Seizing Opportunities to Build Businesses

Born in Sapporo in 1990, Yudai Kanayama was interested in working in the fashion industry at a young age, so he prepared himself to study abroad by learning English during his second year in high school. After attending a fashion vocational school, Yudai searched for an overseas school with a four-year fashion major and enrolled at SUNY Oneonta, whose curriculum included a one-year program at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City. Yudai worked in fashion while still a college student, after which he pivoted to the restaurant industry. He opened his first restaurant, The Izakaya NYC on 6th when he was only 24 years old. Since then, he has opened several more Japanese restaurants in New York City, including The Izakaya NYC on 4th and Dr. Clark. His restaurants have received press from The New York Times as well as Architectural Digest, which focused on the design of Dr. Clark.


IROHA: What drew you to the fashion industry? How did you transition from fashion to owning restaurants?

Yudai: I got into fashion in high school and didn’t wear my school uniform. At SUNY Oneonta, I studied the business side of fashion, Fashion Merchandising and Management. How to sell, how to market. Upstate felt like being in Hokkaido, and I enjoyed the nature up there. It was the perfect environment to practice my English.

My first job was at a Japanese retailer, 45rpm, an upscale store in SoHo selling one of the most expensive kinds of Japanese denim. The store was built by Kyoto carpenters. One of the good things about the job was making connections with the affluent clientele. I had to explain the background of the denim to customers and to try to sell it to them. I loved what 45rpm was making, and I was confident enough to sell it. I enjoyed learning how to sell things, and people loved me. But only one out of ten customers would buy.

I kind of got tired of this fashion world. I was still a student with one more year. 45rpm was willing to give me a Visa, but I was 22 or 23 years old, looking for other options to stay in the US. I thought about doing my own business to sponsor myself. My roommate (Dai Watanabe) was my favorite chef, and he wanted to open a restaurant. He asked me if I could sell his food. So, we opened a restaurant together. I got capital from Japan, and I was a good presenter.

Izakaya is now in its tenth year. I just know how to sell. What’s the difference between selling denim and selling fried chicken? To me, it was the same thing. It happened out of the excitement of “Let’s do it together!” I was in front of the house, and there was one chef in the back. It wasn’t easy the first couple of months. I was talking to customers, providing the best service I could, providing education about the food. I gave them a ten-minute speech. I knew they would come back. And they did come back. We went from zero customers to packed every day. The New York Times did a nice article four or five months after we opened. That was the moment that changed my life. The chef was worried, but I said, “I can do this.” Because the responses from the customers were amazing.

IROHA: What projects are you currently working on?

Yudai: In the last ten years we opened more locations. We opened the second Izakaya in February 2020. It’s kind of crazy that I opened two new restaurants in the pandemic, but one was my dream project, Dr. Clark. It was my dream to present my hometown cuisine to New Yorkers. We opened in March 2020, right as the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown began. We were preparing for the opening, but we knew something was happening.

The pandemic was something like I’ve never experienced, but I always had a positive attitude during COVID. We wondered, “How can we survive this?” But there are a lot of things that we could finally do, such as serve alcohol outside. I knew I needed to provide positive energy. I was telling everyone happy stories.

We had a beautiful crowd of people for our opening. It was the kotatsu dining (low tables covered with futons) and karaoke outside that were big draws. One of the reasons everyone showed up for the Dr. Clark opening, I’m confident enough to say, is that I did a good enough job of having a good restaurant in New York City. All Japanese restaurants in New York City have good products, but I started hiring my favorite servers and managers from other restaurants. These servers got their friends to come to Dr. Clark. Good service starts when there are good people to serve to. When I opened Dr. Clark, I opened my world.


IROHA: You’ve worked in fashion and food, and now you’ve added construction to your resume. Tell us about that.

Yudai: As a restaurant owner, I had to fix a lot of things, especially during the pandemic. I was never satisfied with contractors telling me what they were going to do and then not finishing the work. I have people around me who know construction, so I built Dr. Clark with my team. I was the project manager. The work was hard for me, but I’ve learned how to build better.

When people ate at Dr. Clark, they asked me who built the restaurant, and I told them my team and I did. Then customers started asking us to build things for them, too. That’s when I realized we have the foundation of Serious Construction Company. After we built one thing for one customer, they came back. I’m on site almost every day now. We build restaurants and stores for people. The quality of our work is higher than other workers in New York. We don’t lie; we just work and do what we’re supposed to do. The Japanese standard is to finish what we start, not just take the customers’ money and go. We are serious about it.


IROHA: What is your response to Asian hate that spiked during the pandemic?

Yudai: I didn’t experience Asian hate personally. Dr. Clark is in Chinatown, so the whole neighborhood was affected. I’ll say that I’m sad to see the number of Japanese restaurants in New York decreasing. COVID was difficult. After the pandemic, reality hit. This year was kind of crazy with how many Japanese restaurants closed. Simply cooking good food is no longer enough. If you lack the skill to bring people into your restaurant, it will be harder. Using social media is kind of an essential part of the business now. I’m not a good social media person, but I know you must have it because it’s a different world.


IROHA: What advice would you give to young people who would like to follow in your footsteps?

Yudai: I’m a person who started a business at a young age. My visa situation allowed me to make a company. When I applied for an investor visa, a lawyer told me it was a risk. Who can say no to me after I invested $200,00 or $300,000? Don’t give up; keep dreaming. If your plan is good and you have a good presentation, you can start growing your business, even while you’re still a student. Anyone in the US is allowed to own a business. What I learned in college—how to talk in front of groups, how to present myself—were essential and stayed with me. Hang onto what you learn and to your relationships. My friendships from FIT are still important.


IROHA: Outside of work, what are your interests?

Yudai: The need for nature. I can’t be in the city with the cars honking all the time, so I have a house upstate. On the weekends, I go antique hunting and spend time with my wife and dog, relaxing in nature.

written by Susan Miyagi McCormac


Yudai Kanayama | Instagram 

The Izakaya NYC | Dr. ClarkDavelle | Serious construction company