Brian Tsao is the former head of Beauty and Essex and Mira Sushi & Izakaya in New York. A competing chef in the first season of Defeat Bobby Flay (which he did), Tsao is also a member of the metalcore band The loss becomes. In 2022, it opens Social Sandwich Mission in Brooklyn.
When I was 13, my dad woke me up one Saturday morning and said, “Boy, I came to this country when I was 11 and started washing dishes when I was 12. the gas station.” My dad had a gas station at Flatbush Avenue and Dean Street.
At the time, in the early 90s, we were the only Asians in the area. We faced a lot of racism, but also a lot of elbow grease, filling shelves, sweeping yards, stocking tires, cleaning bathrooms, etc. In the summer, I worked five days or six days a week. We closed on Sundays, otherwise I’m sure my father would have made me work seven days.
But I was the richest kid in school because I was paid $20 a day, which, if you think about it now, is child labor. But I guess that doesn’t count when it’s within your own family. Anyway, what I mean is that usually every day he ordered Chinese food – chicken with broccoli, beef with broccoli, General Tsao’s chicken, eggs foo youth. But once in a blue moon, he ordered sandwiches from the local bodega, and it was such a treat. They were great heroes, lots of mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato. It was always pastrami and cheese or ham and cheese. Those are the only two sandwiches my dad knew.
But I was blown away by the sandwiches at 13. I remember saying to my father – and I don’t know what made me say that – “I can make a sandwich like that.” He just stopped, looked at me and said, “Really? Okay.” And then a week later, to my mom’s dismay, there was a fucking professional meat slicer on the counter. My dad said to my mom, “Take Brian to Restaurant Depot and ask- him to cook lunch for the staff. He said, “I’ll pay you $20 more. So that meant I was making $40 a day.”
I made basically the same thing the bodega was doing – ham and cheese and pastrami and cheese. I thought I was getting fancy by putting peppers, pickles, or raw onions in it. The staff absolutely loved it. It was really my first memory of cooking for money. I don’t know, it just seemed right to me.
Years later, in November 2019, I was visiting a friend in San Francisco. Just a trip, just hanging out. I love going to California at least once a year. I was in the Bay Area and met a buddy for lunch. No intent. He’s just a friend of mine that I met through the metal scene. He took me to a place called Little Lucca, and I saw them making sandwiches with that crazy bread. There were just tons of different combinations that were so fun and creative.
You could clearly see this was a great DIY place as all the specials were in plastic sheets taped to the window and in very different degrees of yellow depending on when they were posted. But they were so much fun and this bread had this very distinctive pattern. I tried the sandwich and my mind was blown. All of a sudden, I was like, “How come New York doesn’t have this style of sandwich?” How come I had never heard of or seen this bread before in my life”, which is called Dutch crunch.
So I insisted that we try a number of sandwiches the next day. My week-long trip became this sandwich search. I was so captivated by this bread and style of sandwich that is stacked and saucy and rich in veggies and creative and fun.
I have a background in Asian cuisine. I grew up with a Korean mother and a Chinese father, so I grew up with these two types of cuisine which are obviously very famous and very notable. But I’ve always wanted to spread my wings with cuisine outside of Asia. I saw the sandwich as the perfect container to do whatever I want.
I went back to New York and couldn’t stop thinking about these amazing sandwiches. And then I started to realize that New York’s sandwich culture was mostly made up of bodegas and by Katz, both of which are absolutely amazing. Nothing wrong with these two sandwich cultures. But I felt there was not much between the two. I saw this opportunity to do something different with something that can be easily understood.
Here I am, inspired, thinking, “The world is my oyster. I have all the time in the world to work on this project. I took another trip in December and another trip in January, and we all know what happened in March 2020.
We took a break from everything. I have been cooking professionally for 18 years now. I also probably have undiagnosed ADHD. So in March, everything stops. Obviously, like everyone else, I’m completely devastated. But then I was like, ‘I’m stuck at home. It’s the first time I’ve had all this time. And I kept telling myself that I wanted to do something on YouTube. I wanted to work more on my social networks. I thought to myself, “By the time this pandemic is over, it doesn’t matter when it is, either I’m going to have six-pack abs or I’m going to have a new skill.
I’m going to confirm that I don’t have six-pack abs. I drank a lot of six packs, but I also learned a lot of new skills. I learned cameras, editing, lighting, I learned how to manage a YouTube channel. I created a whole YouTube show to stay engaged in the world of sandwiches. I was basically filming my R&D for the sandwich shop, whether it happened or not.
I thought, I’m already stuck at home. I can’t do anything about it. But I really like this project, so might as well keep moving forward. I started sending questionnaires to my closest friends, the quote-unquote celebrities, mostly in the metal world. I sent them a questionnaire, and created a signature sandwich based on their responses.
I have done all the research, everything has been tested, tried and true. I managed to perfect the bread at that time. When things finally started to reopen, I had quite a base, quite a job. I was able to basically say, “Hey, I’m ready. I would say a year later I got the green light to start looking for places. It was a long search, but nine months later, I managed to find the space in which we now find ourselves.
You would think landlords would be more eager to rent at a lower rate, but no. It certainly did not happen. It was a combination of my investors and myself being picky, being very selective about where we opened. And that’s really what made the process so long.
We always knew from day one that it would be in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was obvious. But one of our concerns was the history of the location. We didn’t want to go to a place that had a lot of history of failed restaurants. As a rule, turnkey places have a lot of history of failed restaurants. Another thing was really taking our time and making sure everything was going well. What you would think would take weeks times months and months and months. But I’m glad we did that, because I’m very happy with the location we ended up in. It was a laundromat before I took over!
When it comes to managing my time, come back to me in two or three months, see if I’m in an asylum or not. To be honest, it takes time. For example, I have my first paid partnership for my YouTube channel with Hello Fresh, so I just have to plan it like I do everything else. I know I can’t get this ad out in a day. So I filmed the B-roll one day, I filmed the monologue another day, and I had someone else edit it. It’s just about planning, taking the time and committing to that time.
I purposely opened Mission Sandwich Social in late winter or early spring so I could prepare for the warmer months. Right now it’s a combination of watching my labor costs, my food costs, and hopefully starting to run some promotions because I’m really treating this project like a fine dining restaurant where we have a seasonal menu, where we run promotions, where I give the cook the opportunity to participate in the menu and collaborate.
The number one priority, aside from everything else I’ve named, is customer experience and employee work culture. One thing I’m a big believer in — and we’ll see if I made the right choice in six months or a year — is that I want the work culture in restaurants to be a more positive place. The back of the house can easily become very toxic… underpaid, undervalued staff and harsh working conditions.
One thing my investor told me about his business management philosophy is that no one’s work should ruin their day. I really dove into that mindset. It’s about making sure that our customers feel a lot of joy and love when they walk in, and that they can see that joy and love flowing through every member of staff, from the cook to the dishwasher. Happy staff equals satisfied customers, and satisfied customers equal even happier customers.
I have the HR conversation with everyone I hire. Currently I am HR. I sit everyone down and tell them the whole philosophy that I don’t believe your work should ruin your day. But also that it is normal to make mistakes, because the successes of my career are built on the bricks of my failures. One of the most important things is that we are here to support each other, we are here to improve. It’s very common in restaurant culture, especially in the back of the house, that there’s a lot of machismo, there’s a lot of chatter. And it’s hard. I think the culture can benefit from a little more positive energy, a little more collaborative energy and supporting each other rather than looking to see what mistakes you make and then pointing fingers.