Kevin Takarada: “Never give up”

You don’t just work for your customers but you also work for your staff. Without a good team, you cannot achieve success. I am constantly helping my team by accommodating their personal needs and limitations. I can be seen washing dishes a lot, as I try to make the point that I am with everyone, […]

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You don’t just work for your customers but you also work for your staff. Without a good team, you cannot achieve success. I am constantly helping my team by accommodating their personal needs and limitations. I can be seen washing dishes a lot, as I try to make the point that I am with everyone, not above anyone.

As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Meet Kevin Takarada, Founder of MakiMaki.

Kevin was raised in Miami in a restaurateur family. In 1986, his father opened the first sushi bar in South Beach, which is still in business today. Though he always loved the hospitality industry, Kevin witnessed the long hours his father worked, and decided to pursue a career path that would afford him more time to spend with family. He studied mechanical engineering in college, received his masters degree, and was scouted to work for Honda — in part because of his valuable ability to speak, write and read in Japanese, skills he honed during childhood summers attending school in Japan. After Honda, Kevin worked for Johnson & Johnson, among other industry heavyweights, before making a career switch and joining Mizuho, a Japanese investment bank, as a financial risk manager. As the founder of MakiMaki, Kevin combines his deep love of Japanese culinary traditions and culture, restaurant industry background, and successful career in both mechanical engineering and finance to bring a fresh and innovative perspective to the sushi landscape in NYC.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I opened MakiMaki’s first shop (Central Park South) in 2017, after realizing that Midtown — where I built an accomplished career in engineering and finance — was missing an affordable and speedy option for quality sushi rolls. Growing up in the hospitality industry as the son of a Miami restaurateur who opened many concepts including the legendary Toni’s, the first sushi bar in South Beach, I felt confident that I could create a concept where the rolls would be price-accessible yet comparable in quality to New York’s most acclaimed sushi standbys. To do so, we implemented a series of sushi robots — ranging from rice cookers, mixers, printers and sushi roll cutters — to streamline and automate production while sourcing the highest quality Japanese ingredients. Our shop immediately grew a loyal following, and I launched our second location (Grand Central) in 2019. With MakiMaki, I merged my restaurant industry roots with my mechanical engineering expertise to bring premium sushi by creatively implementing state-of-the-art robotics — pioneering a delicious and convenient new fast-casual model.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

It was our 2nd or 3rd week after opening our first store. We had already formed a line of customers inside the store during a particular lunch rush when someone shouted: “Whoever came up with this restaurant, THANK YOU! This is exactly what we needed!” It gave me an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and success, and validated the time and career sacrifices I had made in order to open MakiMaki. I am pretty sure I shed a tear.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

There was instantaneous success from the beginning, where we made profit from month #2. This was a testament to our having solved the market problem of lack of affordable quick quality sushi. A restaurant, like any other new product in the market, has to be helping to fill a niche / void in the existing market. You cannot expect long term or immediate success by repeating a cuisine or experience which is only marginally different from current market offering.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The name of a restaurant is very important and should be easy to remember. Initially, my concept revolved around made-to-order crispy handrolls with the name “Temakiya,” which basically means “Handroll Shop” in Japanese. When introducing the name to various vendors, banks, utility companies, etc, everyone mispronounced and had no clue what the business was about without my explanation. It was then that we quickly filed for DBA as “MakiMaki”.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

In terms of upcoming initiatives at MakiMaki, we’re working on a fun at-home kit that will include everything you might need to make sushi in your own kitchen.

I’m also currently working with the engineering department at my alma mater, Bucknell, to develop a new foodservice sanitizing technology. We’re still in the very early stages of the prototype but we have a full team of engineers and professors involved in making a product that services an immediate crucial need in the restaurant industry. We are slated to come up with a working prototype in April of 2021.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.

I am fortunate to have come from a background of restaurateurs, and my parents’ advice throughout my life has prepared me to better face the challenges I incurred when opening and operating MakiMaki. If the question were instead to be about what are the 5 things that someone told me that helped me better become a CEO, here are the most important things:

  1. Never give up. You fall 99 times and you pick yourself up 100 times. This advice may come off as being cliché, but boy is it true.
  2. You don’t just work for your customers but you also work for your staff. Without a good team, you cannot achieve success. I am constantly helping my team by accommodating their personal needs and limitations. I can be seen washing dishes a lot, as I try to make the point that I am with everyone, not above anyone.
  3. Identify and admit to your problems — no one person, company or product is ever perfect. Admitting that there is a problem is the first step in helping you resolve that problem.
  4. Pivot. You constantly face new challenges and problems, and if you cannot pivot to circumvent the situation, you have a lower chance of survivability. With COVID-19, many of the surviving restaurants have quickly and successfully pivoted into new ways of doing business.
  5. Never rest on your success but constantly evolve and improve so you are always a step ahead of your competition.

What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Look at your operation as a series of processes and determine the bottleneck that is holding you back. Research and determine if there are any technologies or solutions that will resolve this issue, determine which of the solutions are best suited for your operation, test and research more, and then pull the trigger. A CEO, like an engineer, should constantly find problems with their operation and resolve it.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I am grateful towards my hard-working parents that instilled discipline and strong work ethic in me (I had to work for my allowance since I was 13). This sense of work ethic ultimately gave me the grit to press forward against the wave of denials from prospective NYC landlords in opening up a shop — it had taken over 1 and 1/2 years to secure our first store location. My parents also gave me the incredible experience of going to Japan every summer to attend school with the locals in a small town called Nagano. This experience ultimately helped me become fluent in Japanese, hone in the delicate culture, and in turn, allowed me to work with the many Japanese companies that helped make MakiMaki possible.

I am also grateful to my parents as they never insisted that their only son takeover their successful business, but instead gave me the freedom to pursue whatever I wanted for myself. This ultimately led to my journey of becoming a mechanical engineer with a masters degree, where I worked at many industry heavyweights like Honda and J&J, and through my linguistic skills was able to enter finance at the height of Lehman crisis in 2008. All these experiences together allowed me to develop MakiMaki, a scalable business that sheds many of the problems of operating a restaurant.

If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!

As a son of a successful restauranteur that built the first sushi bar in Miami Beach, I have seen how sushi has evolved over the past 30 years. It went from being initially considered taboo or yucky (“raw fish, black paper, etc etc”) to becoming ubiquitous. And now, it has taken on a completely new definition that is foreign from its origin. Traditional sushi gave life to many new iterations of rolls, including rolls that are often overly decorated and featuring excessive amounts of ingratiates as well as newly popular sushi hybrids, such as sushi burritos and poke. With the decrease in number of proper Japanese sushi chefs coming out from Japan, I believe the middle ground of mom-and-pop restaurants will disappear, and the consumer will be left with the stark choice of either expensive omakase sushi, or cheap derivatives… where both are really no longer sushi in its traditional sense. MakiMaki is trying to preserve the middle ground by creating affordable quality sushi rolls.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can follow us on instagram, @makimakinyc!

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