Meet Tim and Erin Archuleta, the husband-and-wife team behind San Francisco’s ICHI Sushi & Ni Bar and the upcoming Japanese oyster bar, ICHI Kakiya. Over the course of their 10 years as a couple, they have run a catering business, a pop-up, an award-winning full-service restaurant with around 40 employees. But their secret to success is simple.
“The bottom line is that we’re really nice to each other,” says Erin. “It sounds general, but we really love each other.”
Here, we ask the duo all about building a business together, their very different work styles, and how they’re celebrating Valentine’s Day.
How did you two meet?
Tim: We met at a friend’s birthday at a karaoke bar. It was my karaoke and dance skills that blew her away.
Well before you opened ICHI you worked together in a couple of different food businesses. Tell me about that and how you got started.
Erin: Tim really started as a caterer in 2006, but we met in 2005. We were already living together (racy!) when he started catering, which meant that I would pitch in from time to time as he built the brand.
Tim: In the beginning it was just me. Erin gave me a lot of support. But that’s how we came up with the name, because ICHI means one and it was just me.
Erin: The catering really took off. I had consistently worked for a literacy nonprofit locally at 826 Valencia and 826 National, and I stepped away from my work full-time and just worked as a consultant for them so that I could help Tim get the catering business off the ground. We built out a catering kitchen and went to town in that direction, and then the stock market crashed. We began social catering and doing pop-ups in bars that had kitchens. That’s how a lot of people encountered us — we catered all sorts of things.
One day I was walking down Cortland and saw a food incubator space that was looking for tenants, and Tim had the idea of doing a Japanese deli. So we did that in the incubator space, and we loved it. During that time, right next to where we live Yo’s Sushi Club was leaving and he offered us the opportunity to take over the restaurant. Tim opened ICHI Sushi in 2010. I was again working with 826 National as a contractor. The night we opened ICHI Sushi — it was a Thursday — I flew to Washington D.C. the very next day to open up 826 D.C. Two back-to-back openings!
By the time we did this project we knew I needed to be full-time with us.
Did you know early on that you had compatible work styles, or were there challenges along the way?
Tim: We are married, so… [Laughs]
Erin: We have totally opposite work styles.
Tim: Erin is uber-organized. Everything’s on a schedule, on a calendar, written down, mapped out, ready to go. Binders for everything.
Erin: He calls me Leslie Knope — Amy Poehler’s character on Parks & Rec.
Tim: They secretly followed her around and based the character off of her.
Erin: I might have ridiculous birthday celebrations for all of our employees.
Tim: We watch the show, and I just die. Because it’s funny, but it’s also literally watching my wife on TV.
Erin: Tim is very creative and visionary and collaborative. I’m also collaborative, but you’re very much on the visionary side of things. He’s much more of a risk taker. I’m a risk assessor — that used to be part of my previous role. So it’s nice that we have that counterpoint. I actually really value his ability to not get stuck in detail.
Tim: Erin puts her toes in the water, checks the pH balance, checks the temperature. I’ve already jumped in head-first off the roof.
Is that frustrating, or something you’ve come to love?
Erin: I think it’s incredibly helpful.
Tim: It’s a great balance.
Erin: In my previous life I developed leadership teams, and I would very purposefully look for people who had different styles. It actually makes your team well-rounded. Nobody’s ever just feeling good all the time, they’re actually getting things done.
So you never had any hesitations that you were doing the right thing, going into business together?
Erin: We were really thoughtful going into it. We really separated our roles. I feel like I have absolutely no business telling Tim what to do in the kitchen or how anything should be executed related to the cuisine. I have no background in it. That’s not my thing.
He very purposefully doesn’t insert himself in the public relations/HR/payroll/finance. The business side of things is what my background is. Certainly, have a lot of checks and balances and check in with one another. We have an incredibly strong team, and they have a lot of freedom and power. We have incredibly structured managers’ meetings once a week. We make sure people feel like they have projects they can run with and get visibility from, and we support them in that work. While Tim and I are at the heart of the culture, they are the folks people actually see and know. For Tim, he’s a big huggy bear. Everybody knows that. We’ve always said that we want this place to be like your sushi living room. Tim always says that we’re the culture keepers, and it’s up to us to make sure our staff feels like they have that resource and joy to do that.
Tim: No matter who your business partner is, you’re going to get frustrated with them. You’re going to get in arguments. The best part about us is that we’re married. So you can’t leave! It’s not like all of the sudden I’ll sell my shares and move to Mexico — that’s not an option. So we always figure it out. What we’ve really learned through this process is not to take anything personally.
Erin: You just can’t. At the end of the day it’s about the work.
Tim: In the heat of the moment you might want to strangle each other, but you walk away, take a deep breath, and that person is your spouse. And for us, my best friend.
Erin: Me too. We recognize that if there’s too much feeling involved you’re not going to have a productive conversation. We table it and set a date to talk.
Erin: We all still fix the toilet! [Laughs.] But yeah, dramatically.
Tim: When we were a 700-square foot restaurant and I had two people making food for the whole restaurant, I was immersed in making the food. I was diligent about everything coming out perfect. Now, with close to 40 employees I have to be more of a macro-manager. I don’t actually make food all that often; I’m more making sure everyone’s doing everything correctly. I rarely make sushi these days.
Erin: There are more resources than a start-up. Like any company, as it grows and builds capacity and has more employees, you think deeply about your systems. You think deeply about whether or not you’re serving your teams and customers well. I really get to do that work where I go in deep and think, are we doing things the best way, the most efficient way, the way everybody finds to be joyful? It’s so true that there needs to be joy in the work.
I talk to people a lot who say, I like cooking with my partner, we should have a restaurant. And I’m like, wow, you’re actually never going to cook! Your partner might. Tim cooks more than a lot of owners I know get the opportunity to. But there’s this romantic notion. Even my parents — I tell them what I do and there’s this sense that Tim’s at the stove and I bring him the plate. Like any business, there’s so much that goes into what it takes to enable your teams. That’s my job: to do that well.
Tim: It’s pretty funny, too, that since I’m the one who started it, it’s my face that’s out there. I get customers or people on Facebook asking, how do you find so much time to post on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and do this and that and cook in the kitchen at the same time? I’m like, that’s all Erin. Any press we get — that’s all Erin. Anything that happens with PR, I have nothing to do with that. It’s interesting that people think I do it all myself, and actually that’s all Erin’s. It’s a partnership.
Erin: I really have worked hard and want to continue working hard to make sure people know who are team is, and that they have a sense of pride. We’re only as good as they are.
Do you talk about work at home?
Erin: We’re kind of careful about that. We’ll set aside time to talk about work. We do a lot of congratulating. Like any married couple: “Dude, I nailed it!” Just to share that and feel excited about it. When it’s the work of work, we table that. We don’t do that at home.
Tim: I’m at fault lots of times with wanting to talk about it when I come home from work, which will be late. It could be 11 or midnight, and I’m ready to chat Erin’s ear off about how the night went. She’s in bed, like, “I’m sleeping.” [Laughs.]
Erin: Yeah, like, I love you but I’m snoring. My strong sense of sleep saves us.
Since you do have late hours, do you have other ways you carve out time to spend together during the week?
Tim: We save Sundays for each other. We’re closed on Sundays. There’s always a reason to work on Sundays but we don’t — we let it ride ’til Monday. We usually go out to either lunch or brunch. We don’t really go out to dinner on Sunday. Usually we’re on the couch watching our favorite shows.
What shows are you watching?
Tim: Our guilty pleasure is Castle.
Erin: That show is awesome.
Tim: We do have our separate shows. I really love Game of Thrones and Walking Dead, and that’s after Erin’s gone to bed.
Erin: I have zero tolerance for violent TV. But I watch so much bad reality TV. I watch just about every Real Housewives franchise. I straight-up love The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. I watch some smarty-pants stuff too, and I’m also a nonfiction reader, so I’ll read the Shriver Report, which is in exact opposition of the Real Housewives.
Tim: Those shows drive me mentally insane.
Erin: We have different escapisms. I read good stuff though, I swear.
Are you celebrating Valentine’s Day this year? Any plans?
Erin: We work it every year, which is sort of sweet. I actually love working New Year’s. It takes the pressure off of feeling like you have to have this big thing, and you’re with all the people you really enjoy. It ends up being a really sweet night to be together, and Valentine’s is really similar in spirit. We’ll probably go to dim sum the next day.
Tim: Yeah, if you ask any restaurant industry person if they go out on Valentine’s Day, that would be 99% no.
That’s exactly what I’ve heard from most people. But it’s interesting how people find other ways to celebrate.
Erin: I always get him a little something. I am Leslie Knope, so I can’t not mark a holiday. Even President’s Day is somehow celebrated.
Tim: I’ve already gotten like five hints of what I’m supposed to get her for Valentine’s Day.
Erin: We’re just basically super dorky. It’s a good formula — we’ve been together a decade.
That’s a big celebration coming up! Another holiday to be marked.
Tim: [Laughs.] There will be a binder for it, for sure.
Food and restaurant images courtesy of Alanna Hale.