Robbie Tani and daughter Kendall. (Photo: Lunch)
Lunch’s note: I really had no idea what the occasion was for this story, other than that I really like Robbie and wanted to know more about him. So what follows, really, has little narrative structure.
It was the summer of 1980. Robbie Tani and a group of his friends were sitting around a campfire at Horseshoe Lake.
Among them, they had a copy of the now-defunct Review-Herald newspaper. And inside that paper was an advertisement of a restaurant for sale – Chez Michel, which was located across from the KMMT building on Laurel Mountain Road.
Over a few beers, the beverage which has spawned so many fateful decisions through the ages, Tani and friends circled around to a familiar topic: “What Mammoth needs.”
On that night, what Mammoth really needed was a Japanese restaurant.
Unbelievably, even after the courage borne of alcohol and campfires wore off, Tani inquired about Chez Michel the next day and wrote out a check for the deposit.
Now many of you probably suppose that a man so willing to buy a restaurant must have had an extensive background in the food and beverage industry.
In fact, Tani had an engineering degree from Long Beach State, had worked at Hughes Aircraft for the past six years and had zero restaurant experience.
“I bought a book, though,” joked Tani during an interview on Wednesday.
At the time, however, his aunt owned a grocery store in the Little Tokyo neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Tani called some of his aunt’s suppliers and asked, “Hey, is there anyplace I can work for a few days [to get my feet wet]?”
They directed him to a restaurant in San Gabriel. He then worked there from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. for three consecutive days to get a feel for the business.
“After the third day, I wondered if I hadn’t made a mistake,” he said.
He moved to Mammoth on Oct. 1 and opened Shogun the day after Thanksgiving.
Initially, the menu featured less than 10 items and did not offer sushi.
A lot of the recipes came from Robbie’s mom, including the teriyaki and sukiyaki sauces.
Robbie had been in business about five years before he ventured into sushi. His late older brother Michael was making sushi in Little Tokyo at the time. Robbie convinced Michael to start doing sushi during the summer, one weekend a month.
That’s how Robbie picked up the art of making sushi.
When Shogun made the move to the Sierra Center Mall in the fall of ‘85, he initiated Sushi Wednesdays, which just took off. “It was crazy,” he said. The current sushi bar was installed in the fall of ‘86.
And you would figure that life would have been lived happier ever after, and it was, although there was one stitch in time where Tani contemplated leaving Mammoth.
It was when he met his wife Roxanne, whom he was set up with on a blind date by a cousin.
Met her in late June and proposed by October.
“I offered to sell the business and move down south, but she said no, I’ll come north.”
Tani opened a second restaurant, Yamatani, down in Bishop five years ago. I asked him if he’s considered getting out of the businesses anytime soon. After all, daughter Kendall only has one more year of high school. And then the nest is empty.
“And then I’ll be free to work 24/7 to pay for college,” Robbie deadpanned.
Thirty years. Does it make Robbie feel old?
“I don’t feel old until I look in the mirror … in my mind, I’m still 40. Physically, I feel fine except for a little arthritis in my hands (making sushi requires a lot of squeezing).