Akira Akuto and Konbi, the Very Big Small Sandwich Shop
Akira Akuto and his partner Nick Montgomery didn’t know what they were getting themselves into with an egg salad sandwich. The premise was relatively simple: egg salad sandwich on soft white bread, with the added bonus of a perfectly sliced soft boiled egg nestled in the middle. The dish was inspired by Japanese konbinis, or convenience stores, just like the rest of their concise sandwich menu. They figured the pork katsu, with its shatteringly crispy panko crust and house-made bulldog sauce, would be the runaway hit, and that the egg salad sandwich—which boasts a cross-section of soft egginess that gives the hypnotizing effect of a magic eye picture—would happily float along as a supporting player.
But then came a few newspaper articles and even more Instagrams, and Konbi—Akuto and Montgomery’s breakfast-and-lunch spot in Echo Park, Los Angeles, that opened in late 2018—went from making 15 egg salad sandwiches a day to 110. “Which is a completely different prep cycle, to boil and peel that many eggs when you have an environment with two burners,” Akuto says with the gratitude-tinged frustration of someone whose small business has outgrown itself faster than anyone saw coming.
“People are like, how hard is it? And I’m like, we peel 2250 eggs a week. Off of two burners. After service. Every day,” he says. “It’s very inefficient.”
These are the wheels constantly turning in Akuto’s head, now that Konbi—fanatically beloved by Angelenos for its highly Instagrammable sandwiches and its chocolate croissants that often sell out in less than 30 minutes—has a full team of chefs, cooks, and managers. His eyes are already on scale and expansion, but he’s been wary of pursuing either of those things hastily.
That pragmatism is also what landed Akuto and Montgomery where they are. The pair met in New York kitchens, where the hours were long and the stress was high. “Our reason for doing breakfast and lunch is that we both worked in restaurants that were open until two or four A.M., and we just don’t feel that’s a healthy way to approach the rest of your life,” Akuto says. “How can you convince someone who works for you, who you pay 15 dollars—well, we pay 30—to stay that late?” Plus, Los Angeles is an earlier city than New York; fewer diners are eating at 11 P.M. There were already a number of daytime restaurants, like Silver Lake’s beloved Sqirl, doing good business. They figured it was a solid bet.
Akuto came to cooking in an unconventional way. While taking classes at Columbia, “I went to cooking school on the weekends for fun because I didn’t really have friends,” he explains. At the time, he was planning on a career in investment banking: “I was like, oh, I’ll bring dates back to my loft and I’ll cook for them when I’m making $150K at Goldman.” But after graduation, he quickly realized that banking wasn’t for him, and moved back in with his parents in California.
Eventually they told him he had to get a job, which led him to restaurant kitchens. Soon he came back to New York, and found jobs at Franny’s, the beloved locavore rustic Italian spot in Brooklyn, and later at Momofuku, among others. The scrappy nature of both of these spots taught him to be economical with the highest quality ingredients, something that Konbi takes pride in. “Both those kitchens are very, like, ‘we’re gonna buy the best products we can and use all of it.’ And that allows you to charge less,” he explains. At Konbi, “if we want to buy the most expensive kombu, we’ll make dashi [stock] with that. But that’s seaweed that grew wild for four years before someone harvested it, so we have to make pickles out of it, too.”
Through opening his first restaurant, Akuto became highly attuned to the question of sustainability—but not necessarily the farm-to-table sort. “A sustainable business starts at the beginning,” he says. “You have to design your business to be sustainable, and you have to sign a lease to be sustainable.” A major focus of his has become helping his peers who are looking to open their own restaurants and sharing what he learned in the two-year crash-course of opening his own.
“We’ll say, ‘here’s the problem you’re probably going to encounter. Here’s what we did, here’s what we tried.’ I think that conversation needs to happen more, not ‘I opened this business and it’s amazing,’” he says. At the moment, he’s scaled back his hours at the restaurant to let the managers and chefs do their jobs; he’ll go to the farmers market on Wednesdays and Sundays, pop in to check on things, and then spend time at home working on things like social media and PR and business development.
The California transplant life seems to be working well for him—and his wardrobe has started to reflect that. “I have all custom clothes for New York—custom tux, two suits—and I like to dress up here,” He explains. In California, I’m in a grey sweatshirt and khakis, year-round. Maybe a few days a year I have a grey shirt on. That’s all I need.”