15 Minutes With Taro Arai


Taro Arai
Age: 47
Day job: Chief dreaming officer at Mikuni Restaurant Group
Famous for: Serial philanthropy; outrageous hairstyles

This year is Mikuni’s 30th anniversary. Did you ever dream you’d be this successful?
No, never. Just to have one restaurant was a miracle. The first five years, we had no idea what we were doing. The more we worked, the more money we lost. Now we have nine restaurants and are opening up a 10th one in Concord next year. We’re projecting serving 1.8 million customers this year. It’s amazing.

What were your first impressions of America when you moved here at age 15?
When we arrived, I didn’t speak English; we didn’t have any friends. I had grown up in the countryside in Japan, so my first impression was that everything here was big. The first meal I had was a Carl’s Jr. Western Bacon Cheeseburger. I couldn’t believe how big it was.

What mark have you left on the local restaurant scene?
We have had 13 of our head chefs open their own restaurants. We’ve gotten in trouble with the sushi world so many times but we just kept pushing, pushing, pushing. When we created our barbecue albacore tuna, people said that’s not real sushi. Now, every restaurant I go to, they have barbecue albacore and all these fancy rolls.

Mikuni is known for its over-the-top rolls. What’s an example of something that didn’t make the cut?
I could write a book about it. I tried like 30 different rolls at first, like eel with banana or spicy tuna with strawberries. I made all these things that didn’t make it to the menu because people were kind of grossed out. I’ve tried everything. We even tried a sushi breakfast. The doughnut shop next door would have a big line and we’d have four customers. I finally said this is not working. Next.

You recently wrote a book about gratitude. Why?
My dad always said be humble, give back to God, give back to the community. I look back on 30 years and I just can’t thank the people in the community enough. I love America. I love Sacramento and its people. There are too many things to be thankful for. That’s why I’ve never had a bad day yet. Every morning I’m just full of appreciation. I want to make a difference for others. That’s why I’m always looking for waysI can be useful.

After 30 years in the restaurant business, what’s next for you?
I have a new goal: 50 locations for the 50th anniversary of Mikuni. I’ve got 20 more years to do it. Why not dream big?