We sit down with Yardbird and Rōnin founder, Matt Abergel to discuss how skateboarders make better businessmen, who you should and shouldn’t tip, & why the customer isn’t always right
Essential Journal: First off, can you break down the idea behind Yardbird?
Matt Abergel: Yardbird is our Japanese style yakitori izakaya over in Hong Kong. An izakaya is probably best described as a Japanese pub. You know the kind, the neighbourhood stalwart where people come to drink and grab a bite after work. Like with any pub, there are real varying levels of quality. So there’s some izakayas that are super cheap, down-and-dirty, fried-food-and-cheap-drinks kinda places. Then there are more upmarket places that really specialise in what they do, whether that’s the food or the drink. Yakitori is basically chicken on a stick. It means different things to different parts of Japan, and it can even be things other
than chicken. But in most of Japan it comes down to chicken.
And how does Rōnin, your second restaurant, differ from that?
Rōnin actually started in my mind as more of a tachinomi, which is a standing-only bar. We have this huge selection of Japanese whisky: About 130 different expressions of the stuff. But the whole thing soon got out of hand! Yardbird was getting really, really busy, the kitchen was so small, and we have this menu that we don’t like to change too much. So I ended up spending more time in Rōnin and before I knew it, it had evolved into a restaurant. Rōnin is seafood focused, which is where most of my training actually comes from, so it was a lot of fun to get back into it.
When Yardbird first opened, it went against the grain a little. How were its policies of no service charge, no reservations and no lunch service received?
At the beginning it was definitely a challenge. But like anything it just takes a little time and persistence. We’re not being pretentious, we’re keeping things fair and democratic. Once people understood the experience we were trying to provide, the whole thing got a lot easier to swallow. It pays to stick to our guns and there are more places doing what we do now. Seven years ago was a very different story.
Does sticking to your guns mean moving away from the idea that the customer is always right?
Hell yes. The customer is not always right and that has never been our way of thinking. We educate our staff to be professional and courteous, so there’s never a problem that can’t be fixed. But it’s always going to be fixed our way. We invest a lot of time into our staff, they’re part of our family, so we don’t bow down to any kind of rudeness or ridiculousness. One of the greatest pleasures in life is being able to kick out assholes. I mean, as long as you own the restaurant!
Does that happen often?
Not really, but If someone disrespects your staff you have to act, right? Mostly, if I’ve had to kick someone out it’s been for being a dickhead. Just straight up rude. It has to be done, it’s what keeps our foothold in society. If service becomes servitude then we lose who we are. We’re professionals and we put a lot of thought and effort into the things we do. So there’s no reason not to treat us with the respect we deserve. If you want to be a dick then get out.
I guess it comes down to the way the service and hospitality industry is perceived from place to place?
Most definitely. In Hong Kong there’s a cultural difference in how people eat and in their reasons for going out. In Cantonese culture you’re not going for service you’re going for food. It’s not that the service is bad, it’s just a little more hands off. It’s a very cultural thing: If you don’t ask for it, you’re not getting it. They’re just not trained to give you something you didn’t ask for. You know how it is as a guest: Sometimes you just want to be left alone, it’s not always a bad thing.
And at the other end of the spectrum? Is there a risk of coming off a little overbearing?
Totally. I mean how many recommendations from the sommelier do you really want? I don’t really give a shit how many grape varieties are on your menu when I just want a glass of water. There’s definitely a middle ground that’s really important to find, and I think that’s what we’ve always strived to do at our restaurants.
Does tipping culture play a big part in a server’s involvement in the whole experience?
Tipping really changes the dynamics of service. In Hong Kong you have servers who are not expecting a tip for the simple fact that they’ve never been given one – there wasn’t really a tipping culture in Hong Kong when we got there – but they’re still providing great service. That means a little more than a server in, say, New York, where there’s a real expectation of a 20% tip. And when that doesn’t come around then you see the true reality and falsity of the service provided. And then there are places like Japan, were there is really zero tipping culture. Like, if you leave a tip they will literally chase you down the street to give it back to you.
It’s really that different?
Oh yeah. You don’t leave tips in Japan. It’s a big no no. I guess every country has its own idiosyncrasies of service and ways of approaching things.
What did you learn about the US’s way of approaching tips back in
For a long time in the US, restaurateurs got away with paying their servers next to nothing, making them completely reliant on tips. For some people that really worked out. There are definitely people who made a shit tonne of money where the tipping was huge. But it also created this unstable environment where you’re almost working for commission. Your belief in a product or place is motivated by money. And that can get unhealthy.
Well, it’s kind of like going on a date, and you really, really want to have sex, you know? You act a certain way in the hopes of getting laid. And then, of course, you’re really disappointed when it doesn’t happen. It shouldn’t be that way: You should focus on what’s important in the first place.
Your new book highlights a few collaborations with the likes of Vans and Stüssy. Has skateboarding played a big part in your life?
Yeah I pretty much grew up in a skate shop! I started out lacing shoes when I was 14. I just used to hang out and wait until they paid me, putting away boxes and just enjoying being in that environment. It taught me a lot about community and the importance of common ground. Skating brings people together, and it teaches you so much about life. It puts you in a lot of precarious positions, it introduces you to a lot of people that are creative in very different ways. You look at a curb a different way than the average person, you look at a handrail differently, and you definitely look at a security guard differently!
It’s kind of a common bond where you can go anywhere in the world and there’s this nod, this acknowledgment. You’ve gone through the same things I’ve gone through, you like the same things
How do you think skateboarding has shaped you as an adult?
I was always inspired by skate companies’ approach to business. Their combination of being commercial without doing too much. Magazines like Big Brother and brands like Blind and World Industries; they were just able to do things themselves and be really successful. They would help communities grow without any of the commercial bullshit. I’m talking about back in the 90s here. Towards the 00s that took a little nose dive. But before skating became really popular, it had this amazing entrepreneurial aspect. Guys who probably didn’t even get through high school were starting million dollar businesses and still maintaining a solid sense of family and identity and sticking to their ideals. I think that really translates well amongst today’s small businesses.
So the philosophies you developed back in the skate shops were useful when starting your own businesses?
Yeah absolutely. Like any skateshop, you’re going to walk into my restaurant and you’re automatically welcome because you have a shared interest in what I’m passionate about. And like in a skate shop, there are rules. Don’t disrespect the shop. Don’t be an idiot or you’re going to get kicked out. It’s not that serious of a place and the customer isn’t always right. And it goes both ways: Your community and your brotherhood create a strong aesthetic and a strong sense of personality.
It pays to stay true to that personality and that community without overplaying it and falling into pretentiousness. Let what you sell define you, let how you treat people define you. Stick to your guns and, above all, don’t be a dick.
Words by Will Halbert
Image Credits by Jason Lang and Siu Yan Fung