During the height of the pandemic, just when his restaurant business was reaching its peak, Kash Feng slashed his staff from 500 to five. Feng operates The Omakase restaurant group, with seven Bay Area restaurants, including Live Sushi and Breakfast at Tiffany’s in Potrero Hill.
In 1999, at 18, Feng joined a group of friends who were moving to San Francisco from Xi’an, China. Most ended up returning home. Feng didn’t know a single person, couldn’t speak a word of English, and had no clue about the restaurant industry. Unable to afford to live in San Francisco, he found a dishwashing job at a Chinese restaurant in Pinole.
“As an immigrant, when you first get here, you don’t have a lot of options,” he said. “Working in restaurants was one. I lived right across the street from the restaurant and worked six days a week, 12 hours a day. I made $35 a day and maybe $30 in tips. After a month, I called my mom and said, ‘Do you know how much money I made?’ What I made in a month was equivalent at the time to the amount she made in a whole year in China. It’s important to remember the hardships you’ve faced…to keep reminding yourself of what you have been through, so when you become successful you don’t mess it up.”
Feng was soon promoted to busboy. He saved money, hoping to live in San Francisco. After a two-year search, he found a garage apartment for $200 a month. He maintained his Pinole job, sought an additional restaurant job, and enrolled in City College to learn English.
In the early 2000s, he cashiered at The Long Life Noodle Company. Friends helped him secure a job at Celebrity Chef Roy Yamaguchi’s namesake restaurant, where Feng acquired his foundational culinary education.
“They had a great training program, a wonderful company culture. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming to me. I was 20, the youngest kid there. I still couldn’t speak English well. The servers and the managers would take time and explain what words meant. They were very kind to me. I worked there for several years, working my way up to expediter, server, and host. I am very grateful for that experience,” said Feng.
After Roy’s closed its South-of Market location in 2004, Feng worked as a restaurant manager at smaller Asian concept restaurants, including Mikado Sushi. He was a floor manager at Far East, a Chinatown restaurant that’s been in operation for more than 100 years.
“By 2005, I felt like I knew what I was doing in the restaurant industry, and it was now time to open my own place. I found a business partner, Jackson Yu, who was a sushi chef,” said Feng.
In 2007, the pair opened Live Sushi at 2001 17th Street.
“When we first opened, the support from the Potrero Hill neighborhood was phenomenal. We had a line out the door every day. We didn’t know what we were doing yet. We had a full house and Jackson was the only sushi chef. I had to jump back there and start rolling sushi with him…it was a lot of fun,” Feng said.
Yu is still Feng’s business partner. He’s also the chef at Omakase, the flagship restaurant of the Omakase group. Less than a year after its 2015 opening, Omakase received a Michelin star and a “Top 100” ranking by The San Francisco Chronicle. Feng was at the top of his game in the restaurant industry. Then Covid showed up.
“When the pandemic hit, we were immediately scared,” he said. “We were close to 500 employees. When the news came that we had to shut down, that very next week, I went to five fulltime employees in the office. It was really hard at the beginning to shut your doors and let everybody go home. It was not a good time. As soon as we were allowed to start doing takeout, we started working on bringing everybody back. I feel lucky because I have a lot of friends and entrepreneurs in my life who are way more intelligent than me. At the start of the pandemic, we were calling each other every single day and supporting each other. There was a lot of mentoring going on for me. And many people were consistently buying takeout from us…even ordering extra takeout and gifting it to their friends so they could make sure that our restaurants were going to stay around. Those kinds of guests are a big part of the reason why we are still here.”
“Everybody wants to be successful but not everyone wants to do the work. For entrepreneurs, the biggest thing is to not give up. Even if you fail at what you are trying to do—a couple of the restaurants we opened did fail and we had to close them—you always learn something from it. You just have to keep at it,” said Feng.
Despite his accomplishments Feng continues to have dreams.
“I would like to have dinner with Steph Curry or Klay Thompson. I have been a Warriors fan since the Byron Davis days. As far as I know, Steph or Klay have not ever been to any of the restaurants,” said Feng, with a laugh.