TWO SEATTLE RESTAURANT OWNERS didn’t intend to be at the forefront of redefining how the service industry operates when they purchased Moshi Moshi Sushi in May 2019, but they did believe how it treated its workers was harmful and were determined to be different. The pandemic forced them to accelerate their plans faster than they ever expected.

“I spent over a decade in professional kitchens, many with toxic work cultures, working insane hours for poverty wages,” says Rumi Ohnui, a pastry chef by trade, who purchased Moshi Moshi in Ballard with Charlie Anthe, her personal and business partner. “Restaurant workers, especially those in kitchens, are the invisible toilers who endure 70-hour weeks, 15-hour shifts, forced overtime, and minimal pay. I wanted to prove you could be a successful restaurant owner AND treat everyone with kindness and respect. Treating workers with dignity is not a detriment; it’s a competitive advantage and we wanted to demonstrate that from the start.”

Rumi Ohnui and Charlie Anthe, owners of Moshi Moshi Sushi & Izakaya, on May 30, 2022, their third anniversary of ownership

Image: Charlie Anthe

When the duo first took over Moshi Moshi Sushi, they took things slowly. “We spent the first several months fixing some obvious structural and cultural issues,” says Anthe. Ohnui adds, “I changed our branding added ‘& Izakaya’ to our name as we have plenty more to offer beyond sushi. We pride ourselves in being an approachable, accessible, neighborhood place with something for everyone.”

Just as they were getting ready to make more substantial changes, COVID upended their plans. “It was surreal,” says Anthe. “Dreaming big came to a screeching halt.” But despite the roller coaster of COVID operations, the pair still maintained their philosophy of looking out for those under their care. “The initial shutdown forced us to lay off our entire staff, but with a PPP loan three weeks later, it allowed us to hire everyone back immediately. We paid everyone their average pre-pandemic wages while still having them stay home.”

Ohnui and Anthe carefully weighed how every operational decision would affect everyone. “We completely changed our business model 6-7 times within a year and each time we would ask our team: ‘We’re thinking of doing X; how do you feel about that?’”

Image: Charlie Anthe

By first considering the people who were doing the dangerous work of constantly interacting with the public, especially before vaccines were available, they were able to retain almost their entire staff. Now, as diners are flooding back to restaurants with expectations of pre-pandemic service, the new challenge is explaining why the old standard may never return.

“People see full dining rooms and think everything is normal. That’s the magic of hospitality; you don’t see the wizard behind the curtain running with supply chain nightmares and staffing shortages. We still have shortened hours because we can’t find enough workers, even though we pay a strong wage, and refuse to over-schedule our team. Millions of restaurant workers took the lockdown as an opportunity to realize they didn’t need to suffer the abuse from customers, managers, and owners,” says Ohnui. “I don’t blame them for making a career change as I would have likely done the same, even if it’s making my life as a restaurateur now extremely challenging.”

In the end, the pair says they hope diners become more connected with small businesses in their community and support those that are working to create positive change.

“We aren’t the only restaurant dedicated to treating their people well,” Ohnui continues, “but often, people don’t notice us because we’re a single-location, family-owned business. There are several big names amongst chef/owners and restaurant groups in Seattle who have a near-celebrity status and can more easily get their messages out through traditional and social media. But for those of us who don’t have their name-recognition nor marketing teams, it’s really difficult for us to tell our story of what we’re doing and why we’re struggling.

“It’ll take a long time for folks to come back to an industry that mistreated them for so long, but I want everyone to know that there ARE owners like us who are truly trying to be the change. We hope people recognize them, no matter how small their business, and support them as much as possible, as it’s the only way to cement the changes this industry needs.”

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