Taste of the Town - Kamakura
Customers Rule at Kamakura
Photography by Phyllis Christopher
Mr. President, if you’re serious about solving the Social Security situation, we have the answer right here in Alameda. It just takes a little Faith.
Akiko “Faith” Yamato, that is. Born 81 years ago in Japan, Faith Yamato is a fixture at her sushi restaurant, Kamakura, on Santa Clara Avenue near Broadway. She has been happily running her business for more than 20 years, which means she began at the age most people are beginning to collect Social Security checks.
Yamato was raised in the strict Japanese tradition of service, best expressed by the phrase okyakusama wa kamisama desu, which
simply means “customers are God.” You will understand how Kamakura interprets this on your first visit.
Faith Yamato met her husband, Tetsuo Yamato, in Japan during the postwar occupation. Tetsuo Yamato was born in Hawaii and served many years as a civilian adjunct to the U.S. Navy as a cargo expert. They lived in Yokohama before he was transferred to Germany for 11 years. His final posting was at the Oakland Army Supply Base, and they settled in Alameda.
Kamakura was started by Osami Tanida in 1981, and it was the first Japanese restaurant to open in Alameda (today there are about 13). The young Mr. Tanida had never run a restaurant before, and he asked Faith Yamato to become his partner in 1983; she bought him out in 1984, even though she had no restaurant experience prior to Kamakura.
She did have experience with customer service and hospitality. In Germany, Yamato had owned an antique business but couldn’t continue it in America (“This is a young country, and there’s not much to buy and sell here,” she notes). Her husband enjoyed a high civilian rank, so she frequently entertained at home. She also learned European customs to complement her Japanese training.
It wasn’t always easy. “When we started, people didn’t know about real Japanese food, so we had to educate then,” she says.
The line of people waiting for tables at lunch suggests that the word is out now.
Kamakura has an abiding doctrine—quality, beauty, tradition, freshness. To maintain that doctrine, Yamato hires sushi chefs trained in Japan, and the least experienced chef on her staff comes with 11 years on the job—exactly half of the staff average of 22 years’ experience.
The result is traditional Japanese cuisine, with glistening fresh sashimi and sushi prepared at the sushi bar. But Yamato also understands that tastes evolve, and the current fashion is for “big” rolls with very nontraditional ingredients. Such creations include the Alaskan Fantasy Roll of crab, avocado and salmon in a large rice-covered roll, dipped in tempura batter and deep-fried; the Raider Roll of broiled sea-eel (silver and black), draped over a tempura-fried shrimp maki roll; and the Philadelphia Roll of smoked salmon, avocado and cream cheese wrapped in seaweed and then in sushi rice.
“You have to offer people what they want to buy,” she says. (Remember, the customer rules.) Still, she’s most fond of traditional Japanese offerings, and so the fancy, modern rolls are beautifully photographed and then relegated to a separate menu of their own. As such, they are graciously but perhaps not quite enthusiastically welcomed into the restaurant.
Yamato is so diminutive (barely 5 feet tall) you’d think she would be easy to overlook, but the restaurant is clearly her dominion, and working there is her joy. Her husband passed away many years ago, but regular patrons still remember him when speaking with Yamato. And virtually every patron will receive some of her warm attention.
The restaurant is very busy; why not slow down now? “So many of my customers give me energy every day, and they say I do the same for them. Why not be here every day?” she asks.
There are Kamakura customers who transcend the label of “regular.” One local family has eaten lunch together, at 11:30 a.m., Monday through Friday, for 19 years now, excepting vacations and holidays.
The staff members are treated and feel like family. Their affection for Yamato is genuine and obvious, and it spills over into their service. Diners truly feel as if they are guests, not patrons, even those enjoying the $5 lunch. “The food must be good, but the service is most important here,” says Bo Woo, a Kamakura server. Woo had no restaurant experience when Yamato hired him. He was a customer who told her, “I want to work someplace where there is respect and beauty, and this is it.”
Customers have begged Yamato to bottle her “secret” chicken salad dressing, but she refuses. “You have to mix it fresh and use it right away, or it isn’t exactly right.” It’s that kind of devotion to tradition and quality that sets Kamakura apart. “This is my life. I love people, and I get to indulge that every day,” Yamato says.