Founder of Bar Goto
Hailing from the Tokyo suburb of Chiba in Japan, Kenta Goto arrived in New York dreaming of becoming the "next Tom Ford" of the fashion industry. Instead, after a meandering journey, Kenta returned to his roots and joined Pegu Club, one of the premier cocktail shops in New York's trendy SOHO. Fast forward several years and Kenta has opened Bar Goto, a beautiful bar in the Lower East Side, serving elegant and innovative drinks with a Japanese touch. Bar Goto was recently nominated for a James Beard award.
Tell me a little about your childhood, where did you grow up and what was it like?
I grew up in the area called Chiba, which is a suburb in the east side of Tokyo. Say Tokyo is Manhattan, where I'm from is like Long Island. My parents are not super rich but at the same time I did not grow up poor. My father was, and still is in the kimono business. He basically makes custom kimonos for his clients. My mother ran a restaurant, specializing in okonomiyaki, the Japanese pancake that we serve here at Bar Goto. Growing up, I guess I was in that environment. Not something that I was totally into as a kid, because it was almost mandatory that I help her out.
What sort of things were you interested in when you were growing up?
I had a huge interest in fashion. I guess growing up in the Tokyo area, I had a lot of resources when it came to fashion, which was a compelling reason to come to New York. I guess naturally I had a huge curiosity about New York - a huge attraction. You see these pictures of Manhattan in all the magazines while growing up. When I was around nineteen years old, I came to New York as a tourist. Then I kind of traveled around - San Francisco, New York and LA; all the major cities. But New York was really stuck in my head. A few years later, I just decided to move here.
Before you decide to come here, what sort of ideas did you have about America?
I guess everybody says it, but the energy that I felt when I first came to New York made an impression. It kept me wondering and thinking about it. Also, growing up in a suburb of Japan, I never really had an environment where I was surrounded by many different cultures, so I wanted to see what that felt like. Also, because I was into fashion, like all the Nike shoes or vintage Levi's, Harley Davidsons, I just had these ideas of America from these brands. But New York is just, how do I say this, totally different from what I had when I was a kid.
When you made that decision to come here, what did your friends or parents think?
At twenty-one, that's your senior year at college. Everybody starts looking for a job but instead I started preparing to come here - doing research on visas, taking English classes, hanging out with the English teachers at the school I went to. I'm sure my parents were supportive of my decision but I'm sure they were also wondering if they were making the right decision to support my nonsense. My friends, I don't know what they were really thinking about my decision but that was me, I didn't care about what other people thought about me. I was just totally into the idea, kinda like you only live once, this is it. Now I look back at this absolutely naive decision. But I did it and I don't regret it.
Was that very different from what all your other friends were doing?
One thing I notice now is that when I meet somebody my age that has been living in Japan and we stand next to each other, somehow I look much younger. It’s not because my life in New York was totally stress-free but I think I was kind of free in choosing my life. I didn’t have to live up to everybody's expectations and become a company man in a Japanese firm just to follow the crowd. I mean my friends made decisions looking for security. A lot of them realized as they got older, that what they were doing was not really their passion but by then they already had kids and it was too late to make a change. In my case, I guess all the stress that I deal with are based on my own true decision. At the same time, no one is really going to help you. There is no textbook that I can look up to find the answers. But I guess I felt freer in a way.
Tell me about when your first few years in America. What was that like for you?
I actually wish I’d filmed myself because it was probably so comedic. First of all, I never thought I had an accent. I thought I was totally prepared to speak English. But reality just hit me. I didn't know how to order a slice of pizza because that's not something you learn in textbooks. I still vividly remember ordering "one piece of pizza" at this place. Of course, the guys behind the counter had no idea whether the piece meant a slice versus a pie, so you know, these guys with Italian accents from the Bronx, they started rushing me, like come on man, what do you want?
I was like wow. This is really interesting. Am I really going to be okay here?
Honestly, the first couple years, I was just happy to be here. But after I graduated from fashion school, I couldn't really find a job in fashion. I could see my money dwindling and around that time the reality of New York started slapping my face pretty hard. Somehow, I just never thought of going back to Japan. Maybe this was because of my father. I would have been so ashamed if I just went back, like I just wasted a few years in New York without doing much. My dad was also supporting me financially, so if I moved back he would've been like “You wasted all my money, I knew it.”
I just tried to survive in New York City and that was a struggle for me. After trying a couple different jobs including TV production for a Japanese network, I sent my resume to a staffing agent and they somehow got me a job at Panasonic in New Jersey. I didn't really know what I wanted. My main focus was to find a job that made me feel secure. So I got the job at Panasonic and I worked really hard and there was talk of a promotion coming my way. But in the back of my mind, I was thinking, “What am I doing here?”. Also, I didn't have a car so I commuted to Secaucus, New Jersey and that was pretty depressing. Like there was just nothing there. Everyday I just felt empty.
I guess my way of escaping from that was to simply enjoy New York City and part of that was eating and drinking. That was a turning point. I thought that maybe I should just be honest with myself and do what I felt was comfortable and right. That's how I got back into this industry.
How did you cope with that situation during that time in your life?
Support. I guess friends. Friends at that time - there were four of us. Everyone was from a different country. We had a similar background, in terms of coming from other countries and I guess that was something that I needed. Also my dad was tough in a very old school way. So failure wasn't an option. Like if you fail, you die. Strong samurai spirit. Having that mindset here always helped. Those two things - friends and having a tough mentality - really sustained me.
Describe the journey that led you to Pegu Club and now Bar Goto.
I left Panasonic. I had a good friend at that time who happened to be the general manager at a popular restaurant called The Elephant. It was pure coincidence, he just happened to be across the street. So I told him he didn’t have to pay me - I said "You don't have to pay me," but to let me be behind the bar" and He was kind enough to make that happen. To this day, I'm very thankful for that act of kindness.
I had very limited bar experience back then. But at the same time, the bar scene in New York wasn't as it is today. There were very few places that did really good cocktails. Mostly it was just like vodka and cranberry. I could get by. Then I found another position at this place called Bar Marche, on Elizabeth and Spring Street but it's gone now, it doesn't exist anymore. That place was extremely busy and I worked a lot, sometimes even though I didn't I feel that I was being treated right. Day shift, night shift. Squeezing lemons and limes, preparing garnish. I was just learning and getting better.
Around that time, Pegu Club opened and I went there for the first time as a customer. That was an eye-opening experience for me. They made superb cocktails and I thought wow I need to get in on this. I just knew I had to go get it. It's like being an actor or a musician. You don't wanna be a performer if you don't make any money. You don't want to be a singer that no one claps for. I thought that if I were to keep bartending, I wanted to be very good at it. And I guess there was also a bit of luck. When I was moving on from Bar Marche and seeking opportunities, I came across this opening on Craigslist.
I looked for it everywhere but the title didn't say it was for Pegu Club, they didn’t mention their name at all. But I knew just by reading the description that it was them. The funny thing is that they asked for a cover letter, like “Please tell us why you think you’ll be a good fit here” without even mentioning who they were! But so anyhow, I sent my resume with a cover letter.
So what did you write in the cover letter?
Honestly at this point, I don't remember exactly what I wrote. But I'm sure I wrote about how passionate I was and how good I wanted to be. After a long time, I got an email back. It was from Audrey Saunders, the owner of Pegu Club. I was so nervous. What Audrey did with Pegu Club was more focused on the craft, she really revolutionized the cocktail scene. She was out to compete on both creativity and business sense, which was very different from a lot of other places that were open then. She also had this reputation as being very tough, so I was extremely nervous.
Turns out she was actually very friendly and easy to talk to. The job interview was more of a chat but towards the end, she told me that there were other candidates and that there would be a second interview. I was like wow, a second interview for a bartending job? That was unheard of, at least in my experience. I found out that the second interview involved her dropping by at the place that I was working at, basically to look at how I did things. That was scary.
Anyway, she came by and it was a weekend dinner. We were so busy. Through the crowd, I saw Audrey's face and I was like okay you are here now. She asked me to make her a gin sour. Basically, it’s like a whiskey sour but with gin instead. The place I was working at wasn't exactly known for cocktails and there were definitely no customers ordering gin sours. I was like gin sour? What? I told her that I didn’t have fresh lemon juice and so I didn’t know how to satisfy her. But she told me to do my best. So I made a gin sour - Bombay Sapphire, lemon juice and simple syrup, and of course I could sense that she was watching me.
She didn't even taste it. She asked me “Why did you use Bombay Sapphire for this gin sour?" I didn't have an answer for that. In my head, it was because it's in a clean blue glass and it looks attractive. Obviously, that wasn't the answer but that was the only thing I could think of in that moment. But I remember telling her that Bombay Sapphire seemed to be the most popular one here so that's why I used it. Surprisingly, she told me that she wanted me to work for her but only once a week. Basically, I knew I was the underdog but that was fine for me. I knew I had a lot to learn but I was grateful for the opportunity. So that's how my Pegu life started, where I stayed for over seven years. That was the first week of 2007.
How would you describe that period of your life?
I was super excited. Back then, everybody was talking about Pegu Club too. I remember getting my tie and my vest. They gave me a uniform. I remember going to the bathroom to change and feeling like I was in a draft for Major League Baseball or something. I thought wow this is like the New York Yankees. At that time, if the cocktail scene was Major League Baseball, Pegu Club was definitely the New York Yankees. All the guys who worked there were literally handpicked by Audrey and knew their stuff. It was the ultimate place for anyone who wanted to make good cocktails.
But a few weeks after I started working, I knew why I was only given one slot a week. On top of that I was assigned to the Tuesday night shift, which was the slowest night of the week. I just worked hard and over time, other bartenders would make mistakes and be suspended or they would leave and I would end up with more and more shifts. The next thing I knew, I was allowed to work on weekends too. If you were given a weekend shift, it was like you were really in, kind of like getting an initiation tattoo if you joined a gang. I spent my first year of weekend shifts in the service bar. That was pure torture - the tickets keep coming up and you just had to swim or sink. Once you lose your focus, the tickets start hitting the floor and it’s over. But that was the perfect situation for me to become faster and more accurate without any interruption. The service bar was separated from the main area so I ended up only talking to myself or to the ticket printer. That got me so much stronger and I learnt all the recipes.
Eventually, I became the head bartender and bar manager and started training people. When I got the job at Pegu, I was super happy but at the same time didn't think I would stay there for 7 years. It was a great education for everything, not just making good cocktails but also meeting a ton of different types of people. It gave me an opportunity to build and lead a team. I learnt the business side too. So it was a great time. That was the highlight of my New York life. One of my regulars became my investor. Also, I met somebody who is now my wife. I gained connections that I didn't even have to look for.
During my first few years at Pegu Club, I didn't tell my parents what I was doing because I didn't know how to tell my parents “Hey by the way, I’m pouring alcohol”. In Japan, we call this type of work mizu shobai (translated as the "water trade"). There’s a negative connotation because people associate that with nighttime entertainment and hostess bars. So I didn’t really know how to tell my parents that I was working in mizu shobai. They thought I was still working at Panasonic.
One year I was able to take time off and go back to Japan. For the fourteen hours on the plane I couldn’t sleep. Like how was I going to tell them? I got to Narita airport and my parents were there to pick me up. I was literally getting to the point of passing out. Once we got in the car, I told them that I was not actually with Panasonic anymore and that I was working as a bartender at Pegu Club. Luckily enough, after a few years in Pegu, I happened to be featured in a magazine. So at least I had something to show them. I made them a little scrapbook. Surprisingly, they were not angry or surprised.
Later, they told me that they were going to tell me to quit Panasonic. I found out they were actually very happy. They could see it in my face that I was genuinely happy and that I was very passionate about my life at Pegu. So their anxiety about me started to fade away. I was also working very hard at Pegu everyday so I had even more opportunities to be featured on magazines and every time I saw something new, I would make a copy and send it to Japan.
My parents came to visit last year and got to see the bar that I started. I mean it's a small business but I have ten people on my team. I think when my father was that there were ten people working for me and that I was responsible for these people, he was proud of me. I guess it took a very long time but after almost twenty years since coming to New York, they can finally sleep well.
Let's talk about your life post-Pegu Club. What was that like?
Right after I left Pegu, my girlfriend and I went to Cabo, Mexico to take time off. When we came back to New York and I remembered how in January and February it gets so cold. After I left Pegu, my phone got so quiet. Almost like, is this broken? Around that time I started pitching myself, presenting myself for potential investment. It wasn't easy at all but I guess I was fortunate enough to have people sit with me and listen to what I had to say.
I put my money in first. Then one of my four original friends put some money in. One of my regular customers also joined and I thought alright I had enough money to seriously talk to a landlord to get space. That was a real hustle. I met someone who was from Chinatown, born and raised. He happened to be one of the community board members in that area and also had two restaurants in the neighborhood. So he knew what was going on and he told me about this location on Eldridge Street. At first, I wasn’t really feeling it. Twenty years ago, this area was pretty sketchy. But I decided to just check it out and see the neighborhood. The place looked completely different, even the clientele were different. Not really the eighties grungy vibe. Instead it was more polished. I settled on this location after ten months of looking for space. This place used to be a restaurant. The former tenant decided to give me her lease.
We kept negotiating. Back then, I was always watching Shark Tank. I mean no one really talks like they do in Shark Tank but it gave me this confidence, like I wasn't the only one fighting for money and opportunity. It took me back to the feeling I had when I was trying to come to America for the first time. When everyone was looking for a job back then while I was watching TV to practice my English. So watching Shark Tank was at least helping me or least it was a good excuse for watching TV.
We finally came to an agreement. The remaining lease period from the previous owner was only seven years. Some people might think that seven years is great but in my head I thought, I'm gonna need a few years just to make money to pay all my investors back and also pay myself back. I'm only gonna make more money after those few years. So I explained where I was coming from. I was aiming for ten years and the option to renew for another five years.
My next step was the community board. I needed to be approved by the board so I could apply for a liquor license. Applying for a liquor license is just paperwork. But in order to apply, I needed permission from this board. If the community board, for whatever reason, didn't approve me, this whole negotiation would have gone to nothing. I was talking to my lawyer everyday.
On the second week of December 2014, I got approved. YES. But in my head I was always playing out scenarios - Am I ready? Really? Maybe I should wait a little more. After New Year's day, I finally met the former tenant, the landlord, their lawyers and my lawyers. We did all the paperwork and there I went. No turning back right now. Then I knew that everything was going to be so hectic. Finding the money was tough. Finding the location was even harder. Then going through the community board, that was a crazy level of stress I never experienced. Then I encountered construction and this was a totally new field of stress. I was here at the site everyday during construction, even though I couldn’t really help with anything. I just needed to be here to calm myself down.
So the construction started and some bloggers from Bowery Boogie came to us. They noticed that the former place of Zoe's (which was the restaurant before) on 245 Eldridge Street was going under construction according to public records at a community board meeting. They came to take pictures. It's not like they were doing this because of me, it was just their job to update on what was going on in this neighborhood. Of course some other media people started catching on and around that time, people were literally calling and texting me all the time asking me about the status. I finally had to finalize the menu. Honestly I didn't even want to drink alcohol anymore because it was so exhausting at that point.
Day One. I guess I should have been very happy about it but literally too many people came by. At first I was like the host and tried to control the door but I failed big time. Of course there was no way I was going to just stay by the door. I had to say hi to everybody and people started asking questions and I had to answer them. And then I could see 10 people storming in. Plus, I wanted to make sure that the drinks were okay and that the kitchen was okay. I remember this place got destroyed. It became like a Tokyo subway station during rush hour. I couldn't even move. And at some point I got into the kitchen and the tickets were like everywhere. Two guys were working like crazy but there was no way we were catching up because no one was controlling the speed. So I failed big time. Lucky enough, no one walked out even though the food literally took like one hour to come out.
Day Two. I called the security company that Pegu club was working with. Boom, a guy came, and everything was so peaceful. Just twenty people inside and life was beautiful. Yes, finally I could smile!
At the end of August, more than a month after opening, I finally took my first day off. It was a Sunday evening and I remember going to Coney Island, not to eat hot dogs. Just watched the sunset. The end of Coney Island is actually very peaceful. I was with my wife. I finally came to the point where I managed to take a day off. But since then, it's been good.
I want to focus a little bit on the idea of the American Dream and how you perceive that having grown up in Japan. Very simply, what does the American Dream meant to you?
The American Dream to me as of now is being able to come from a different background adjusting to a new life, not just to survive but to make it through to the point doing something you want to do. After struggling through the adjustment process and getting to that point and being able to make what you envision happen.
But that won't happen alone. As your life goes by, you meet so many people. With those people's help, your life can keep going. It’s more about the joy of going through the process to making your dream happen. It’s not exactly about how much money you're gonna make.
How do you feel like you growing up in Japan like affected the way you approached everything?
This goes back to my bartending in Pegu Club. Growing up in Japan, I guess I'm driven to do things in the right way in the right order. If you want to do a good job, that's where it always goes back to, you gotta do the small things right, in order to get the right result. Doesn't matter what background or what field you're in. I'm not saying this is only the Japanese way of thinking but Japan has that. That is always going to stay with me.
I think that mentality made me unique and set myself apart from other guys I worked with. I didn’t take any shortcuts. I’m not a very outspoken guy but I let my results speak for myself. I was able to cultivate many loyal followers and customers because I was letting my product speak for myself. People started remembering me, like “Oh who made this cocktail?” I also created my own signature drinks, and once Audrey liked and approved it, she would put it on the menu. Customers were genuinely excited when a new drink went on the menu that was created by the bar staff. I was lucky enough to have many drinks that went on the menu. Being able to maintain a fine balance of letting the product speak for itself while presenting myself professionally and personably, that was what really helped me succeed.
If you could kind of bring something from Japan to America, a way of thinking, what would that be?
Oftentimes, in order to achieve a good result, things take time and you need a commitment that requires patience and dedication. I guess times are changing but I feel that the younger generation don't value that process as much as we were told. Maybe too much information or I don't know. Especially in this industry, the young ones want the results without appreciating the process, like they want to drive sixty miles right out the gate. Maybe young Japanese kids are the same way. Maybe I'm just getting older.
Also, sometimes in a big city like New York, where so many different types people are crammed into one spot, not everyone has care towards other. Some people's manner sucks. So I feel like something like that is missing. I’d like to see more caring for others. I don't see it as much as I see it in Japan. Even though I know deep down New Yorkers are caring, they often don’t show it.
What is your hope for your bar and personal life/family etc?
I definitely want to expand. I don't have an actual plan to talk about right now but I have been thinking about expansion. I want to be a business owner where I can provide more opportunities, to my people and my team. Like one day, if one of my team members want to move on like I did, I want to be able to help them. I don't know if it's financially or mentally, but I want to be that person. In return of their hard work and sticking with me.
Also I have a baby on the way. So I guess now I have to grow up even more. I think I have something wonderful in my life, so I just want to stay healthy and keep being better, business-wise, and personally, I guess I'm about to have a family now, so i just want to be a good person.
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