Throughout the pandemic, Jack Huang has thought of his employees as family. As the owner of Douzo Sushi and its sister restaurants Basho Japanese Brassiere, Shabu Maru, and Sushi Momento in Cleveland Circle, Huang said he realized that by putting his employees first, it has created a better experience for everyone.
Douzo Sushi is an upscale modern Japanese restaurant that opened in 2005 next to Back Bay station. Huang told the Sun that the restaurant is “accepted and loved by local and international communities,” and added that his restaurants sell sushi wholesale to places like Fenway Park, corporate offices, and places of higher education.
“When the lockdown started,” Huang said, “we wanted it to be as normal as possible.” He said all of his restaurants followed the state and local guidelines, and made adjustments to capacity as required, as well as offering PPE and temperature checks to its employees.
Many of Huang’s employees were understandably concerned about their health during the pandemic, especially regarding the use of public transportation, so he said he offered transportation allowances for his employees to take ride share services or a taxi to work for a period of time at the beginning of the pandemic.
Huang also said after an employee came up to him and said, “Jack, I don’t want to see you waste money on Uber,” he passed that message along to City Councilor Michelle Wu.
“Immediately, I see a response that she was sending to the MBTA to tell them that that’s the problem,” and that the issue needed to be addressed,” he said, and a hearing that included the subject followed.
“To me, that was a highlight,” Huang said. “She was very proactive and stepped up very greatly.”
Huang didn’t stop there. Even though business was down, “we kept all the management positions and full salaried employees,” he said. “We picked up their medical and dental insurance throughout the pandemic.” Between March and December of 2020, Huang was able to use $270,000 from dining, takeout, and gift card sales from all of his restaurants to pay his 85 full time employees 100 percent of their salary as well as all of their medical and dental benefits. Huang also provided PPE, including masks, gloves, and sanitizer to his workers.
“They’re like a family to me,” Huang said, adding that some of them have been working for him for decades. “That’s the least I could do.”
He said that though he is “still struggling” and it has been “very difficult,” he said “I felt that this was something we can do,” and prioritized paying his employees with the money that was coming in.
Huang said that with the hope of more stimulus money on the way, he can continue to “help out our employees.” Over the next several months he will continue to pay health and dental benefits.
He also said that communicating with customers has been paramount over the last year. Douzo Sushi has placed small notes inside of each takeout bag that let customers know the restaurant cares about them. The notes feature a little picture of a mask and glove, Huang said, that sends the message that “we hope they stay healthy and hope to see them soon.”
Some featured messages for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day as well, in an effort to create a family-like feel between the restaurant and its customers, he added.
Huang said that since the dining rooms have been allowed to open back up, the restaurants have conducted temperature checks and contact tracing and employees are required to wear gloves to protect themselves and others.
Though restaurants can have no more than 25 percent capacity, Huang said he limits his even further to 20 percent capacity because “in the restaurant business, we never know what’s going to happen,” and the extra leeway helps protect both employees and customers.
He said that everyone coming into the restaurants, whether they are “regular people” or “celebrities,” have been willing to comply with all of the guidelines.
“We know this is a very difficult time,” Huang said. “Our goal really is to try to make this as normal as possible. Hopefully we can bring back new memories as well. We’re very grateful.”
Additionally, Huang said that lunch service started back up about a week ago, as offices begin to reopen and people need a place to go for lunch. He said that lunch business has been picking up, which is a positive thing for the restaurants, but he always puts the needs of his employees first.
“Employees’ health and well-being is always in my priority and top of my agenda,” Huang said. “Besides, they’re just like my family.”
With reduced sales, “we have to pick and choose the battles. It’s not really about the profit; it’s about about to take care of the people and overcome.”
He said that he never imagined the pandemic would go on for this long, but “we just adapted to whatever comes along. The most important part is not just the physical health, but mental health” as well. “That’s why I wanted to be positive and be very grateful for the local community” which has “supported us in the past. We like to show them that they inspire us; put a roof over our heads,” he said.
Though the past year has been tough for so many, including Huang and his employees, Huang has found a way to make life a little brighter for those who work for him, and for those who enjoy his food.
With more vaccine coming in the near future, he has to “wait until the light at the end of the tunnel, but we’ve come so far,” he said. And “until then, I’d like everyone to stay healthy and happy and I’m looking forward to meeting each other again.”