Less than three miles from his bustling original Sushi-Rama restaurant, but seemingly a world away, Jeff Osaka is building plans to grow the concept up and down the Front Range and into other states — from a 3,020-square-foot warehouse that will be the nerve-center of his fresh-fish distribution throughout the region.
The longtime Denver chef — who helmed the now-shuttered Twelve but still operates Osaka Ramen and 12th & Madison — opened Sushi-Rama in December 2015 in the River North neighborhood as an ode to his roots in Southern California, where it was common to drop into restaurants with conveyor belts ferrying sushi past customers who could pick up whatever they wanted and pay when they were full. While Denver was no stranger to sushi restaurants, the conveyor-belt concept so popular in other states and countries hadn’t yet caught on here, and Osaka felt he could be a pioneer.
What began as an experiment ramped up business quickly, especially at a time when urban workers valued speed of service and quality of food above everything else. Microchips placed on the plates alert restaurant staffers once they have been spinning for 90 minutes (after this amount of time, the fish is no longer considered fresh), but Osaka found that service was busy enough that such lack of love for dishes rarely occurred, even during periods like mid-afternoon that he expected to be slow.
So, he developed a plan with Ken Wolf — the developer of Denver Central Market and his partner in Sushi-Rama — to go big, quickly. They opened a Denver Tech Center location in May and a third location in Lone Tree on July 30. Two more are planned for this fall at Denver International Airport and in Aurora, and Osaka has begun looking for space in Fort Collins and Colorado Springs and even out of state, planning for having at least 10 locations up and running within three years.
But the $500,000 warehouse space, which the partners refer to as “HQ,” is the biggest signal yet of their intention to invest significantly in the concept’s expansion. Its walk-in freezer, which cools to 20 degrees below zero, is situated off a hallway such that the fish will be exposed to heat for no more than 10 seconds after coming out of a cooled truck. Chemical sprayers within the cold area where the fish is being prepared go off every time someone enters the door to ensure that people don’t carry in bacteria on their shoes. That cold area includes three custom fish-cutting stations next to a trough designed to catch scraps produced in the process.
Osaka envisions this facility as both a time-saver, taking much of the prep work off the hands of cooks in the Sushi-Rama locations, and a financial boon, allowing him to cut down on the needed prep space and the number of personnel performing tasks at each store. About 10 workers will man the north Denver facility.
The cavernous space will allow Osaka and Wolf eventually to become wholesalers as well, selling the salmon, yellowtail, tuna and shellfish they import from Japan, Fiji and the Faroe Islands (plus Hawaii) to other area restaurants.
Before that, however, the partners will test their theory that Sushi-Rama has scalability. Osaka, for one, is convinced the concept does.
“It’s the only restaurant where you can sit down and start eating immediately,” he said. “It’s also something that’s pretty mainstream now. It’s something that everybody enjoys … I think it has a longer lifespan than the poke restaurants that are opening now.”
Diving fully into Sushi-Rama’s growth does not mean that Osaka is pulling back on his other ventures, including his Tammen’s Fish Market area at Denver Central Market. This, he expects, will take up about 50 percent of his time, allowing him enough breathing room to continue to innovate and experiment in other ways, such as the Spruce & Lark Bakery he plans to open in Denver’s Berkeley neighborhood later this fall.
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