The Sushi King Glen Gondo
Glen Yoshiaki Gondo is self-effacing, and by his own candid admission, quite shy. I had to twist his arm to agree to be interviewed. Bearing that in mind, I give him space and just simply… chat. Innocuously. As he warms to me, he opens up and I discover to my delight that there lurks a mischievous sense of humor beneath that rapier sharp mind. His laughter is a gentle rumble that’s quite infectious, particularly when he tells me about the love of his life, Kathleen, who he met in fifth grade and has been happily married to for 39 years.
“Everyone knew that we would marry one day,” says Glen, who’s still clearly besotted.
He confides that he’s proud of their handsome son, Robert, who graduated with an MBA from the University of Michigan early May this year, and will be joining Amazon.com at the company’s Seattle office. It’s clear that family is tantamount to sacrosanct to Glen. So is his cultural heritage that was carried from Japan by his grandfather in 1898, and nurtured in the USA.
In commemoration of May being the Asia Pacific American Heritage Month, it struck me as fitting to talk with Glen who has distinguished himself as one of Asia’s most prominent sons in this city. Fortuitously the timing couldn’t have been better, as I learnt from the Consulate-General of Japan’s office that the Government of Japan had named the recipients of the 2013 Spring Imperial Decorations on April 29. Glen is one of only 40 foreign honorees worldwide and will be conferred with the prestigious The Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette in recognition of his prolific contribution to introducing and propagating Japanese culture in the US, and for fostering better understanding between the two countries. He will receive his award at a special ceremony hosted by the Japan Consul General, the date for which is as yet undetermined. A well-respected businessman, social and community activist, and philanthropist, Glen is arguably best known as the sushi king. He is the CEO of Gondo Company Inc.; Tokyo Gardens Catering, LLC; Sushic, LLC; Gondo Consulting; Pacific Ventures; and Houston 8.
Glen is a third generation Japanese American born in Los Angeles in 1948 to Hisako and Eugene Gondo. His parents, eager to share the cuisine of their native Japan, and with the recommendation of the Japan Food Corporation, moved to Dallas in 1962 and opened the first Japanese restaurant in Dallas that became very popular. Glen attended the North Texas State University in Denton and majored in Economics. Thereafter the family relocated to Houston and started the very first purveyor of authentic Japanese cuisine, Tokyo Gardens. In 1971, Tokyo Gardens added another “first” to a string of other successful firsts – a sushi bar. Freshly made, the colorful and flavorful sushi fast gained fame. The same year, Houstonians also got an introduction to Japanese saké and beer that were included on the menu. Glen began managing the business in 1984. After a good long run, the Gondos closed Tokyo Gardens in 1998 and concentrated on the sushi business, which by then had morphed under Glen’s ministrations. Today, sushi is ubiquitous in all major cities of Texas and in more than 187 locations of HEB. With Houston’s repute as an international city of sophisticated palates, sushi tends to appear on the menu at many events that inundate the local calendar, most recently at the Asia Society Texas Center’s Tiger Ball. I ask Glen what’s his favorite food.
“Haven’t you guessed?” he asks with a smile. “I like Japanese food because it’s very healthy, has a variety of flavors, and is delicious!”
He admits that he’s not crazy about cooking but can “manage” people to cook for him.
A true role model, Glen has received many awards and accolades such as the Asian Chamber of Commerce’s Asian-American Entrepreneur Award, and the Minority Business News Houston’s 1999 Remarkable Minority Business Award for his brilliant and innovative business sense. He’s also been lauded with the Asian American Leadership Award from the Asia Society, and the Japanese Foreign Minister’s Commendation for raising political awareness. Glen sits on numerous boards including the Japan-American Society of Houston where he served three full terms as president, and founded the Japan Festival – a two-day Japanese cultural event held annually at Hermann Park – twenty years ago. The festival, that showcases the arts, cuisine, and popular culture like anime, as well as traditional culture such as ikebana, the tea ceremony, and martial arts, attracts about 30,000 people and $10,000 of the proceeds is channeled toward the maintenance of the Japanese Garden in Hermann Park. He’s also on the board of the Chao Center of Asian Studies, the Asia Society of Texas, and the Greater Houston Partnership, to name a few of many.
As he’s been a longtime citizen of this city, I ask him about the evolution of Houston since the 60’s and how it’s impacted the Asian minorities.
“It’s become progressively better. Back in the 60’s there was no mention of Asians in the newspapers, we had no political agenda, and no access to leadership other than for Chinese elders who had lived here for a long time,” says Glen. “Today our visibility has grown and our children are more mainstream, so we need more Asians to actively seek public office and bring us representation.”
What advice would he give to young people entering the work environment today? Glen laughs.
“I’m more of a salesman and I try to be nice to everyone,” he says half-jokingly. “But I think humility is important, and basing the ability of a person on merit.”
How about young entrepreneurs? What would he advise them about business?
“I’d say never burn bridges. Develop friendships and reach out to help to be helped in turn. Networking is very important. Treat people fairly, equally,” Glen says with the wisdom of experience.
I enquire about Glen’s hobbies. With a seemingly exhaustive repertoire, does the tireless tycoon have any leisure time?
“I play golf and chess. I love people and I love business. There is great satisfaction in creating good jobs for people and in seeing them send their children to school. Education is power and knowledge is crucial in the global economy,” Glen tells me.
How hands-on is he in his business?
“I work mostly via cell-phone. I’ve got young people running day-to-day operations with much more energy than I have. If they need me they can call me,” Glen says with a calm smile.
BY KALYANI GIRI