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What Does It Take To Run An Ethical Neighborhood Restaurant?

Yuka Ioroi is co-owner and general manager of Cassava in San Francisco. Since opening in 2012 with her husband, Kris Toliao, Cassava has become a favorite among locals in Outer Richmond for their Japanese breakfasts and modern California cuisine. The restaurant is also known for its mission to be an ethical and equitable restaurant: front- and back-of-house staff are paid equally and share tips, and Cassava made headlines for being one of the first restaurants in the United States to require booster shots for indoor dining. Ioroi and Tolia plan to move Cassava from its beloved original location in the Richmond District to North Beach later this year.

My husband Kris Toliao is the chef, and I handle beverage, front-of-house, and business operations. We met working in a restaurant in LA, in Los Feliz, in 2006—he was cooking, I was at the bar. I’ve always known that he worked a lot more than I did, but I always got paid more. So half of the restaurant is doing at least half of the production of the product, and they’re getting paid much less. I’ve always felt that was wrong.

When we opened Cassava here in San Francisco, a big part of our mission was focused on avoiding exploitation in our work environment and the way we source ingredients. We don’t want to sell things that are made with blood. We don’t want any sorrow, any resentment in the food because it’s about energy. It’s not morally right.

owners Yuka Ioroi and Kris Toliao stand in front of their restaurant
Owners Yuka Ioroi and Kris Toliao outside Cassava.
Photo: Erin Ng.

It’s something that we’ve always been conscious of—we’ve always wanted to do business with people that we knew, or people that we met and liked. For example, we learned about “slave shrimp” coming from Southeast Asia. People are tricked into going on the ships and are trapped working for low wages, if any wages at all. When we learned about it, we had to request that our fish company not give us shrimp from Southeast Asia anymore, and they couldn’t meet the demand. So we had to switch vendors.

We were using Tock in 2019, but then we learned what Alinea did in 2020—they served a coronavirus-looking canapé, and they did not have a great safety record. Because the ownership of Tock and Alinea were the same at the time, we decided not to use them anymore. Another example was at the beginning of the pandemic, when Trader Joe’s workers were begging the management to be able to wear masks to protect themselves, they said, “Oh, no. It’s not really our vibe.” We didn’t agree with their stance on safety, we followed their union Twitter account. Ultimately we decided that we couldn’t support Trader Joe’s anymore.

We were also the first restaurant in the country to have a booster mandate for indoor dining. That was a big thing. We were thinking about how to keep things safer for our guests. A lot of people that come to us like our stance on COVID safety. The huge thing was that we were able to get COVID funding from the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. I could afford to close and still pay our staff. It comes out to $30 an hour right now—they get $20 an hour, and everybody gets tips of between $10 and $15 an hour. So they’re getting paid right now, because I had the funding. It’s definitely not something I could afford on our own, but I also don’t want me or my team to have lifelong injuries due to COVID.

From the very beginning, we’ve said that this particular disease is not the flu because the flu never takes your sense of smell and taste away. You might not get it back, and that’s detrimental to peoples’ careers. I don’t know why more restaurants are not concerned about that. The big problem is that we don’t have enough government funding for people to close and pay people to stay home, like other countries did. We just have to weigh the risk of losing around $60,000 or the possibility of a lifelong disease.

Photo: Erin Ng.

Our approach to COVID isn’t surprising to our core clientele because we were always one step more scared than the general public. But we have had a lot of trolls on Instagram. I have to close the comments because people started comparing our safety measures to the Holocaust and segregation and Jim Crow. It’s very disrespectful to people that actually had to endure those things. But it’s only online, with no real-life impact. San Francisco has had the full vaccination mandate since September. People really don’t fight about that stuff here. I know that everywhere else in the country, it’s not necessarily like that.

The community in Outer Richmond raised us. I would say 50 percent of the guests live within three miles of the restaurant. There weren’t that many options on that street when we arrived. So the neighborhood appreciated it, and we’ve always respected them. But we are actually dying in this neighborhood. We’re not going to make it here if we stay.

There are a few reasons for that. First, Outer Richmond is close to the Pacific Ocean, and it gets a draft. We had to move most of our business to the parklet area, and it’s just too cold. We had maybe 23 seats indoors before, but now we are down to 10. We had to social distance, expand the kitchen when we pivoted to doing take-out, and we make our own bread and pasta in-house. All those things take more space. It’s just not viable. We’re in a parklet because you need to be able to have air circulation for safety. It’s just not going to be warm enough for us to have it all the time in the long run. So I said, okay, we eventually need to move. That means if our customers want to have Cassava in their life, it has to be a little further away, or not at all.

When we took our first trip to San Francisco, Kris and I were still dating. There was a restaurant called Pinocchio that was here for 20 years, and it was the very first restaurant we went to together in San Francisco. So when I was looking recently at the different real estate postings to relocate Cassava, I said, “Hey, isn’t this the place we went that first night?”

When we got there, I said, “It is!” Then it just kind of worked out. The developer wanted a concept that’s local. They had been turning a lot of places down. But they told us, “Hey, I think you guys are good.” So 15 years after our first dinner there, we had this space.

Photo: Erin Ng.

People that live a block away from us now are very saddened to hear that we’re moving. But then we explain the restaurant is going to be on the main street, Columbus Avenue, and we’ll be on such an iconic corner, everybody’s faces just light up.

In the future I want to explore becoming a co-op operation, but without our staff being burdened with the debt. I want our staff that’s been with us since 2012 or 2013 to have some kind of ownership in the business. The grander vision is that we want the restaurant to not be a dead-end job. We want it to be a sustainable career—not just for people in the front of the house, maître d’s and stuff like that, but the people who are cooking. If we can get there, we’re more interested in that than having multiple locations. I think it’s more fulfilling.