A perfectly linear career trajectory is comforting in its own right––but you have to admit that there’s something truly exciting about how a career in advertising, as was the case with Nancy Cushman, turned out to be the perfect way to learn how to run five restaurants across New York City and Boston. By working with her husband Tim, Nancy brought two different corners of Japanese cuisine to Boston through Hojoko (named after a beloved Howard Johnson’s establishment) and O Ya. Her five-year plan proves that the unexpected (like an early date night over cups of sake) can lay the foundation for good things to come years and years down the road.
At 20, I was just graduating from the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana early—it took me three and a half years. I actually went out into the workforce not being able to legally drink yet, which caused some interesting issues when it came to going out to the bar with my coworkers who were all obviously already of age. But at 20, I knew I really wanted to get into advertising. I interviewed at Leo Burnett in Chicago, and I didn’t make it in. So, I got a job at a computer training company just randomly and then interviewed at Leo Burnett again, at which point I did get in. I took a $20,000 a year job as an account coordinator (this was twenty years ago, remember).
I’d studied marketing in college and I really liked the mix of right and left brain. I was interested in both the strategy and the business side of things, but I also loved working with the creatives to develop all the ads and media. I think I always knew I wanted to be in business in some way, but the creative side was also attractive.
At 25, I was midway into my advertising career. My husband Tim and I met at an advertising event for Bon Appetit magazine in Chicago at the Field Museum (that’s the nice version of the story, the other story involves meeting later at a bar sometime around two in the morning). Tim and I had been together for a little bit when I got a call from a recruiter who wanted to know if I was interested in going to interview at Arnold Worldwide in Boston for Ocean Spray. I said no and asked the recruiter to call me in a couple of years. He was like, “Well, why don’t you just get on a plane and come in for an interview?” So I spontaneously got on the plane, got the job, and we ended up moving to Boston when I was 27. Tim’s from Boston originally, and we settled down here because we loved the mountains and the ocean, and of course, I loved my advertising career. I had no thoughts of owning a restaurant even though I was ironically only working on food accounts.
I also started drinking sake at this time. I was taking notes in a little sake journal, reading everything I could about sake, tasting sake. On one of our first dates, Tim took me out for sushi and sake, and I’d never had those things before. I grew up really conservatively, like, my mom made me potatoes, meatloaf, mashed potatoes and green beans almost every night. But sushi opened up this whole new world for me. I completely fell in love with sake, I thought it was the most magical thing ever. Even the customs of pouring, the presentation with the carafes and the small glasses was all really alluring.
When I hit 30, I was like, “What am I doing?” I still liked advertising a lot, but I was getting kind of antsy and bored. I felt like I needed outlets for what I wanted to do. So I named it my renaissance year. I took ice skating, soap making, and papermaking classes. I bought watercolor paints. There’s more, but those were really the major hobbies I tried. The ice skating thing was funny because I was skating with ten-year-olds and I was the only adult—they would pick on me. I think I just knew I was looking for something more enriching and fulfilling.
Between when I turned 30 and 35, the economy went down the tubes. I’d gone from account management to a training role by this point, but when the economy crashed, I had to take an HR role at Hill Holliday and pretty much fire everybody because they cut the budget for training. I love mentoring and coaching, which is why I’d moved into this training and development role. But one day I was presented with a list of 40 names, and they were all people I’d worked side by side with. I was like, no, this is not what I’d signed up for. I stayed in HR for a couple of years, and it was so invaluable to my experience as a business owner now: hiring, firing, coaching, training, development, onboarding, orientation, interviewing. I learned literally everything that has to do with staffing, so I really am thankful that I accidentally found my way into it.
But I knew that HR wasn’t what I wanted to do long-term. Slowly, Tim and I started building the menu and business plan for O Ya. Every morning we would wake up and type recipes out. At night, we’d taste two or three dishes (I was still working advertising hours, ten or twelve hours a day). Tim made the whole menu in our house, to begin with. I’d get home at nine and we’d taste a few dishes—we even cataloged them and gave them ratings, which is how we ended up with five binders of O Ya archives. We always said we’d take building the restaurant step by step and stop if something stopped us, but we always found a way over the hurdles. So, we just kept going and going to the point at which I finally decided to leave my job and pursue the restaurant full-time at 33. We finally opened O Ya when I was 34.
So, at 35, we almost went out of business. The thing was, we did everything exactly the way we wanted it because we always had the motto, “Do it right or don’t do it at all.” We never made sacrifices to the vision of what we wanted O Ya to be. We had a big problem in the beginning because there weren’t any liquor licenses available and they were like $300,000 on the street. We just didn’t realize that was a whole process in Boston. As a result, we ended up paying rent for six months before we opened, which of course put us in a really tough financial spot right from the start. We knew that if we opened without the license, we’d get people once and then they wouldn’t come back (especially because there’s no BYOB or anything in Boston). We were both really interested in the long-term for O Ya. We finally opened in March 2007 and had a great first couple of nights...and then it just tapered off. The first full year was really tough, but it was also kind of wonderful. We were growing really slowly and were barely able to make payroll by the end of that year. It was just a ton of stress.
Then, two miraculous press events happened. Frank Bruni at the New York Times added us to his top ten restaurant countdown around the country, and Food & Wine named Tim the best new chef. He was like the oldest best new chef, at age 52 or something like that. But those two things really changed the trajectory at O Ya and for us. The next couple of years were busy and fantastic. Even with the success, we still had ideas that we were kind of turning over in our heads. The concept for Hojoko was something we were thinking about back when we were developing O Ya. We had fine dining, but then Hojoko would have the fun Tokyo izakaya fun to it.
Around when I turned 40, we opened in New York. The first thing we did was the roof at the Park South, a cocktail bar at the hotel. We were actually brought on to do three concepts in the Park South. Afterwards, we opened three restaurants within nine months. Hojoko, and O Ya and Covina in New York. It was very, very challenging. We have an apartment in New York and our house is here, so we split our time 50-50. It was a lot. It’s still a lot. But it’s been such a journey. To be able to pursue and share a passion of mine, whether its sake or food, has just been really incredible.
––As told to and written by Oset Babur for The Thirty-One Percent