Sushi chef and restaurant owner talks work, staffing, supply chain, and more

Louis Ryu at one of his restaurants

It’s a busy Saturday night. The restaurant is filled with the loud chatter of families enjoying their weekends and friends at the bar getting a couple drinks to wrap up their week. The mumble of the music is almost completely blurred out by all of the conversation. The staff are bombarded with orders, waiters and waitresses running from table to table. Louis Ryu, a 45 year old Korean-American who is a co-owner for Kisara, a Japanese and Korean restaurant in Easthampton, MA, and Kaisen, an Asian bistro serving Japanese and Korean cuisine in Agawam, MA is at the center of it all. His hands are moving fast in order to fulfill each customer’s order to their satisfaction, making roll after roll after roll. 

This is a typical weekend for Ryu. He is the hardworking father of me and my brother. His usual routine starts with arriving at work hours before opening time in order to prepare ingredients and fill up on stock if needed. On Wednesdays, he wakes up at 6 a.m. in order to make it to Boston, MA on time to stock up on fresh fish needed at the sushi bar. He makes frequent trips to the bigger cities in order to provide customers with the best and highest quality food he can, even if it means making multiple trips to New York each week. 

Ryu says that one of his favorite parts of working is “being able to talk to customers and seeing his regulars often.” However, with the pandemic preventing close contact and restricted traveling, he is disappointed that he hasn’t been able to do this as often. 

With the new laws implemented with the surge in COVID-19 cases, the restaurant decided to close the bar to the customers. Though many enjoyed the process of seeing their food made, “it was better to be safe and have customers keep their distance,” Ryu said. 

This isn’t the only thing that has changed for Ryu. “It has been harder to find employees during the pandemic,” he said. “This caused the restaurant to open during dinner times instead of at noon.” It is also difficult when employees call out sick after being exposed to or catching COVID-19, as people have to work extra shifts to cover for them, including Ryu. There have also been “more take-out orders than in-store dining,” said Ryu.

Though this may seem better, the increase in take-out results in more supplies needed in order to pack orders. With the rising costs in supplies and ingredients due to inflation, “it is harder to find items, and this caused restaurants to increase their prices,” Ryu said. “It’s also harder to find the same supplies as I used to use as the pandemic has limited certain international imports and exports, causing many difficulties.”

The pandemic is a stress-inducing experience for most if not everyone. Ryu says that in order to deal with the heavy amounts of stress that came from dealing with difficult situations, he enjoyed “being able to relax at home with my family.”

“I also enjoy going on long car rides whether it’s just going around the surrounding counties or taking trips all the way to Maine,” he said. “I also did a lot of exercise, which included running on the treadmill and going on long walks with our dog. And I cook at home which keeps me busy and on my toes.”

“Just being around my family was very helpful,” Ryu said, “I like cooking for them and seeing them happy. It makes me feel proud and content.” 

When asked if he felt like his mental or physical health had worsened, stayed the same, or improved, he responded, “I have a strong mentality, it takes more than this to affect me.” 

After spending about two years in the pandemic, people are looking forward to going back to some aspects of their normal lifestyles. Ryu is definitely looking forward to a surge in customers as restrictions fade. He also wants to be able to hang out with family and friends, “to go traveling without having to worry about the virus.”

“I’m excited for the day that mask mandates are lifted and I hope everyone stays safe and healthy until the pandemic is over,” he said.