While there is undoubtedly strength in numbers, sometimes just the power of two is enough to work magical things. From front/back of house pairings and designer duos to sibling set-ups and mom & pop alliances, this series of interviews looks to gain insight into what makes some of Vancouver’s more interesting partnerships tick.
Meet Chef Nathan Lowey and General Manager Akiyo Tani, proprietors of casual, homestyle, Western-influenced and seasonally-inspired Japanese restaurant, Dosanko. Nathan and Akiyo are partners in business and in life. They share parenting duties, as well as opening and closing duties at their Powell Street restaurant. If you’ve even been, you know their warmth.
Take us back to the beginning, where/how did you meet?
Akiyo: We met in Edmonton, where I was studying English and Nathan was working at a French restaurant called Jack’s Grill. We first met in the food court of the City Centre. Nathan helped me with my homework, and we found that we both love food. Since then, we tried out every single restaurant in Edmonton.
How did Dosanko begin?
A: When we were trying to figure out the concept of our restaurant, Nathan was working at Campagnolo at the time and I was staying at home with our son, Liam. Nathan would come home late, around midnight, and I always cooked for him. Nathan was always so hungry and never satisfied, so one day I made a gigantic Oyako sandwich with chicken katsu, egg salad, parmigiano reggiano cheese crusted homemade bread, greens, mayo and tonkatsu sauce. People saw it on social media and asked, where can I get this? That is when we thought our restaurant should be home style Japanese food, Yõshoku.
What’s in a name? How did you choose the name ‘Dosanko’ and what does it mean?
A: Since we decided our restaurant would be Japanese, I thought of Japanese names. I am from Hokkaido and the nickname for people from Hokkaido is ‘Dosanko’. It also refers to a breed of horse that foraged the Hokkaido terrain when the Japanese settled on the island in the late 19th century.
Not only do we want to be like Dosanko horses, opening up a new food culture to Canada, we also thought of the scenery of Hokkaido: mountains and oceans, snow and four seasons. The food I grew up with would definitely be accepted in Vancouver which includes seasonal, local ingredients.
What is the best thing about working together?
A: Two big salaries that we don’t necessarily have to pay, but thankfully so far we never missed our pay cheques.
Nathan: It’s that the two most important roles are filled by us, so we never have to compromise.
What has been the biggest challenge of working together?
A: It’s like we never have days off. We are always thinking and talking about work, and that involves our kids. It was hard at the beginning, but now the kids are on board, helping us out at the restaurant.
What has been the most surprising skill you discovered about your partner by being in business together?
A: No matter how short the day or how tough the challenge Nathan always pulls off the results – although you may have to hear a lot of slang in the process, lol.
N: Akiyo is tougher than I thought. She doesn’t take any guff from anybody! Gone is my sweet Japanese girl I met all those years ago.
What is one thing you can never agree on?
A: I don’t think there is anything that we can not agree on. Oh wait – I think Nathan doesn’t need any more knives.
N: Yes I do.
You have children together. Do you think that making it through the early years of raising kids as a team prepared you for running a business in any way?
A: Kids area! At the beginning that was where our kids would hang out. Now it is a place for families.
N: Family (kids) area. Partners need a place to enjoy a meal.
What about the other way around, do you think that running a business has taught you anything about parenting?
A: This is hard work and why are we tired? We don’t have to explain anything. Our kids witness and experience together and they are proud of us having a restaurant.
When personal lives and business relationships are so closely tied, it can be hard to see where one ends and another begins. Do you intentionally ‘turn off’ one world and ‘turn on’ another during your day, or is it just a continuation, constantly moving between worlds?
A: At work during the open hours I am a server, at break time I am a bookkeeper and I deal with all of the emails and marketing on social media, but lately I try not to bring home any work. I just try to have time with the kids and make lunch meals for them.
N: Definitely continuation. We have to do so many jobs it is impossible to not work on our time off. Free time and work time are intertwined.
Running a small business doesn’t come with a lot of spare time. It helps to intentionally make a plan to decompress before you crash. When you decompress together, what is your favourite thing to do?
A: Buy desserts for staff and me; spending time in the coffee shop in the morning, just by myself.
N: Have a drink, and sometimes walk home from work.
What about as individuals, do you have any hobbies, projects or practices that you maintain outside of work?
A: Reading and exercising, healthy eating.
When you are in a restaurant that isn’t yours – after food and service – what are the top three things that you notice/look for or appreciate?
A: The cleanliness of the washrooms. Also, I can’t help counting the number of employees and looking at how busy the restaurant is, and wondering whether they are making enough money. Work habit!
Do you have advice for anyone looking to go into business together?
A: This is going to be the hardest thing you do in your life. Eat well and be healthy. No complaining and no nagging. Beautiful things only come out of positive energy and people can taste it.
N: Learn as much about restaurants as you can beforehand. You will be learning things you never would have thought about and there are only so many hours in the day.