All photos by David Law
“I hope my story’s not too boring” Jimmy Shen, owner of Otoro Sushi, jokes.
Jimmy immigrated from China to San Francisco 35 years ago at the age of 15 years old and started working in restaurants soon after to help support his family. He went from a dishwasher to a busboy then to managing a local Japanese restaurant.
12 years ago, Jimmy and his friend decided to own a restaurant together so that they could bring their unique style to the San Francisco area. This was the starting point for Otoro Sushi.
Jimmy’s proud of the uniqueness that Otoro brings to the area with its traditional Japanese and California-influenced style. Even though this same style might be slipping away as more people who can afford high-end, expensive Japanese cuisine move to the area, Jimmy says, “I want to keep it because I don’t want to follow the flow. I love [that] Otoro has some kind of mix.”
Otoro offered a homey and comfortable feeling to all those who dined before the pandemic shutdowns. With the current climate, Otoro has switched entirely to pick-up and delivery. But with this change have come some limitations. Since Hayes Valley (where the restaurant is located) used to be a busy hub for symphony, opera, and jazz—in addition to being very close to City Hall—a lot of Otoro’s business came from people walking by and walking right in. According to Jimmy, “We’re only doing 10% of what we used to do.” Now the area has nothing going on and Jimmy mentions that a lot of neighbors are moving away.
However, the main thing Jimmy misses about the dine-in experience are the interactions with customers. “I met a lot of different people. Interesting people. And I love to talk with my customer(s). I love to drink with them. A lot of customers become friends. I love to see customers [having] a good time,” he says.
Recently, the only people Jimmy sees are his own employees. We both agreed in the interview that this is the longest either of us have spoken to a new person in a long time. Especially now, no one wants to stand around talking to someone they are not familiar with, and a lot of times they just want the conversation to end as quickly as possible.
To help reconnect with his customers, Jimmy has applied for an outdoor seating permit. “The money I spent on [it] I definitely won’t make back… but the reason I want to have the outdoor seating [is] I want to have more positive energy. [I] want to see people sitting around chatting.” Even with winter coming, Jimmy is hopeful that the outdoor seating will be enough to have those conversations he feels left out on.
Besides outdoor seating, people also have a new restaurant to look forward to from Jimmy. Only a block away is the Dumpling Home. Jimmy’s opening Dumpling Home because he feels like Hayes Valley could use a spot like this. Whereas Otoro focuses on Japanese style food and sushi, Dumpling Home will be for Chinese dumplings, a change unique to Jimmy in the sense that he has worked at Japanese food restaurants for most of his career.
Dumpling Home was meant to open on March 16th, but it’s stalled due to the pandemic. Jimmy still looks forward to the day he can welcome customers to the new restaurant as well as return normalcy to Otoro. His new plan for Dumpling Home is a 2021 opening.
“Hopefully we can survive business-wise. I don’t want to retire right now,” Jimmy laughs. “Hopefully, I still have another 15 years. I just wish the whole thing will get better… the whole world.”