Humans of Yamamori: the Japanese restaurants that truly put people first
It’s almost 25 years since Yamamori first put Japanese food on Dublin’s menu. For its loyal staff and customers the restaurant group is so much more than a business
Father and son, Derek and Graham Ryan, with their colleague Philomena Morgan. Photographs: Conor Mulhern
You don’t often hear the word “family” used to describe colleagues or customers. At Dublin’s group of Yamamori Japanese restaurants, it could not be more appropriate. Both staff and customers use the word repeatedly to describe how they feel about working or dining there. Derek Ryan opened the first Yamamori almost 25 years ago on George’s Street and it has since expanded to three thriving restaurants and bars in the city centre that are renowned for their traditional, authentic Japanese dishes, superb cocktails, friendly service and buzzing atmosphere.
There is something authentic happening in Yamamori South City, Izakaya and North City. In all three restaurants you will find a consistency in the quality of the food, genuine warmth from the staff from the floor to the bar to the kitchen and a unique respect from staff member to staff member and to customers. Customers and staff tell us that they’re not just a number in Yamamori, they are truly part of the family.
Here, some staff and customers explain what makes Yamamori so special:
Sinead McNerney: ‘I walk in and I get hugs’
Sinead McNerney is from Athlone and lives in Strabane. She works in Dublin from Tuesday to Friday.
“I have been going into Yamamori three days a week for the last five years and I’ve never once had a bad meal. I’m amazed it is so reasonable. The food is always freshly cooked. If you’re eating on your own sometimes you can feel people watching you or that you are ‘billy no mates’ but this was the first place I actually felt really comfortable and the staff made me feel very comfortable sitting there on my own. You weren’t ignored just because you were on your own. I’ve rarely missed a week since. At one point I moved work and I wasn’t working in Dublin for a few weeks. I didn’t say anything to Yamamori that I wouldn’t be in. When I was working back in Dublin again, I went into Yamamori and one of the waitresses started to cry, she said ‘Oh my God, we thought something had happened to you. Don’t you ever do that again.’ I thought ‘Wow, people really care.’ It wasn’t just that you were going in for a meal, it was a personal thing at that stage. I walk in and I get hugs, it is a beautiful staff, they are absolutely lovely, their friendliness, their warmth. It’s really like one big family. Everybody works as part of a team, and you can see it. It’s a marvellous organisation.”
Greg Purcell: ‘I made some of my closest friends working there’
Greg Purcell is from Dublin and works as a photographer with Collective Dublin. He previously worked for Yamamori for five years and is now a regular customer.
“It’s a family in Yamamori, it really is. What I do now stemmed from there. I was working as a bar manager and I mentioned my interest in taking photographs and video and they said, ‘Why don’t you start doing our food photos and videos?’ They were very supportive and open to having any of their staff explore what they are passionate about. They really see you in a very holistic way and treat everyone like a family member. Irish people can be wary of food - I think sushi was something that scared people for a long time. Looking at the company, and the big risk Derek Ryan initially took, it’s pretty incredible what he and the family have achieved. Derek not only knows every staff member’s name but he cares and asks their opinion about aspects of the business you would never expect the owner to ask. He genuinely appreciates the opinion of the people who work for him. I am probably in once or twice a week, still. Each venue is unique, it’s like whatever mood that you are in, you can pick one of the restaurants to sit down in. The flavours of Japanese food are incredible, there is such an art to it. It’s rare you get to eat something that pretty. The food is great, each space is great and the people that work there are so friendly. I’ve made some of my closest friends working there.”
Philomena Morgan: ‘I feel respected in my job’
Philomena “Mina” Morgan lives in Dublin. She works as a cleaner in Yamamori. She started the day before they first opened their doors 24 years ago and has been there ever since. She remembers Derek’s children, Graham and Julie, as children and watched them grow up in, and into, the business.
“Derek is very good. He was always good to me and that’s why I stayed. I really love it, honest to God, I love getting up in the morning and going in. He’s a lovely man and the kids are lovely, too. I feel respected in my job. In other jobs, no, they treated you like dirt. I wouldn’t have any other job. If people ask if I’d go for another job I say, ‘No, thank you. I’m happy where I am.’ They always thank you, they are just really nice people and a pleasure to work for. I hadn’t tried Japanese food before. At the beginning I said no way would I eat raw fish (in sushi), but it’s lovely, I like it now. It’s just like a family (with the other staff) because we all get on so well together. I’m like a counsellor in there, they all come to me when they have problems. They are all nice, nice people there and lots of people are working there a long time. Even the people that left, they always come back to see me and come in for a cup of tea.”
Graham Ryan: ‘Our most important value is education’
Graham Ryan and his sister Julie grew up in Yamamori and both are involved in running the company, although Graham says his dad, Derek Ryan, who first opened Yamamori, is still very much ‘the boss’.
“When my dad opened the restaurant 24 years ago we were, I think, the second of the only two Japanese restaurants in the country. When that one closed we were pretty much alone then as the only Japanese food providers in the country. We then opened the second restaurant on the north side and the third was Yamamori Izakaya. We still have staff members who were here the day we opened. I think Irish people knew a little bit about curry and noodles so they were the mainstays on the menu at the time. We didn’t have sushi for about two years, and then I think it took about 10 years before we saw a bento box and started selling sake.
One of the things that really helped us was how amazing Irish people are at travelling overseas and then coming back and being happy to find somewhere like Yamamori where they could keep their new culinary experiences alive. I think our most important value is education. My dad feels responsible for educating Irish people on Japanese food. Our customers are amazing. You will see some people in Yamamori on George’s Street on a Monday lunchtime, then you’ll see them in Yamamori on the north side on Wednesday at dinner time and on a Friday night you will see them downstairs in Izakaya having a beer. It blows my mind, every time, to think of what my dad has achieved.
Shelley Bukspan: ‘You aren’t just a customer’
Shelley Bukspan is an American Israeli who moved to Ireland in 1986. She is an artist and head of the vocal department at music college BIMM. She has being going to Yamamori since it opened when she was pregnant with her daughter who is now 23.
“I have been eating Japanese food since I was very young. I was brought up in Israel but my family lived in Queens and Manhattan in New York and I was accustomed to the food. When Yamamori opened I was very impressed with it and although they have changed their menu, they haven’t changed the quality of the food. One of the oldest waiters Herbie Dade, who has passed away, would come and guest with my band across the street in The Globe, so there was a bit of a musical and family vibe all around. Derek Ryan knew a lot of the musicians and he would treat us with kindness and generosity and we were always welcome. He would make you feel like it was more like a community, you weren’t just a customer. Yamamori is a family restaurant and these type of establishments are running out because all those big corporates are buying into places and you can see it changing and it’s not necessarily good because it’s all about fast food, fast money and not good quality. Derek took a big risk opening Yamamori and he didn’t conform, he didn’t offer chips with curry sauce or modify things too much. It was a very big risk, but a beautiful risk.
Noel Taylor: ‘Anyone that I’ve brought in has loved it’
Noel Taylor has been a Yamamori customer for 20 years. He is a partner in BDO which is a firm of business advisors and accountants. He and his work colleagues stumbled upon Yamamori one lunchtime and that was the start of his love affair with the restaurant.
“People would have a certain trepidation about what Japanese food is all about. When my colleagues and I first went in we were more than pleasantly surprised. It became the “go to” place, not just for me but for an awful lot of colleagues and friends and family. I’ve eaten there probably a thousand times over the last 20 years. If you find somewhere where the food is good, the price is good, the staff is good and all the rest, you tend to go back. The staff seem very loyal and the owners seem to be loyal to them. Without exception, anyone that I’ve brought in has loved it. I can’t speak about it highly enough. I’ve never had a bad meal, I’ve never been disappointed. It’s fantastic value and there is a great buzz in the place, especially at night. A few years ago I was over in New York in Nobu and I had sushi there and it wasn’t a patch on the sushi that they serve in Yamamori. They are good by any standard. To me, it’s a lot more than just a restaurant, they always look after you, it’s very welcoming, it’s very homely, and it’s almost family-orientated.”
Marcus Davies: ‘I try to improve every day’
Marcus Davies is from south Wales. His wife introduced him to cooking while living in Amsterdam. They moved to Ireland in 2006. He is now head chef at Yamamori North City.
“To be honest, the first bite of sushi I had, I didn’t like. But as I carried on making it, it grew on me, bigtime, and I absolutely love it now. I try to improve every day. I’ll never be satisfied that there is nothing left to learn. Consistency is top of the list for Yamamori. We like to create a nice atmosphere and I like to make people feel at home. You get the best quality and the best commitment and the most energy out of people who are happy to be where they’re working. If they are not happy to be there, you won’t get 100 per cent out of them. It’s as simple as that. I think the customers come back because they are guaranteed freshness, creativity, friendliness from the staff, all the things that you want when you go to a restaurant. I like the fact that I have complete artistic freedom to make whatever food I like within the constraints of cost and time limitations. The hours are very flexible, I’m a family man with three children. I like to have flexible hours. I can come in, do my job and have time to spend with the kids at home. For me, if I get a customer walking out of the restaurant and they say ‘thank you’ to me over the hatch when they are leaving, that’s really what I work for.”
For more, see Yamamori.ie