“It’s really important to us to create an environment that reduces stress and that gives our staff the feeling of being valued.” 

By Drew Miller, Daniel Kulik, Malicte Tesfaye, Jacob Wittkamp, Sevda Samandari, and Calvin NguyenUniversity of Washington Bothell School of Business

On a dark and dreary evening, Yasuaki Saito, a small business owner with a unique and captivating story, warmly welcomed us into a warmly lit room for a personal brand interview. He sat comfortably in a sleek black shirt surrounded by a stunning 3d metal sculpture of the symbolic 1,000 paper cranes from Japanese culture, adding to the creative atmosphere of the room.

Yasuaki’s bakery, Saint Bread, specializes in handcrafted artisan breads and pastries, and is at the heart of his story. What sets Saint Bread apart is its commitment to giving back to the community and supporting those that struggle with mental health. NAMI’s cause is particularly close to Yasuaki’s heart as mental health challenges have affected his mother and himself, and he feels a strong sense of obligation to give back to the community.

In our conversation with Yasuaki, we learned about the challenges he faced and how he used his passion for baking, and his commitment to helping others overcome them. He spoke candidly about the importance of mental health and how he uses his business as a platform to support those in need. Yasuaki’s story is not just one of entrepreneurship and baking, but also of resilience, determination, and a will to make a difference in the world. It serves as a source of inspiration for anyone looking to turn their passion into a successful venture, while also making a positive impact on the lives and outcomes of others.

Yasuaki’s inspiration for opening his own restaurant came from his father. He spent his childhood helping out at his father’s restaurant and grew to love the day-to-day operations. As a teenager, Yasuaki was already able to run his own restaurant, but after college, he decided to work in corporate America for 10 years. Feeling tired, exhausted, and mentally drained, he made the decision to return to the restaurant business about 20 years ago. Saint Bread, his restaurant, has been open for almost two years and has grown organically through social media and word of mouth. The restaurant has had a positive impact on the surrounding community.

Okay, how did you first hear about NAMI Seattle? How long have you been connected with NAMI?

My family has long been dealing with mental illness. We were part of a study from when I was younger from Duke, that was about the effects of hereditary nature and the effects of OCD. My mother had been diagnosed with OCD. As a younger person, it runs in our family, and we have always dealt with mental illness as a family. I know NAMI from the national side of things where they offer education and advocacy, and they have a depression and suicide prevention hotline. […]  I was familiar with them before even coming to Seattle years ago. And then, when they reached out about the Depressed Cake Shop. Obviously touching something near indeed, in my heart about the need for advocacy, and even just discussion around mental health, mental illness and the ways that we need to kind of remove the stigma around that. I think it’s primarily what we try to do at Saint. Bread specifically. We try to engage in causes that are meaningful to us.

[…]  I’ve dealt with mental health my entire life, whether that be with my family or myself personally, and knowing that any organization that helps advocate, educates. and provide services to people that have mental health, because it’s a very common thing, and we don’t normally talk about the United States for whatever reasons you know, we especially when it comes to people viewing it as a weakness, or things like depression like, “Why don’t you just snap out of it”. It’s a much deeper and more complex thing oftentimes centered around brain chemistry.

When it comes to business settings in your opinion, how’s mental health at Saint Bread? How do you promote mental wellness among your employees?

It’s really important to us to create an environment that reduces stress and that gives our staff the feeling of being valued. We do everything we can to pay people as well as we can. We do everything we can to offer paid sick leave, these things that are already baked in, but that we do above and beyond what’s required of us. We have 2 breaks every year, one prior to the summer months, and one at the end of the year, so that our staff can go get recharged before the busy months. We’re trying to create an atmosphere that reduces stress, and it allows for people also to understand that if they need help, or if they need a mental health day that they can take that, and then we’ll pay them for it, and we’ll make sure that none of that stuff is held over their heads or any of those things.

What is a common misconception that you think people make about mental health that you wish was better understood?

It isn’t something you can just easily fix or you don’t just get happier or you can’t say, “just go, or get up out of bed,” when somebody is clinically depressed. That’s not actually been an option and a lot of times it has something that is not easily fixable, right? And because my family deals with something on the anxiety spectrum […] My mom before she passed away, had been on any number of cocktails to kind of work through that from a medical standpoint. I think one of the things that I feel is a misconception of us, and in general, this is somehow mental health and mental illness is a weakness.

Are there any services your business incorporates to help customers who deal with mental illness that you can share?

We started an in-house move of taking a partner, and going to talk to people that are either in crisis or that we think might need help. So you ask one of your coworkers, you say I want to go talk to this person. Can you help me do that, and just keep an eye out for me? Then we go and we talk to the person we ask if there’s something we can do to help. We ask if they need anything to eat or drink, we make sure that if there is something we can do within our possibility. For instance, the other day somebody came and just needed some place to go, and get warm and not feel so despondent. There’s a place called University Heights  that provides shelter for people. So we recommended that they go up there, and they could get them some food and some drink, and potentially get out of the rain and whatnot, and so those are some of the things that we try to do. As long as you’re reaching out to somebody and saying, “hey, we’re here to help if we can” and finding a way to offer that help. That’s really the most important thing for us, and we have offered our staff crisis prevention or stress reduction training for those that want it.

What is the main message that we would like to share about NAMI Seattle with others?

I think that you know it’s important to support organizations that are near and dear to one’s mental health is something that’s so common. 1 in 5 people live with a mental health condition, and need some level of assistance with it. If we can eliminate the stigma and do that through the work that NAMI does through advocacy and education and support then we’re going to become a more fully realized society. We’re going to be better as individuals. We’re better together, and there’s something about that work that, I think, is crucial, especially around mental health and removing the stigma around it. And how important it can be to like. I was saying, just to reach out to somebody that you might know.

Sadly, some of us with mental health issues do feel so alone, so despondent that we don’t know how to get out of it, and it ends in a way that is sad for everybody. Would that be through a suicide or through self harm, or the inability to interact with society. If we can find ways to reduce the stigma, to reach out to one another, to give care, attention, and love. I think there’s a great opportunity for making serious changes, and NAMI is one of the organizations that does that right. There’s others that do it, but as a national organization and as someone who knows them through their offices and other spaces in Portland, Seattle, San Francisco NAMI is a really great organization to support.

Yasuaki recognizes the common issue of mental health in the restaurant industry and has made it a priority to create a supportive work environment for his employees. He values his Saint Bread staff and strives to reduce their stress levels. His efforts include paying his staff well, offering paid sick leave, and providing breaks throughout the year. Yasuaki has experienced burnout and depression from his previous jobs, and does not want his employees to go through the same struggles. He understands the importance of supporting his staff’s mental health and offers benefits that help them thrive. If you are in the mood for something sweet and meaningful, please visit Saint bread and enjoy some fresh baked favorites like the Semlor, Boba Flan, or delicious Melopan Ice Cream Sandos. See the full menu here

If Yasuaki’s story has inspired you to take action and support mental health, there are several ways you can get involved. Consider volunteering to help with mental health support in your community or joining a support group to connect with others who have similar experiences. You can also donate to NAMI Seattle to support mental health resources and make a difference in the lives of those who struggle with mental health challenges. Remember, no matter how small your actions may seem, they can make a big impact on someone’s life. So let’s come together and create a community where mental health is a priority and where everyone feels valued and supported. 


We would like to express our gratitude to Yasuaki for taking the time to share his story with us, as well as to Jennifer Sanchez for her help in editing this post. 

This collaboration was made possible by Professor Laura Umetsu’s business writing class at University of Washington Bothell and NAMI Seattle. Thank you again, Yasuaki, for your time and dedication to making a positive impact on the world. 

This interview was edited and condensed for content and clarity.