With Chirori closed, Wagaya focuses on takeout sushi and ramen

Wagaya offers tonkotsu ramen. CONTRIBUTED BY WAGAYA
Wagaya offers tonkotsu ramen. CONTRIBUTED BY WAGAYA

As the owner of three Japanese restaurants, Takashi Otsuka wears multiple hats: chef, sushi master, sake sommelier, social media manager, boss.

But, these days, his hardest job is looking after his 5-year-old daughter, Julia. The COVID-19 pandemic has closed her pre-K, but Otsuka still must manage Wagaya, a traditional ramen and sushi restaurant with locations in Home Park and Emory Village.

Chef Takashi Otsuka is seen at the robata grill in his restaurant Chirori, now closed temporarily. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS
Chef Takashi Otsuka is seen at the robata grill in his restaurant Chirori, now closed temporarily. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

“My employees listen to me,” the 36-year-old single dad joked, “but my daughter doesn’t.”

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That didn’t stop him from creating a special sushi roll in her honor. Kiss of Juju (Julia’s nickname) is made with crunchy scallop tempura and avocado, and topped with fresh scallops from Hokkaido, salmon and strawberries. The sliced berries are arranged to look like a pair of lips (hence the kiss.)

“She tried it, but she likes fried chicken better,” Otsuka said.

Because Chirori, his upscale restaurant specializing in robatayaki and sake, never was intended for takeout, Otsuka had to suspend operations at his newest venture in mid-March, as the pandemic paralyzed the city. Wagaya, on the other hand, already had an established customer base for to-go sushi and ramen. In recent weeks, Wagaya has doubled its takeout and delivery business.

The ishiyaki chasu fried rice from Wagaya is exceptional, Wendell Brock writes. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK
The ishiyaki chasu fried rice from Wagaya is exceptional, Wendell Brock writes. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK

Still, Otsuka had to lay off about 40 employees. He now is down to “less than 10.”

“We are claiming unemployment insurance for laid-off employees and employees who work less hours,” he explained via email. “Wagaya has become a very different business model, so I’m paying more attention to daily operation, with scheduling and keeping inventory low to mitigate the damage.”

The native of Saitama, Japan, moved to the U.S. in 2002, and eventually opted to study hospitality at Georgia State University. Even then, he was something of a visionary: Sensing that his future businesses likely would employ Spanish speakers, he traveled to Guadalajara, Mexico, to study Spanish while attending college.

Otsuka opened Wagaya (it means “our home” in Japanese) in April of 2015, followed by a second location, in Emory Village, in 2017. Chirori opened last July. Forever the multi-tasker, he even designed the interiors of his three restaurants, using a computer program. He has no outside investors or partners.

This jewel box package includes rice and salmon sashimi from Wagaya. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK
This jewel box package includes rice and salmon sashimi from Wagaya. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK

As for the future of his restaurants, Otsuka wavers between optimism and stoicism.

Since last summer, he has been working on a third restaurant concept — a casual sushi, ramen and rice bowl restaurant called Nagomiya — planned for the Hanover West Peachtree apartment building.

Given the current crisis, he thinks restaurant openings are on hold, in general. “I’m not an exception,” he said in an email. “I’m negotiating the terms with not only the Hanover landlord, but others to see how we can survive this time together.”

On the upside: “I still think it’s going to be great. We are going to come back from this, eventually.”

On the downside, he said, failure is inevitable in the business world — in good times and bad. “Depression, or any impact, kind of cleanses a business — meaning, if you are not doing the right business, you close down. So, that’s what I tell myself as a business owner.”

As for the takeout-only business model, one thing working in his favor is the sushi. Unlike ramen or tempura, he said, you don’t have to worry about it getting cold en route. “It’s the perfect item.”

Is there a restaurant you want to see featured? Do you have feedback about the new column? We want to hear from you. Send your comments to ligaya.figueras@ajc.com.

WAGAYA

Menu: full menu of ramen, sushi, tempura, katsu, soups, salads, appetizers and lunch-time rice bowls. The most popular choice is the "ramen and two," which includes a choice of ramen and two sushi rolls.

Alcohol: beer, wine and sake, including extensive sake holdings from Chirori, which temporarily is closed.

What I ordered: sashimi rice bowl with salmon, beef curry udon, ishiyaki chasu fried rice. Everything was impeccably packaged, and delicious. Good fried rice is hard to find; Wagaya's was exceptional. The sashimi bowl kept well in the refrigerator until the next day.

Service options: ChowNow is recommended. Also: Uber Eats, DoorDash, Postmates (Emory Village only).

Safety protocols: The staff follows all safety protocols, including wearing gloves and washing hands regularly. Touchless transactions are encouraged. Curbside pickup is available.

Address, phone: 339 14th St. NW, Atlanta. 470-575-5799. 1579 N. Decatur Road, Atlanta. 678-949-9278

Hours: Check the website.

Website: wagaya.us

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