It's not a question of if Junki Yoshida will seize control of the room, but when, and in what guise and key. Will he play the manic, English-mangling, teriyaki-sauce-hawking clown or the ambassador-smooth tycoon responsible for keeping Nike factories around the world supplied with shoe boxes and air soles? Flaunt himself as a Franklinesque self-made American entrepreneur or betray the ghost of a lonely Japanese teenager? Display the traits of his merchant mother or of his artist father? Provoke laughter or command homage?
The room in play is the test kitchen of Sur la Table, an upscale cookware store in the Pearl District of Portland, Oreg. Yoshida sits quietly in a corner, cradling his cell phone in one hand and running the other over his weary eyes.
The past few weeks have been hectic even by Yoshida's frenetic standards. During a whirlwind 10 days in Japan, China, and Korea, he visited factories that produce his lines of outdoor clothing and sporting goods, and called on shipping companies and airlines upon which his logistics and supply-chain management firms depend. Returning to the U.S., Yoshida touched down briefly at his home near Portland, then flew to Minneapolis, where he received an award from a national community college foundation. He then journeyed to Las Vegas to celebrate his wife's birthday, and to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, to deliver a speech to a food-packing association. Finally he returned to Portland, where he presided over the opening of a restaurant he purchased across the road from his home in suburban Troutdale.
Now he sits at Sur la Table, a block away from the art gallery and wine bar he owns with his wife and daughter, waiting to tape segments of his TV spot, "Cooking with Junki," which airs twice a week on a local station. The spot pushes Japanese cuisine in general and, in particular, the Mr. Yoshida's line of sauces that forms the public face and emotional base of Junki Yoshida's 20-company international conglomerate.
"I tired," he growls, his voice barely above a whisper.
The other people in the room -- Yoshida's assistants, the cameraman and producer, and the local TV weatherman who co-hosts the spot -- prick up their ears, waiting to be entertained, enlightened, issued orders, or, as is most often the case with the 54-year-old Yoshida, a combination of all three.
"I tiiiiired!" Yoshida repeats, the growl growing both louder and more playful. He yawns fiercely and rolls his shoulders like a boxer preparing to answer the bell; the cell phone dangles from his fingers. Finally he slaps his knees, squares his shoulders, and rises. By the time he reaches the side of his co-host, Dave Salesky, Yoshida is all glint and holler.
"Hey, in Vegas, I win that horserace, that Kentucky Fried Derby!" he tells Salesky, a tall, fair-haired man whose folksy, small-market charm serves as a perfect foil for Yoshida's intensity. "I put down 100 dollar on that Pennsylvania horse and win 800 dollar! I a rich man!"
Hoo-hah, Junki, you're a card! Kentucky Fried Derby! Eight hundred bucks! Now you can give everyone a raise!
Now Yoshida is rolling. He slips into costume -- this week it's an apron, a white chef's jacket, and an Asian peasant's conical straw hat -- and plows into a rehearsal of the first segment, which will feature the preparation of a teriyaki-style sandwich wrap. Salesky, meanwhile, explains that Yoshida's presence is ubiquitous around Portland, where he serves in roles ranging from port commissioner to benefactor for the city's largest children's hospital.
"I've been working regularly with Junki for a year and a half, and I'm still seeing different sides to him," Salesky says. "When I first met him, all I knew about was Mr. Yoshida's sauce, and that goofy billboard with his picture on it out at the Portland airport. I'd heard something about the work he did for Doernbecher hospital, but nothing about the trade missions with the governor, or the Nike shoe boxes."
The lights go up and the taping begins. Although he rarely cooks anymore outside of these public appearances, Yoshida's kitchen chops are genuine: He grew up helping his mother run a succession of small restaurants and teashops in Kyoto, and 30 years ago brewed the original Mr. Yoshida's sauce on the stove in the basement of his karate studio in Beaverton, Oreg. Now, he deftly layers filling into delicate tissues of rice paper, while at the same time riffing on horseracing, gas prices, and Salesky's mother's visit from Idaho. He mugs relentlessly for the camera, at one point sporting a bowtie pasta on his lip like a mustache.
"Tomato pesto! Garlic! Rice wine!" Yoshida roars as he adds each ingredient.
His foghorn voice blasts forth from the kitchen, stopping shoppers in their tracks out in the store. Which, of course, is the point: Yoshida trained his voice, developed his schtick, and built his empire by grinding out thousands of supermarket demos around the nation. No matter how vast the warehouse store or tiny the grocery, no matter how sophisticated or benighted the customers, Mr. Yoshida always took over the room. He always sold his sauce.
"Kentucky Fried Derby!" he trumpets, as the steak strips sizzle, the cameras roll, and outside on the sidewalk pedestrians gape through the window in wonder. "I take first and second! I a lucky man! Lucky Junki!"
Six-day-old Kristina Yoshida had turned a sickly yellow during the night and by dawn she was too limp and weak to cry. Her mother, Linda, had a fever as well, and she was scared. She desperately wished that Junki were home with her in Seattle, but Kristina's father was hundreds of miles away, in Salem, Oreg., teaching members of the Oregon State Police self-defense techniques. It was Junki's big break, his first chance to rise above the station of a struggling young karate instructor.
Kristina wouldn't nurse. She barely moved. Linda called Junki, who immediately rushed to the Portland airport for a flight to Seattle. He arrived home and took mother and daughter to Children's Hospital, where the doctors rushed the infant into intensive care. The diagnosis was grim: Kristina had a runaway case of jaundice, a condition especially dangerous in babies of Asian descent. Her liver and kidneys were shutting down.
Junki's comatose baby daughter lay nearly buried beneath the tangle of tubes and monitors. The doctors would not look him in the eye. He sat vigil through the night. In the silent watches, to the pulse of the heart monitor, during breaks from his divine plea-bargaining -- God, take me, not her -- shards of his past came hurtling at him.
He remembered his bleak boyhood in Kyoto, in the section of the city below the central train station, far removed from the world-famous temples and cherry trees. His father was an accomplished but dreamy photographer and his mother a driven, embittered woman who launched a series of struggling enterprises to feed her seven children. Junki, the youngest child, turned to the gang-controlled streets for companionship.
Junki proved himself a consummate brawler, slashing and battling with a ferocity notable even by lower Kyoto's brutal standards. First he ran with a gang, then he ran his own. He picked up both a collection of knife scars and a nickname derived from the American tough-guy films he loved: One-Eyed-Jack Junki.
He had lost his right eye in an accident when he was three years old. A Buddhist priest had told him, "Junki-san, God has taken your eye and replaced it with his own. You will have a special insight into people."
But the only thing special about Yoshida's life seemed to be its difficulty. At 18 he failed the exam for entrance into the university system, the kiss of death for a young person in Japan. A life on the streets awaited Yoshida, a violent and likely brief career shaking down construction workers for the Yakuza, the Japanese version of Cosa Nostra. He decided instead to borrow money from his mother for a plane ticket to America, the land of second chances. He touched down in Seattle on a January day in 1968. The first thing he did was cash in his return ticket. He had resolved not to return home until he had achieved success.
For a long time it seemed he would never see Japan again. He spoke no English and possessed no work permit. That first rain-swept winter he lived in a junker car and used a public restroom in west Seattle as his bathroom. As an illegal alien, he worked gut-busting, low-paying jobs in restaurant kitchens and on landscaping crews.
But things started to improve. He acquired some rudimentary English and a student visa. He enrolled at Highline Community College, where he discovered that American students were as hungry for things Japanese -- from tempura to films to Zen -- as he'd once been for things American. Junki began to teach karate at Highline. His fire and charisma -- along with his fourth-degree black-belt mastery of the Ryobukai school of the martial art -- drew students in swarms. He met a fellow Highline student named Linda McPherren at a party and immediately announced that he was going to marry her. Two weeks later, the couple was engaged. Junki and Linda married in 1973, and the next year became parents. Lucky Junki.
Dear God, take me instead.
Grace and good medicine prevailed. Kristina was out of danger, breathing normally, her liver again filtering her blood. As life flooded back into their daughter, Linda and Junki went limp with relief. A day or two passed before Junki considered the fact that the family had no health insurance.
After five days in the hospital, Kristina was well enough to go home. The nurses and doctors were all grins, Junki and Linda were glowing. But a worm of despair was already turning in Junki's brain: My God, how do I begin to pay for all this?
One of the hospital staff handed him an envelope. Junki hesitated before opening it. The bill would certainly be astronomical. Then he gave a gallows laugh -- what did it matter how many zeros there were when he was virtually penniless? But as he read the bill his laughter died. The amount payable was $250.
"If that's too much," the hospital staffer said, "we can work something out."
Junki was too overwhelmed to speak. But he silently vowed, with all the resolve that had brought him off the streets of Kyoto to the New Jerusalem of America, that one day, in some way, he would repay this kindness.
The Yoshidas returned to their lives. Junki continued to teach karate. The family moved to Oregon, where Junki opened a dojo in suburban Portland that soon became a center for martial artists throughout the Pacific Northwest. When practicing karate, Junki was formal, dignified, and imposing -- all Japanese. In other aspects of his life, however, he was exuberant, fun loving, able to make friends with anybody -- the representative American. The dojo thrived, but another daughter had come along (the Yoshidas would eventually have three daughters), and the family still lived on a shoestring.
In fact, at Christmas, Yoshida didn't have enough money to buy gifts for his karate students. So he and Linda brewed batches of a cooking sauce, adapting one of his mother's recipes to American tastes. They doubled the sugar and added more mirin, the rice wine that lent the sauce, or teri, its distinctive flavor and glazing properties. Outside of a few specialty stores, such sauces were then unknown in the U.S. The Yoshidas gave eight-ounce bottles as gifts in December. By February, students were asking for more. Junki admonished them that Christmas came only once a year.
"No, no," the students replied. "We don't expect another gift. We'll pay you."
Today, Mr. Yoshida's Original Gourmet Sauce and Marinade is bottled and packed in an industrial park just under the flight path of arriving jets at Portland International Airport. You walk down a hallway from Junki Yoshida's office, put on a hygienic haircover, open a door, and step directly onto the plant floor. The effect is rather startling. It's as if you've stumbled into a James Bond movie, where a vast SMERSH laboratory secretly hums on the other side of a seemingly ordinary living-room wall. Serpentine belts snake from floor to ceiling of the football-field-size factory, emitting a moderate din as they bear the distinctive, half-gallon plastic jugs of ink-colored sauce in various states of preparedness.
He shows no trace now of the samurai cowboy screaming into the TV camera. Yoshida is every inch the businessman -- solemn, crisp, and formidable.
Yoshida moves through the plant with a capo's strut, pausing here to greet a longtime employee, there to question a manager about water spilling over the lip of a monstrous vat. He shows no trace of the samurai cowboy screaming into the TV camera. Yoshida is every inch the businessman -- solemn, crisp, and formidable in an expensive gray suit, his face an impassive mask.
He climbs a set of stairs to a catwalk overlooking the floor, surveying this slice of his kingdom with a satisfaction tinged by wistfulness: He has only a sketchy understanding of the factory's engineering and operations, he acknowledges. And the sauce itself, while bearing Yoshida's name and likeness, is no longer entirely his; five years ago, he sold North American trademark, distribution, and marketing rights to the H.J. Heinz Co., for which he essentially serves as a contract manufacturer. This arrangement falls under the aegis of Yoshida Foods International, another one of the companies that make up the privately held Yoshida Group, which last year took in more than $180 million in sales.
"Economy of scale," he says, with a stoical toss of his hand. "Pretty soon, there only be four grocery outlets left in this country -- Wal-Mart, Safeway, Kroger, Costco. To play with those big boys, you better be big yourself."
The capital-intensive roar and high-corporate filigree seem a world apart from a 20-gallon pot of sauce simmering on the stove in the basement of a karate dojo. And the austere and sober businessman touring his factory seems a different person from the berserker wearing a pasta mustache at Sur la Table. And yet the distance between the mom-and-pop project and Heinz, or even between the two sides of Yoshida's personality, isn't nearly as great as the one yawning between food manufacturing and the spectral, virtual 21st-century enterprise -- global logistics and supply chain management -- that now constitutes Yoshida's core business.
"Family, relationships," he says, hanging up his haircover and passing back through the looking glass toward his office. "No matter what business you in, no matter how big how small, that's all that count -- family, relationships."
By the late 1980s, after years of furious work and two near bankruptcies, Junki Yoshida's sauces were established as a regional favorite in the Pacific Northwest. He sold through the local supermarket chains, which were then still the backbone of the American grocery industry. Although he still practiced karate, he was a businessman now, with a wide circle of contacts, many of them in positions of power. When the fledgling Costco came courting, these friends urged Yoshida to spurn the advances.
Costco challenged the system by buying directly from producers and manufacturers, cutting out the jobbers and slashing the markups by which the supermarkets prospered. With its membership fee, warehouse stores, limited selection, and oversize packaging, Costco once seemed like a bizarre fad that would soon pass. If Yoshida did business with this upstart, he was warned, he would be blacklisted by the grocery establishment.
It was one of those watershed moments, when an entrepreneur must crunch the numbers, search his soul, and finally close his eyes and make a calamitous or evolutionary leap. Yoshida rejected the advice and gambled on Costco.
Selling through Costco meant reconfiguring his packaging, coding, and pricing, a huge undertaking for what was still essentially a mom-and-pop operation. But the basic nature of the business remained unchanged -- selling the sauce. At the time, the Costco chain consisted of only two stores, in Seattle and Portland. Each weekend for months, Junki and Linda would shuttle between the stores, hammering out the demos. To say that Yoshida was an effective salesman is like saying that Bob Dylan is a good songwriter.
"Junki reinvented the whole concept of demos," says Costco founder and CEO Jim Sinegal. "Before -- and for the most part since -- demos consisted of little old ladies handing out free samples, and the customer gobbling up the freebie and then looking for a place to get rid of the plastic fork. Well, Junki just blew that out of the water. He put on a show. He created traffic jams in the aisles. Most important, he wouldn't let a customer get away without a flat of sauce in her shopping cart."
"To my mind, marketing and sales are connected, two sides of same coin," Yoshida says. "I never understand why they separate. I think that a big problem with corporate world today. In my company, marketing people always sell."
At Costco, Linda cooked and served while Junki worked the crowd, doing his gonzo samurai routine, dancing, singing, yelling out "Hey, mama-san" to shoppers, donning cowboy hats, throwing lassoes, brandishing butcher knives, on one occasion even chasing a stubborn shopper out into the parking lot and escorting her back into the store to buy his sauce.
The shows were a hit, the sauce flew out of the stores, and Sinegal and Yoshida forged a lasting bond. Costco grew exponentially, and Yoshida hooked on for the ride. When Costco staged a grand opening of a store anywhere in America, the Yoshidas served as headliners. And when an outlet opened in England in 1993, Linda and Junki took their act to Europe.
Yoshida eventually reached another crossroads. The next step for his rapidly growing business was to sell through the mega-supermarket chains at a national level. But that required a capital investment -- chiefly in the form of fees for placement on supermarket shelves -- beyond the scope of his company. Yoshida had to either go public or sell the distribution and marketing rights to his sauce. He chose the latter, selling to Heinz in 2000. At around the same time, Yoshida's other business interests were starting to bear fruit.
He'd begun to diversify in the late 1980s, with an investment in geoducks. A geoduck is a type of large clam that lives in profusion in the mud flats of Puget Sound. It is popular in Japan, where it forms the base for many sushi recipes. Yoshida bought a geoduck harvesting and distributing company and started supplying customers in his native country. Business clicked along until fate intervened -- twice. First, a series of geoduck shipments arrived in Japan spoiled. Yoshida, whose b?te noir is disappointing a customer, was furious at the air freight company. The second episode was far more serious: A company diver died in an accident while harvesting geoducks under the sound.
"I always believe in karma," Yoshida says. "When that poor diver die, I understand that the karma no good for geoducks, and I get out. That another lesson I learn from my mother: When a business don't work, after you try like hell to make a success but it don't happen, then you just got to know to walk away."
The geoduck karma wasn't all bad, however. Studying the debacle of the spoiled shipment, Yoshida surmised that other companies shipping perishable goods to Asia must have had similar experiences. With remarkable acuity, the former gangbanger and current saucemeister recognized that the real opportunity lay not in geoducks, but in the supply lines delivering them to market. So Yoshida got into the global freight-forwarding business.
The former gangbanger and current saucemeister recognized that the real opportunity lay elsewhere. Yoshida got into global freight forwarding.
Except for Junki's office and the bottling plant, all of the Yoshida Group enterprises, including OIA Global Logistics, operate out of a bright, low-slung postindustrial cube farm in Gresham, east of Portland. Nothing tangible is produced here, which is a point of pride with Matt Guthrie, the group's president.
"We're information- rather than asset-based," says Guthrie, a tall, relaxed man with a fashionably sparse beard who could serve as a model for Portland's open-collar business culture. "For example, OIA is basically an airline without the airplanes. We do freight forwarding, import brokerage, warehousing, purchasing and delivery, inventory, and risk management. The Pacific Rim and Asia are our main beat: We have branch offices from Bangladesh to Beijing."
OIA's blue-chip customer is its Portland-area neighbor Nike. The progression from delivering clams to trafficking shoe components was actually fairly direct. In its early years, OIA carved a niche in facilitating the transport of perishable goods between the U.S. and Asia. At around the same time, Nike was rolling out its air soles, which were manufactured in Oregon, then delivered to assembly plants throughout Asia. OIA's Asian and air freight expertise made the company a natural choice for Nike.
Air soles, of course, revolutionized the shoe industry. Just as Mr. Yoshida's sauce hooked onto Costco's rise, so did OIA climb aboard the Nike rocket. While continuing to deliver air soles from Oregon to Asia, Yoshida's company now also manages the flow of shoe boxes through Nike factories worldwide. OIA now produces annual revenue of $130 million. Lucky Junki, perhaps; prescient, hustling, and adaptable Junki, definitely.
Whenever Yoshida starts a new venture, from Prison Blues, his inmate-produced line of denim clothes, to Straight Line Sports, which makes water ski gear, he follows the same pattern. During start-up, he immerses himself in the project. Once the enterprise is smoothly functioning, he disengages from day-to-day operations, turning it over to carefully chosen specialists in the field.
Just now, that pattern is playing out with Hagar's, Yoshida's new restaurant in Troutdale. He envisions the spot as both a neighborhood hangout and a place for families to stop after a day at the nearby Columbia Gorge. It might also serve as Yoshida's unofficial headquarters after he semiretires in a year or two to devote more time to philanthropy and civic affairs. Chief among these interests is Portland's Doernbecher Children's Hospital. Yoshida has never forgotten the vow he made years ago in Seattle, after his own daughter's life was saved.
"Once I retire, start doing charity full time, all my business buddies stop calling me real quick," he explains, deadpan. "But if I got a restaurant, I say, 'Come on in and have a free drink.' Everybody like a free drink. Everybody still my friend."
He knows he'll lose money on the restaurant, and it is far from one of his frontline enterprises, yet at this point no detail is too small to escape Yoshida's attention. Today, for instance, the primary item on his agenda is deciding what kind of chicken-wing appetizers Hagar's will serve. Such a task would seem a natural for the blaring, wild-man Junki, but instead he's playing it straight.
He has flourished by straddling actual and metaphorical borderlines, building a fortune on marrying East and West.
Yoshida sits on a sofa in his office, perched midway between the big executive's desk occupying one end of the room and the formal Japanese tea table and service that takes up the other. He has flourished by straddling such actual and metaphorical borderlines, building a fortune on marrying East and West, on managing to be both the quintessential Japanese and American, tycoon and clown.
Two staffers enter the office, each bearing a tray laden with chicken wings, one prepared with mild sauce, the other with spicy sauce. Reading their boss's mood, the staffers silently place the trays in front of Yoshida, then step back a safe distance.
Mr. Yoshida grabs a plastic fork -- the kind you get at a supermarket demo -- and spears a wing off the mild tray. He chews thoughtfully but says nothing. Then he samples one of the spicy wings. His grin lights up the room. i
John Brant is a writer in Portland, Oreg. He is working on a book about the 1982 Boston Marathon.
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