All in the Family

Back Commentary Oct 2, 2017 By Allison Joy

The Brooks family gave me my first job, when I was a freshman in high school, at their breakfast diner on the main drag in my small Wisconsin hometown. Husband Jim and wife Sue ran the kitchen and front-of-house, respectively, and their two sons and daughter-in-law could often be found helping out on weekends or while the parents were on vacation. On my first day, Jim told me to try to take this seriously, as waiting tables would likely end up a good skill to fall back on during tough times. He was not wrong. I worked that job on and off for seven years, and I will be forever grateful for that and other nuggets of wisdom he and his family bestowed upon me over the years.

I’ve worked at a number of family businesses, most of them restaurants, in my day. When I returned to Wisconsin from two and a half years in Japan in fall 2008, just as the economy tanked and the Great Recession ate up jobs, another family, the Nakashimas, took me in. When I told my boss, Tim (the second generation of leadership), that I’d be leaving for the summer to spend some time in California with my brother, he assured me there would be a place for me upon my return. And when I never came back, he wished me well. The place still feels like home.

The Takashibas, who own Hana Tsubaki in East Sacramento, gave me my first job when I moved to California. They run a tight ship, and I was so nervous that on my first night I broke four beer glasses. (Mr. Takashiba asked if I was trying to throw a party … I’m still not sure if he was joking.) After that, I worked for the Arai family, who owns a string of popular establishments under Mikuni Restaurant Group. Without either of these families, I’m not sure I would have survived those initial years on the West Coast, so far from the only home I knew.

My family’s farm back in Wisconsin has been in operation for seven generations, though ironically it’s one family business I haven’t worked for. (Instead, I absorbed my father’s insatiable appetite for news.) The farm was never just a place of business, of course, it was a home — a gathering place for extended family, friends and farmhands. And over the years, that land has been touched by many people who, if not family, certainly came to feel that way. Our own succession plan is ill-defined. For now, my dad and uncle continue to keep the cattle. They don’t always agree, but there’s a legacy on the line, and they make it work. I’m so proud of them, of what my family has built and continues to build.

One thing that makes my job so interesting is that Comstock’s isn’t a publication solely focused on disseminating information in the form of news briefs and factoids. We tell stories: of the struggle to succeed, thrills of success, heartbreaks of failure and the quiet fear of finding oneself at a crossroads. The general public often thinks business news must be dry and sterile — focused solely on spreadsheets and quarterly reports — but business owners know it’s anything but.

Only one-third of family businesses survive into the second generation, 12 percent into the third and a mere 3 percent make it to the fourth and beyond. The owners of family businesses, especially, know that their arrangement is dynamic, ever-changing, and full of its own challenges and benefits. And this should matter to the rest of us. As Stella Premo, executive director of the Capital Region Family Business Center, told Comstock’s in last year’s family-business issue, “Family-owned businesses have a unique sense of community responsibility and philanthropy. They care deeply about the work that they do and many of them are actively involved with nonprofits in our region. As consumers, we need to seek out these family-owned businesses and support them with our business. Because when they grow and prosper, so do we.”

Locally-owned family businesses are at the beating heart of our region’s economy. They are out there, quietly humming along each and every day, striving to maintain a livelihood, pursue individual passions, create jobs and build a future for the next generation. In this month’s issue, you will find the stories of a handful of those businesses: their origins, how they grapple with succession-planning, and how and why they give back to their communities. I hope these stories speak to your mind as well as your heart, and I hope you’ll share your stories with us: You can find me at Enjoy.