By Avery Ballmann | Staff Writer
Two years ago, in the midst of the pandemic, YAKI began with Baylor alumnus Jake Patterson grilling meat in a parking lot downtown hoping people would show up. Now, after making it past the pandemic, or what Patterson described as “hell,” YAKI will be celebrating its two-year anniversary with a ribbon-cutting at 4 p.m. on Friday at 1307 S Valley Mills Drive.
YAKI, which serves Texas-style teriyaki, was a phrase dreamed up by Patterson to combine his love for teriyaki and his Texas roots. Patterson grew up eating smoked meats and wanted to incorporate that into his food.
When Patterson lived in Portland, Ore., he said he would frequently get teriyaki chicken and rice meals for lunch. Patterson said he noticed after he ate, he felt better going back to work rather than if he ate a fast-food hamburger chain.
“No one had really popularized YAKI as a brand yet, and I thought that was a really cute, fast food kind of name, but I always wanted to bring it back to Waco,” Patterson said.
Though YAKI identifies itself as fast food, it’s not degrading its quality, but re-evaluating the stereotypes behind the fast food industry.
“I call it fast food because I think of chicken and rice as one of the most accessible meals in the world,” Patterson said. “It’s all over every single culture and country, and this is my Americanized version of what a chicken and rice concept would look like in Texas.”
The only external resemblance of a fast food restaurant that YAKI shares is that the building it operates out of is a 1996 Sonic that was deserted. YAKI still utilizes the drive-in concept and only uses cardboard to-go packaging for all of its meals.
Memphis junior Bella Snow frequently visits YAKI — up to four times a week. Snow said she discovered YAKI because of its outdoor seating and bright colored walls on Valley Mills Drive.
“I’ve never been to a restaurant that has food like YAKI,” Snow said. “It’s great. Their menu is very niche and unique.”
YAKI only serves seven menu items, which are completely gluten and dairy free — all consisting of rice boxes with different meat and vegetable combinations and coleslaw. Snow’s favorite item is the chicken or the smoked salmon box.
“It tastes the same every time,” Snow said. “I’ve never gone and said, ‘Why is it really bad today?’ And there’s always something everyone wants there.”
When Snow and her friends want to venture outside of the grease pit but don’t want to spend a lot of time at a sit-down restaurant, they opt for YAKI.
“I think it’s due to simplicity, and just how we’re trying to do very few things but do them really well,” Patterson said. “And I think people appreciate consistency; they appreciate convenience.”
This was the goal of Patterson’s business model: to sell a meal in a box that’s convenient and a healthier option for customers.
“I knew all along that this was student food,” Patterson said. “It was the kind of food that I wanted when I was a student.”
Patterson graduated from Baylor in 2012 and said the need for good food in Waco has not decreased. However he said he has seen an increase in abandoned buildings across Waco and the state, just like the Sonic they purchased.
Patterson said he wants to expand his business over time and move into these deserted fast food restaurants. When they started YAKI, they took grills from his backyard and moved them into the gutted Sonic. Patterson described YAKI as “scrappy” but in the sense that their business won’t give up despite the challenges.
After reaching the two-year landmark of his business, he said YAKI plans on growing its menu by adding specialty drinks and desserts. At the ribbon cutting, there will be cake.
“We’re on the other side of the pandemic; everything feels pretty good,” Patterson said. “We got through it. We made it. And there’s still a lot to prove.”