by Marissa Maier
Tora Matsuoka is locally known as the affable co-owner of Sen Restaurant and Phao Thai kitchen. From conducting staff meetings during the daytime to greeting customers in the evening, the young businessman — he is in his late 20s — seems to spend most of his time in close proximity to his eateries.
But on Thursday, November 4, Matsuoka took a temporary leave from his duties to play a different role: as panelist and inspiration for a crowd full of aspiring college and high school-aged entrepreneurs.
As part of the Extreme Entrepreneurship Tour, which includes national conferences held at colleges aimed at linking under-30 entrepreneurs with business-savvy young people, Matsuoka participated in a panel at George Mason University in Washington, D.C.
“The mission of doing this is to help college students understand what entrepreneurism is and how they can continue along that path or get into it,” Matsuoka explained.
Undoubtedly, the questions centered around the issue of raising capital. Matsuoka recalled that other attendees were concerned over the difficulties associated with establishing a company as a young person.
“I tried to share with these kids that they need to use what may seem like a disability to their advantage,” Matsuoka said. He noted that he is sometimes discredited because of his lack of years, but offered, “on the other side of that coin you [a young entrepreneur] have more juice and ability to work harder and longer than anyone else.”
Matsuoka tried to impress upon the crowd the value of hard work, a lesson learned from his father, Japanese-born former Sumo wrestler Kazutomo. After retiring as a professional athlete, Kazutomo established Sen nearly 16 years ago with partner Jeff Resnick, who remains co-owner. Starting at 13-years-old, Matsuoka spent every school vacation working for his father. He didn’t receive any special privileges as the son of the boss and instead worked his way up from the lowest tier of the restaurant hierarchy.
“Dad said I wasn’t good enough to be a dishwasher, so I started as a basement scrubber,” Matsuoka remembered. “In retrospect, I praise him for his ability to teach me hard work.”
By age 25, Matsuoka bought his father’s portion of the business and later opened Phao Thai Kitchen with Resnick. It was around this time Matsuoka had his first entrepreneurial epiphany.
“I was working 90 to 115 hours a week. If I was not at work I was sleeping. There was no balance,” Matsuoka recalled. “It became clear if I am doing this with these two restaurants I will never be able to open more.”
In order to expand his empire of eateries, Matsuoka said he is developing a method to not only work hard but “work smart.” Culling information from countless business reads, Matsuoka explained that “working smart” is “creating an infrastructure based on systems that utilize programs, procedures and protocols that allow you to operate multi-units at very high levels without your presence.”
Or in simpler terms, Matsuoka is attempting to craft a type of manual to standardize his restaurant operations so that his business model can be applied at other locations. Using Sen and Phao as test sites, Matsuoka said he has boiled down success to three main ingredients of varying proportions: 40 percent service, 35 percent cuisine and 25 percent atmosphere.
Matsuoka and Resnick’s newly formed company, Big Fish Hospitality Group, is in the midst of vetting 20 to 25 different opportunities at the moment. A project to develop a restaurant in Vail, Colorado recently fell through, but Matsuoka said the company is now focusing on opening a place similar to Sen on the East Coast, possibly in New York City, Washington, D.C., or Florida.
“My intention is to create a modern westernized Japanese restaurant that focuses on small plate menus and features a high end cocktail bar and lounge aspect to them,” Matsuoka explained. “It will be the next generation of Sen.”
While stationed at his home base, however, Matsuoka will remain the full-time, gregarious restaurateur and part-time mentor to the next generation of Tora Matsuokas.