AURORA | The train hasn’t yet left the station, but already the expectation is that throngs will get on board Jeff Osaka’s new culinary connection to Colfax.
Osaka surveyed the sushi conveyor belt snaking through his newest restaurant last week. The sleek, silver train wasn’t yet moving colorful plates of sushi and nigiri to patrons, and through the windows, sparse foot traffic on East Colfax Avenue passed in front of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center on North Wheeling Street.
Local City of Aurora officials say Osaka’s decision to open his next Sushi-Rama location — a trendy local chain centered on conveyor-belt-delivered sushi — could be a driver of local economic growth when it opens later this month.
Osaka’s pivot from Denver’s city center to the suburbs and now East Colfax brings a higher-end restaurant to an area dotted by fast food and national chains like Chipotle and Panera Bread.
Sushi-Rama is perhaps best known as a staple restaurant centrally located in Denver’s hip River North neighborhood, but Osaka has opened satellites tucked into other suburban corners of the Denver metro.
The Aurora location occupies a ground-floor unit on the western side of the Forum Fitzsimons, a glitzy residential apartment complex lauded by City officials when a deal was struck with developer Catalina Development Company in 2015. The City awarded about $10 million in economic subsidies to jump-start the development.
On the ground floor, the Sushi-Rama restaurant is about 2,000 square feet and saturated with warm natural light.
The silver sushi conveyor belt winds its way through the narrow space. It’s the main driver of the restaurant operation: Patrons pick their desired plates — color coded by price — as they cruise slowly by.
The belt is several hundred feet long and will have a 10-minute cycle from the moment a sushi chef places down a plate of California Rolls or octopus nigiri.
For those who sneer at raw fish and spicy wasabi, the menu will also feature ramen and fried chicken.
Osaka spoke as a staffer wheeled a mop and broom across the kitchen. Buckets dotted the otherwise polished space, evidence of last-minute adjustments being made to get the restaurant open this month.
The East Colfax expansion will be Osaka’s fourth Sushi-Rama location, two of which are located in south Denver suburbs at the Denver Tech City and Lone Tree. He’s also opened a “grab-and-go” location at Denver International Airport with more limited service. Namely, there’s no conveyor belt.
“I think it looks better each time — more polished,” he said of the space, while his 10-year-old daughter Alex pulled at his sleeve.
Osaka said he’s generally interested in following economic development — not being a trend setter in growing areas such as north Aurora and East Colfax.
“We try not to be the leader,” he said, citing Panera Bread and Panda Express as examples of brands that can lead restaurant development in low-income areas. “If they’re doing OK, we think we can, too.”
Osaka expects customers to come from both the enormous Fitzsimons medical campus across the street and from the north Aurora neighborhoods to the south. Over 20,000 employees work on the medical campus, according to the Aurora Economic Development Council.
Sushi-Rama is perhaps the first restaurant to open in the area offering a higher-end dining option in the immediate vicinity, but City of Aurora Retail Specialist Tim Gonerka sees the development as part of region-wide growth connecting Fitzsimons in the east to the Stanley Marketplace and Stapleton in the west.
Developments including the Forum Fitzsimons stand in stark contrast to the surrounding Fitzsimons neighborhood. This area and those bounding East Colfax Avenue are still some of the most low-income in the city, and that isn’t changing. According to city data, the Fitzsimons neighborhood became more poor between 2010 and 2016. Residents make an average of between $49,000 and $0 a year.
But Gonerka said Sushi-Rama will also provide a dining option for local residents — not just higher-income employees at the medical campus across the street. The cheapest category of plates, pink, are only $1.50 each.
Five more restaurants are slated to open in north Aurora, Gonerka said, bringing people and their money from the surrounding neighborhoods and different parts of the Denver metro to Aurora.