By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Shimpo
Junko Suzuki, the woman who co-founded one of Little Tokyo’s most enduring restaurants, Suehiro Café on First Street, has passed away at the age of 84.
Junko immigrated to the U.S. in 1969 from Gunma-ken, Japan. Although neither she nor her sister, Yuriko, possessed previous restaurant experience, they established Suehiro in 1972, serving authentic home-style Japanese dishes. Her approach to the menu was simple. “Just serve what I like to eat.” she once told her son, Kenji, 57.
At the time the restaurant first opened, the neighborhood was undergoing massive change as part of the Little Tokyo Redevelopment Project. Construction was going on everywhere, deterring customers from visiting the community.
The Suzukis struggled to keep Suehiro open. “It was difficult,” Kenji recalls. “There were times when my mother didn’t have enough money for food for the family. She would ask the fruit vendor to give her any over-ripe bananas, so at least we would have something to eat.”
Banks wouldn’t loan her money because she had no credit. So, she went to those who knew her best — her loyal customers. Businessmen regularly patronized Suehiro because the meals reminded them of their youth in Japan. They agreed to loan her the money, and she rewarded their trust by paying them back as promised.
After that, the Suehiro customer base grew steadily little by little. Kenji, who began by washing dishes at the restaurant while still in elementary school, is convinced it was his mother’s strong belief in customer service that kept people coming through the decades. He says that it’s the same customer loyalty that has allowed the restaurant to continue operating during the pandemic.
“‘Customers are God,’ she used to tell me in Japanese,” Kenji remembers. “She treated the customers with respect. She would say, ‘Customers come and maybe they don’t come back. But, when a customer complains, he is giving you another chance. God is testing you. If you make it right, the customer will come back. The more difficult a customer, the bigger the test.’”
She greeted customers with the familiar “Irasshaimase” often heard at Japanese restaurants, and said “Arigato gozaimasu” when they left. However, according to Kenji, she would always add, “Mata dozo,” encouraging diners to please come back. She loved Little Tokyo and the restaurant and hated to lose even one customer.
“She could have quit anytime, especially when it was difficult. She just didn’t know how to quit,” Kenji says fondly. Her spirit lives on in the business she fought to keep alive much of her life.
Junko Suzuki passed away one week after contracting COVID, compounded by existing medical conditions. In addition to her son, she is survived by a daughter, Cyndi Hiromi Quan; nephews, Carlos and Mario; and three grandchildren. Sister Yuriko Morita Regaert passed away in 2009 at the age of 63.
A private service was held Jan. 22.
Photos courtesy of Kenji Suzuki