BACK TO BUSINESS: Raw tenacity helped pull Sushi North through pandemic

The persistence of Seiji Suzuki carried him through his 15 years of running Sushi North, and that persistence has brought him through the Covid-19 pandemic as well.

His tenacity to keep his sushi restaurant and Ja-pain Bakery going also meant that he didn’t close them due to Covid-19 even as many other companies made the tough decision to shut down.

While he halted dine-in services at Sushi North for a few months in the spring, his take-out and delivery of Japanese cuisine kept going.

Mizuki Taira, left, Yuriko Ikeda, Momoko Ochiai and Kazuki Takekawa take a break amid the evening dinner period at Sushi North. Blair McBride/NNSL photo
Mizuki Taira, left, Yuriko Ikeda, Momoko Ochiai and Kazuki Takekawa take a break amid the evening dinner period at Sushi North. Blair McBride/NNSL photo

One reason he opted to stay open was because he employs foreign staff from Japan. If he closed they would have few other options. The GNWT’s Wage Top-Up Program helped keep them employed, he said.

“So I tried to stay open. It was difficult but we made it. There were still people in town and people who still wanted to eat Japanese meals.”

But the past 10 months were as challenging for Suzuki as they’ve been for most other restaurant owners.

“When government workers began working from home the downtown became really quiet. The spring and summer were really difficult for us. The (business) volume was down by 60 to 70 per cent in March and April and then slowly went up.”

The reduction in foot traffic in downtown Yellowknife hit his bakery in the Centre Square Mall harder than Sushi North. He estimates business was down by 75 per cent at Ja-pain.

“The bakery is like a snack place. Sushi North is more for lunch and dinner. Some people decided to skip the snack. (Normally) many government people would walk past the bakery and grab something quickly,” he said.

In the early summer he resumed dine-in eating at Sushi North and business has slowly been coming back as more government workers returned to their offices. He estimates customer activity is at 75 to 80 per cent of pre-Covid levels.

Suzuki takes the economic downturn in a stride. Taking a longer view of the Yellowknife economy, he believes the pandemic worsened a slowdown he has already witnessed over the last 25 years.

“Centre Square Mall used to be packed. But it went down and down and down. There are fewer shops (there),” he said.

Still, he recognizes he has a lot to be thankful about. He feels “lucky” that both of his shops face Yellowknife’s main street and are visible and accessible.

He doesn’t criticize any government for the Covid restrictions, even if they’ve hurt his businesses to some degree.

In fact, he wonders if Canada’s response to the pandemic has been sufficiently strict.

On a trip back to Japan last October, he noticed that all arrivals at the airport in Tokyo must line up to receive a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) throat swab test for Covid and then self-isolate for two weeks.

Despite Japan’s population of 125 million and relatively small land mass, it has had 292,212 cases of Covid and 4,094 deaths, according to World Health Organization data. Canada has had more than 673,000 cases and 17,086 deaths, the latest information from the Public Health Agency of Canada shows.

“In Japan there are low numbers but they’re slowly going up. Hopefully that doesn’t happen in Yellowknife. Hopefully things will go back to normal soon and everyone can get vaccinated. Business is down but it didn’t die. I really appreciate that everyone worked hard for us.”

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