Local `family" keeps Haruko"s here - Restaurant is relocating on the Island

By Cody Ellerd

Isao Wakayama first had his picture snapped by the Reporter when he bought his restaurant on Mercer Island nearly two decades ago. This time, the baby-faced Japanese transplant from New York might have been posing for his retirement photograph if not for the outcries and support of his customers.

``Please don't. We need you!'' is what Haruko's customer Lora Cohen told him, she said one recent afternoon as she enjoyed a late lunch at the Japanese restaurant, despite the ``closed'' sign on the door.

After 17 years doing business in the same location on 76th Ave. S.E., Wakayama was told about a year ago that he would have to leave. ERA Care Communities, which operates several nursing homes in the Seattle area, had bought the property and planned to raze both Haruko's and Ana's, the popular Mexican restaurant next door. ERA intends to put an assisted living facility on the site.

Wakayama, who is nearly 60 years old and still works 15-hour days, was dismayed at the prospect of finding another affordable spot on the Island. But even though he and his wife, Yasuko, commute from their Sand Point home in Seattle, they didn't want to desert their longtime Island patrons -- ``our family'' as Wakayama calls them -- by moving Haruko's to Seattle.

So it was two members of that ``family'' that Wakayama turned to for help when he decided to keep the small white chef's hat planted on his graying head and find his restaurant a new home. John Kayon is a Mercer Island contractor who has been eating lunch in the same seat at Haruko's sushi bar a couple of times a week for the last five years. David Imanaka, an Islander who has known Wakayama since Haruko's beginning, specializes in space planning.

``They said `don't worry,''' Wakayama said. They would help him stay in business.

The two men snapped to the ready for the yearlong process it would take to find, lease, design and equip a new restaurant. They helped him navigate the bureaucracy -- from complying with health and fire codes to obtaining a liquor license -- and build a kitchen.

``Finding affordable property was very difficult,'' said Imanaka. But at last they did, in the Mercer Island Shopping Center across from the main fire station on 78th Avenue S.E. Gull Industries, which owns the complex, has won the heartfelt applause of everyone involved for the positive relationship it developed with Wakayama.

``They really warmed up to Isao and made a connection,'' Imanaka said. ``It became a weather vane of things to come.''

Kayon, or ``Big John,'' as Wakayama calls him, said that it had always been his friend Wakayama's dream to design and build his own restaurant. When Wakayama took over Haruko's in 1988, he was the restaurant's third owner. Before moving to Seattle, Wakayama and his wife ran another previously-owned restaurant in New York (where Wakayama had certain regular customers by the names of John and Yoko -- also ``like family,'' he said.)

Wakayama said his Mercer Island customers have kept coming throughout the years because of his consistent quality and reliability, so he wants the new space to retain the same feel. But Kayon said that moving provides the opportunity to make things a bit more modern. The design will be a mixture of European and Japanese styles, skylights will be installed to allow in more light and the kitchen will be more efficient.

Everything else, said Wakayama, will be the same. He will continue to handpick his ingredients at the market in Seattle's International District before coming to work at 7:30 in the morning. He will still recognize the faces of his loyal patrons as they walk in the door, and remember who likes extra wasabi and not so much rice. The dishwasher of 20 years, who has worked at Haruko's even longer than Wakayama, will of course be coming. And Yasuko, his wife, will still ask how your grandmother is doing and when your children will be home from college.

Wakayama said he has customers who first ate in his restaurant as children, and are now bringing in their own kids. Imanaka and ``Big John'' are sure that Islanders will continue to bring their families to Haruko's because the owners treat them like their own family.

``We will follow them wherever they go,'' said Tova Wolf during lunch with her daughter. It's exactly that kind of loyalty that means Haruko's will stay on the Island.

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