and know-how in technology. “I’m good at problem solving, and having technology makes things easier and streamlined.”
Sakura admits that overhauling certain internal elements and inserting herself into the business had its challenges. Especially as a young female. Yet, time and experience has given her the confidence and voice to contribute to and navigate TIC.
“Communication is key. Especially with family,” she says. “My mother, my father, my brother – we all love each other and don’t want to hurt each other’s feelings. It was a learning experience in the beginning; learning how to be a strong family while also being good business partners.”
Sakura is undeniably making her mark. She’s bringing TIC into the digital age, both online and behind the scenes. She’s also encouraged the expansion of the business into a new arena – space rental. A private rental space called Chakura above Cha-An in the East Village has recently opened for business. So far, it seems a success.
As TIC continues to expand, Sakura remains aware of their role in the community. The East Village has always been a particular sort of melting pot, one that she wants to encourage to grow and blossom. TIC regularly partners with other long-time community restaurants such as Velsaka, the famous Ukrainian establishment just a few blocks away. Every year they cater the precinct police annual dinner. Once or twice a year, neighborhood kids are invited to learn how to make soba. “At first they aren’t paying attention, but once they see the chef at work, they all want to give it a try,” she says.
Continuing the spirit of inclusion is important to Sakura. If it weren’t for the neighborhood’s welcoming and understanding of her father’s business many years ago, the East Village would certainly not shine as brightly as it does now. As one who has spent most of her life growing up in and around these blocks, Sakura considers herself a New Yorker before anything else. She feels that neither Japan nor the United States can be home. It’s here in these blocks, islands, and boroughs. It’s the spirit of the city that brings out her true nature.
Sitting with Sakura and munching on burdock fries, it seemed to me that she and TIC were destined for great things. It is in the hopes, dreams, and ambitions of people like her and her family that we can continue to grow and evolve. The reality and struggles that Bon faced when he came to New York in the seventies may not be that far removed from what faces new arrivers to our city today. Yet the story of this family and their strong bond proves to me that with the right spirit and effort, slowly and over time you can create something special and beautiful, passing it on to the next generation.
The Gohan Society is honored to have Bon Yagi serving on our Board of Directors. The TIC group operates thirteen Japanese restaurants throughout Manhattan, most of them concentrated in the East Village. Please visit their website to learn more!
Alexis Agliano Sanborn is one of The Gohan Society’s super volunteers. She has lived in Nagoya, Tokyo, and rural Shimane Prefecture as a student, intern, and working professional. She received her Bachelor’s degree in East Asian Studies and Japanese from UC Santa Barbara and her Master’s degree from Harvard University in Regional Studies of East Asia.
She is working on a proposal for a school lunch-themed cookbook, a recipe blog (kabocha-kitchen.com), as well as illustration and stationery designs. Find out more at www.alexisaglianosanborn.com.