Every Saturday morning, I got up to watch Robotech, Transformers, to G.I. Joe. That was a major part of my experience growing up, just as much as Gojo Japanese Steakhouse (and their hibachi sauce) was to everybody in Kansas City, Missouri, for the last four decades (KC loves sauce).
I can relate to the Yamanaka family because this Japanese American family also did not grow up in a coastal city, and we both grew up in a part of the country with a tiny Asian and even smaller Japanese American population. Aside from my sister and brother, my cousin, the Chinese family, a few other stragglers, I was one of the few Asians at my high school in Denver, Colorado.
Every time I mentioned “Denver” to anybody in California, their immediate association to the state was with John Denver, or that I lived on a ranch and herded cows. I can also bet that saying ‘Kansas City, Missouri’ might elicit looks of not knowing where Kansas City is located (*waves hand generally over the middle of the US map*), to jazz, BBQ, and misery (my pronunciation of Missouri)? Well, whatever the association is, “Asian” does not get commonly associated with either state.
The other significance of Gojo being a success story was that this was at a time when raw fish was negatively associated with the Japanese (so how about steak), and soy sauce was a very foreign condiment. I know when many of you young pups read this, and you might be shocked to read that because soy sauce to soy sauce-based sauces like teriyaki sauce and sushi are commonplace.
In 2020, after 40 years of business, Gojo Japanese Steakhouse restaurant closed its doors. Soon after, the next generation of the Yamanaka family is carrying on the Kansas City Gojo legacy with their hibachi sauce.
Before contacting Gojo, I did an initial search of their Yelp, Google Places, and their Facebook presence (I did not want to inadvertently promote a**holes without knowing). From that Google search, I quickly learned how this family restaurant had been involved in countless special occasions in the Kansas City community. Comment after comment to their 30k Facebook following is a testament to that.
“I was like 10 years old when I first went to GOJO’s. Now, I’m 51 and have taken my son there for many years and we always loved Tok! It will certainly hold a special place in the hearts of many of us and our children.”– John P. Goodman
I reached out to Gojo because I liked their Instagram sponsored post because it embodied the Japanese AMERICAN experience
The vast majority of Japanese restaurants in the United States are not Japanese-owned, but Kyo Yamanaka Noble, the second oldest daughter of Jo Yamanaka, the owner of Gojo responded to my email. Not only did she do that, but she was kind enough, or should I say extremely kind to take the time to do a Q&A. This has been something I have been wanting to do more of, so she will be one of the first in what I hope is a series of interviews of people I am not already acquainted with. They will also be people involved in Japanese food and culture throughout the world, so let us get into it.
“Gojo Japanese Steakhouse lit hibachi tables on fire for over 40 years. Our family-owned restaurant became a Kansas City mainstay until 2020 when the world started dining at home. Now you can bring our restaurant to your dinner table with our most popular sauces.”– GoJo Kansas City
Thanks Kyo for doing this interview and from our conversation, I think you had said you were the oldest of the 3 Yamanaka daughters? Joe is your pops who started the restaurant, but was your mom also part of the operations?
I am the middle of three daughters. My younger sister, Lisa, is a chef and master quilter. My older sister, Marie, lives in LA and works as a healthcare professional. I had a small stint in high school where I was a hostess at the restaurant. But, my younger sister is the only one who had worked at the restaurant as an adult. She is the current president of the holding company who intended to take over the restaurant before we decided to shut down during COVID.
My mother, Yoshiko, never worked at the restaurant much. She was a stay-at-home mom, taking care of her 3 daughters. She is the most patient and loyal person who gave my father the flexibility he needed to grow the restaurant. However, my mother had other plans and focused more on community outreach, teaching others about Japan. She loves her native country and wanted to share her extensive knowledge and expertise to Americans in KC. Growing up in Kyoto, the cultural capital of Japan, she understands a lot about the history of Japanese culture that many modern citizens do not. She grew up dancing in Kabuki shows, knows all of the rules to traditional tea ceremonies and is an expert cook. She would teach cultural classes to Americans, show kids how to fold origami, and make negi-maki for my friends (much to my embarrassment at the time).
In your “About Us,” you said “started dining at home,” which was not because they did not want to be dining at Gojo, but it was due to the pandemic which had decimated restaurants and businesses throughout the country?
Yes, we closed due to Covid. We decided not to refer to the pandemic in our write up since we wanted the statement on our bottles to last longer than the current state of the world. “Spring of 2020” should suggest the global pandemic. We also didn’t want it to seem like we were looking for sympathy since several other factors brought us to the conclusion that we should shut down our restaurant and focus on CPG. We shifted our focus as a business and want to move forward with new opportunities. We do not want our customers to think that the shuttering of our restaurant is the end of Gojo. But more a “new beginning” for what is to come.
The thing that sticks out in my head that I liked hearing is that you had core employees that had been with Gojo for 40+ years (since the beginning). That right there says a lot about your family because most restaurants can barely retain people beyond a week to a month. After four decades, I’m sure most saw 2020 as an appropriate time to retire? I know your pops is enjoying himself, and you said he does a lot of yard work now. What are some of his other interests/hobbies or interesting stories you might have of his post-retirement?
This could be a podcast, the life of Jo. My dad loves music. I grew up listening to Bossa Nova, Jazz and Shogo Hamada (the Bruce Springsteen of Japan, apparently) Over the last 10 years or so he has been writing music, playing the guitar and performing throughout the US and Japan. He teamed up with a friend’s daughter, Aya Uchida, in Japan to develop music and perform throughout both countries. Together they came up with a new genre of music…J Country. They filmed music videos in Kansas City, in vast plains and fields (something not commonly seen by Japanese people) and recorded music in Branson, MO. Aya has a regular spot on Kyoto local radio and my dad often joins in. They’ve travelled to Haiti to sing to the Japanese troops there, performed at various Japan Fests throughout the US and held local concerts around Japan. Though with Covid, this has pretty much come to a halt, but he is looking forward to the day he can go back to Japan (he is no longer a Japanese citizen).
His other hobbies include, golfing (he is a regular at the city course), fishing in our pond and posting videos of his grandkids on Facebook.
Now that the restaurant is closed, you and your family are still devoted to all of your very loyal customers, which is why you are doing your line of sauces. Except it’s the younger generations taking over the reins, Nisei (second-generation Japanese American).
I also grew up in an area with almost no Japanese (Colorado), aside from my cousin and younger sister and brother, but wasn’t that also the same for you and your family/sisters? What were some of your fondest memories growing up in Kansas City?
We knew a few Japanese families in KC. Though we were very spread out throughout the metropolitan area so we weren’t in each other’s schools or home circles. My mom was a very active member of the Japanese community in KC, even serving as VP of the Japan Society of KC for a few years. She luckily found a really great group of lifelong Japanese friends in KC.
As for my fondest memories…I would definitely say that as an adult, I can look back at my life as being incredible and special. I don’t know if I could have said that about my life at the time though. Being Asian in an all white community was always on mind, though I rarely expressed it. My immigrant parents did a great job at creating a little life for their family that was very culturally Japanese, but honored and respecting the very American world around us. They knew that keeping their traditions and values within our family was very important, but also understood that their children are and will be American. My parents grew up in Kyoto, Japan. Like much of Japan, the neighborhoods were crowded and compact, there just wasn’t much space. So when they moved to KC, they went all out and embraced their surroundings. We grew up on 6 acres of land, the same property that my parents still live on today. I remember spending hours outside, we had a small produce farm, a fishing pond and just land to roam around in. In time, as our lives got busier, our property started to overgrow and we didn’t keep up with it. But since covid/retirement, my parents have been renovating it all and spending a lot of time working outside. Now my kids and my niece and nephew visit my parents house and experience all of the glory that we had as children. I love seeing my kids on the same property that I grew up on, wading in the same pond, fishing, running around and searching for lost golf balls. As far as specific KC memories, my dad and I always had a special bond. We would often go to Kansas City Chiefs games together and I loved it. Not because I was particularly into the game, but it was my special day with dad (and also the rest of Kansas City who are all diehard Chiefs fans). We would also have great yearly family events too. Every year, we would go to the Ethnic Festival of KC and the Japan Fest that my mom basically ran. It would be a free day for us kids, running around in Kimonos, eating everything we could see, making crafts and when we were older, running booths. My mom would be teaching a Japanese Tea Ceremony class or performing a traditional dance, she was very involved. As a child, I didn’t always love the Japanese side of me. But as an adult now, these are the moments that made my life special and I’m so grateful for those memories.
I also know of the restaurant’s popularity due to the 30K+ followers you have on Facebook (that right there is bragging rights) to the countless reviews on Yelp and Google Places (a lot of commenters reminiscing and wishing you would open back up).
Did you ever or always realize your restaurants’ impact and appeal to the Kansas community? From my research, in those four decades, you have had an impact on the diversity of food in KC, which goes to show the massive appeal your restaurant has had. Even with changing tastes and food trends, good food is good food.
To be completely honest, personally, I didn’t know how much people loved our restaurant until it closed. We lived in a different part of Kansas City, so it was just a different segment of my life. I knew that we had regulars. I knew that most people in KC had at least heard of it, if not dined there. But I didn’t know how significant it was in people’s lives. It makes sense now that I’m realizing that it was a place for celebrations. On any given night, the staff would sing “happy birthday” like every 10 minutes. Once we closed, we had so many people send us messages and emails just thanking us for the space. So many generations of families celebrated there. We’ve heard stories of engagements in the 80s/90s that turned into 30 year marriages with grandchildren dining/celebrating there. Gojo meant so much to so many people and it’s been a joy and honor to hear their stories. I might also note that we get a LOT of negative comments or aggressive ones from people being upset that we shut down or telling us to reopen. We understand that these comments come from a place that is fueled with passion. We meant a lot to so many people and we don’t take that lightly. We love our customers, we love them for their loyalty and dedication over the past 40 years.
I know all three sauces are very popular, but they all have a particular appeal to different customers due to their uses. Your teriyaki sauce has the broadest appeal for proteins from chicken, beef, pork to salmon. The miso ginger for salads and as a dipping sauce for all sorts of veggies. Although I think there is a massive following for your Yellow sauce that was initially only used as a seafood sauce, now people use it for all types of dishes. What were some of those dishes and their uses? (I remember telling you how my friend from Louisiana cooks with butter in many of her dishes, and she would love this sauce. The holidays are coming up, so I think I know what I am getting her as a stocking stuffer).
Aside from the shrimp appetizer, the second most common way people ate our yellow sauce is on plain white rice. At the restaurant, we would serve bowls of white rice and never fried rice. Customers would ask us to pour yellow sauce over the rice bowl. The third way people ate our yellow sauce is just on top of their plate, over their grilled meats.
Outside of the restaurant, we hear people using it on basically anything and everything. People pour it over their chinese takeout, use it for burgers, tacos and more. My sister, Chef Lisa, has developed different recipes for using our yellow sauce in new and interesting ways. Like a pasta sauce (think carbonara). We post these on our social media pages and website to inspire new uses of our sauces.
Now, some people may assume you are a massive operation, but in fact, you are still in large part a small family-owned/operated operation. GoJo is now you with your extensive graphic design background in the fashion industry, in charge of marketing communication. A long-time employee of Gojo, Yoji, managing the books, to your youngest sister, Lisa, and her culinary background ensuring that the sauces are on point. Did I get that right?
Yoji has been good friends with my dad since they were in college in Japan. Yoji moved to Kansas City in the 1970s to help my father open the restaurant and has been here ever since. He has always been in charge of staff, bookkeeping, procurement and basically all things that are required for running a business. He has been instrumental in the operations of the restaurant and now the sauce business.
Tak is our head chef. He has been with Gojo since the beginning as well. He helped us develop our restaurant menu and was also instrumental during the transition to bottled sauces. He is still developing recipes as we plan to expand in the future. He also currently helps with delivering sauces throughout KC now.
Lisa, my sister, is also a trained chef from Western Culinary Institute in Portland, Oregon. Though she never cooked at the teppanyaki tables at Gojo, she worked on some recipes, managed social media and helped out with operations as well. Today she creates new recipes with our sauces, cooks and photographs them. She also works on deliveries and sells at local farmer’s markets. She also answers emails and comments on social media and is the face of the new generation of our brand.
As for me, I never really came onto the scene until about a couple years ago. I left Kansas City as a teenager with big ambitions to work in the fashion industry. I worked at Ralph Lauren for almost 10 years. I left as a Creative Presentation Director that designed and focused on retail store window displays and visual merchandising. My time at RL really helped me understand the importance of branding and how every detail helps tell that story. I’ve carried what I’ve learned from Ralph Lauren (one of the best brand storytellers out there) to how that can be applied to the Gojo brand with a 40 year legacy in its own right. After leaving Ralph Lauren, I moved to Chicago and continued to freelance with some other large-scale brands, working on visual merchandising, window display, graphic design, product design and packaging design. My time in corporate America gave Gojo a new perspective and how we can further grow today.
I know it might appear that your family launched these sauces with crazy quickness after closing the restaurant, but that is not the case. Behind the scenes, your family had been working on scaling up your BOH (back of the house) efficiency while improving the consistency of your sauces. Your line of sauces was all planned for your restaurant patrons, but the timing and circumstances just so happened to suit a retail product. Is it possible you can divulge a bit about the food scientists and other talented individuals you worked with to get the kinks out (I know some of your customers experienced these growing pains)?
We had been considering bottling our sauces for a very long time, and customers always asked for it. We’ve been selling individual containers for years and knew bottles would do even better. But we never really started that process due to time and really not knowing where to begin. None of us knew about manufacturing or that it was even an option! So one day, I was watching Queer Eye on Netflix with my husband. There was a season set in Kansas City and we just happened to be watching the episode on Jones BBQ. They were having the same issues as us with needing to spend so much time making sauces and wanting to bottle their product. I knew that if we were able to have our sauces manufactured, that we could be more efficient in the kitchen and also potentially bottle them to sell at the restaurant. So I did a bit of research and called around to some local companies. This is when I started to work at Gojo! It was a long process and we didn’t get it right immediately. The main issue with our restaurant yellow sauce is that it coagulates when it cooled down, therefore not a good sauce to bottle and later pour out without it being clumpy. You’ll see people make comments about our bottled yellow sauce not being exactly like the “original” and I will admit that the recipe is not exactly the same. We had to develop something new in order to have a beautiful consistency at any temperature that would also last in your refrigerator for months all the while keeping the flavors as close as possible, not an easy task. We worked with some amazing chefs and food scientists that had to swap out some starches and flours in order to keep regular consistency and have a long shelf life. And yes, some of our customers did have to deal with our growing pains unfortunately, but I can say that we finally landed on something great. Our regulars have been transparent with their thoughts about the journey the yellow sauce has been on and we thank them for it! Without them, we wouldn’t be where we are today. Customers now rave about the bottled Yellow Sauce and even send us letters of gratitude for carrying on even when our restaurant is closed.
Kansas City is known for its BBQ, and I dream of trying it one day because I love everything I had in Texas, so I can imagine that it has also got to be next level. As for Los Angeles and California in general, the BBQ sucks beyond belief. So I love the fact that your family got to play a part in shaping the food scene in KC with your family’s restaurant. The Yamanaka family has become an integral part of the many contributions that people from around the world have had, shaping the food culture in KC. So, you were in New York for a long stint, and now Chicago. After years being away, are there foods, dishes, or restaurants that you and your family (your sister Lisa also lived out of state, in Portland) miss in KC when you are away?
Without a doubt, the BBQ in Kansas City is bar none. Anytime I go to KC with my family we hit up BBQ joints like every other day. My neighbors and friends in Chicago ask me to bring up bottles of BBQ sauce and rubs every time I go. Which is several times a year. The folks in Kansas City know their meat, but they also know their sauces. I think this is why Gojo was so successful over the last 4 decades. It’s not just about great meat, but WE LOVE OUR SAUCES. What sets Kansas City BBQ apart from other regions is our sauces. So in some ways, it feels so special that Gojo is a part of that same narrative. Though clearly Japanese, the way we make our food is very Kansas City. I think the people that dine with us all of these years understood that too. (my fav spots are Q39, Gates, Joe’s and Arther Bryants).
Kansas City has developed a lot since I last permanently lived there over 20 years ago. There is an amazing creative art scene in Kansas City that has opened interesting and exciting places over the last couple of decades. There are some great distilleries, breweries, coffee shops and restaurants that are truly great places to visit. I love exploring all of these places whenever I visit. The common theme among these newer companies are their loyalty to Kansas City and it’s sense of community. I love seeing my hometown come together like that.
The infamous yellow sauce and hearing “more yellow sauce, please!” are all part chef Jo Yamanaka and the Gojo legacy in Westport, Kansas City, Missouri.
“We miss Gojo Japanese Steak House sooooo much! We have roughly 34 years of memories there starting with high school Homecoming nights and all the way up to celebrating wedding anniversaries and our children’s milestone birthdays. Your restaurant is so missed! We are so sad you closed, but we hope someday down the line it will be reopened somewhere in KC! Until then, we will be gifting a lot of the bottles to our kids for fun memories!”– Victoria Legendre Beeson
Thank you so very much Kyo’san for doing this Q&A, and if you are looking for Gojo hibachi sauces, you can find more information here:
As usual, I do not make a single cent if you were to support GoJoKC and purchase products from either Amazon or Goldbelly.