Right at 5 p.m, just as Bishoku opened for Friday dinner service, Sandy Springs couple Louise and Tom Wells grabbed their spot at the bar.
The Wells have been coming to the Sandy Springs Japanese restaurant since owner Jackie Fukuya Merkel opened the doors in 2009. And before that, they ate at her family’s former restaurant Sushi Huku, which they sold in 2008.
“The food is fabulous,” Tom said of Bishoku, located in Parkside Shops off Roswell Road. “They take so much personal pride in taking care of customers. You become friends.”
Buckhead resident Judy Bentley was also at the bar. The owner of design firm Interior View Inc. is a Friday night regular.
“I’ve known Jackie since she was a kid,” Bentley said. “She is wise, loyal and very hospitable.”
It’s not Merkel’s only glowing review. Bishoku was just named “Restaurant of the Year” by the Sandy Springs Perimeter Chamber, one of its annual awards to honor local businesses.
Merkel is originally from Osaka, Japan, and came to the U.S. at age nine. She grew up working in her family’s restaurant. She recalls her first job was peeling onions. While she didn’t much like the restaurant biz as a kid, after stints in the corporate world and retail industry, she realized it was her calling.
“It just came naturally,” Merkel said.
Over the years, she’s built a loyal following at the restaurant, so much so even the COVID-19 pandemic seemed like just a “blip,” she said.
“It’s really humbling to meet [my customers] and for them to really, truly have an impact on me and my success,” she said. “It’s really rewarding, especially during COVID. Everybody came out and was always concerned, charitable and generous to my staff. And they made sure I survived.”
Today, about 90% of the customers at Bishoku are locals, Merkel said. “They live in Sandy Springs. It’s a close-knit community. I know their names. I know their family history.”
Merkel also has other businesses. For the past six years, she has run hair salon Parkside Parlor in the same shopping center as her restaurant. During the pandemic, she also opened Westside Market Maison at the Westside Market near Topgolf on Ellsworth Industrial Boulevard.
She’s also active in the community. She’s been involved in the Restaurant Council of the Sandy Springs Perimeter Chamber, which works to promote and market the city’s eateries.
“Sandy Springs has become a destination for a lot of restaurants,” Merkel said. “We need to build the restaurants we have now and see what we can do to elevate the dining scene.”
Merkel also teaches an annual culinary program at Riverwood International Charter High School. And she loves to rescue animals, from fostering cats and dogs to saving injured squirrels.
Looking ahead, Merkel said she’s passionate about reshaping the dining experience.
“I feel like the whole perspective of hospitality has lost its love and purpose over convenience, quick service,” she said. “It’s become transactional, versus experience. And I’d like to see that come back. I do take pride in details like … always having fresh flowers in the front. Not many people notice, but I notice.”