How Wasabi Sushi Bar brings a flavorful spin to a less-than-traditional fare

Sushi is different to many people. If you picture a tasty roll filled with crispy goodness, then you’re on the right path. But restaurants like Wasabi Sushi Bar, which recently opened its sixth and seventh stores in the midst of the pandemic, take the sushi concept one step further. Owner and CEO John Kim gets it—that not all customers enjoy his extensive vegetarian offerings or his specialty ocean-to-table in 48 hours yellowfin tuna. His following wants more, and he gladly provides.

Wasabi Sushi Bar is as well known in Missouri and Illinois for its delicious traditional Japanese entrees and custom-designed cocktails as it is for its delectable rolls. Each inviting location occupies 3,000 square feet with the exception of the two newest 4,300-square-foot restaurants. The contemporary environments are designed with both family dining and adult beverage sipping in mind in terms of comfort and style.

We spoke with Kim about his success during an irregular climate where others are shutting their doors while he remains open…and steadily thriving.

Give us a snapshot of the Wasabi brand?
We focus on quality throughout the entire customer experience. It involves the quality of our food, the quality of our attitude, and the quality of our service toward each and every guest. We pay attention to the smallest of details in order to exceed our customer’s expectations in delivering the freshest product with the most mindful service possible.

What was the inspiration behind that concept?
Prior to joining Wasabi nearly 11 years ago, I was in the aviation industry for more than 20 years. I switched gears and leveraged my previous industry experience to transform a “mom and pop” operation to a process and growth-driven restaurant chain in the St. Louis metropolitan area. I liked the idea of Japanese cuisine, which is still considered a small segment of the market, but can definitely coexist with other concepts around us.

Our menu offerings cover a wide spectrum of what people want based upon their lifestyles. Our concept features healthy options—where someone can sit down and consume 100% of the required daily protein in only 300 calories—plus comfort food, where our customer can forget about the calories and enjoy a deep-fried Philadelphia cheese roll. I like the diversity of our selections because it allows us to cater to a unique customer base.

What type of consumer are you targeting?
We concentrate on customers who feel quality is an important part of their lives. Our customers, who are focused on health and wellness, are open to different cuisines and flavors to expand their palates. We aren’t competing with an all-you-can-eat sushi buffet because that’s not who we are. We pride ourselves on the freshest quality food without taking price out of the equation.

In terms of age, it used to be that 20 year old and 30 year old customers frequented our restaurants the most. Now we are expanding our customer base as a family restaurant where we cater to both sides of the age spectrum—the little ones and the grandparents all come together so we are serving a wider population.

What adjustments have you made to your business model surrounding the recent state of events?
The restaurant industry has always made safety it’s No. 1 priority. It starts with cleanliness of the environment and being in compliance with local and federal guidelines. COVID has made us even more cautious in terms of keeping our staff safe and extending that mindset to our customers. Of course, we wear masks, check employee temperatures daily, and maintain safe distancing and seat capacity just like other restaurants. We are a citizen in good standing with each of the diverse communities we serve.

We concentrate on customers who feel quality is an important part of their lives. Our customers, who are focused on health and wellness, are open to different cuisines and flavors to expand their palates.

I still have hungry teenagers at home, so my litmus test in terms of food quality and safety is “can I bring my family—and my team members’ families—into our restaurants for the safest dining experience?” Our mentality has never changed: If a customer wants to come into our very open kitchen, can we show it to them? I believe we absolutely can, knowing without a moment’s hesitation that it is as thoroughly sanitized and hygienic as possible. The current climate hasn’t altered this situation at all.

Our St. Charles, Missouri restaurant is different from the others because it never had a ban on indoor dining, even now only requiring we keep it to a 50% occupancy level. Our newer Clayton, Missouri location features a 4,700 square foot space, plus a 1,700 square foot mezzanine with plenty of room for dining. Our Illinois locations have been closed for onsite dining since almost the beginning of the pandemic. There definitely is a pent-up demand for our food—we saw a glimpse of what it looked like when the restrictions were briefly lifted—and we look forward to the future and seeing our customers once again.

What kind of conversations are you having with your customers?
Besides discussing COVID and its effects, our customers want to know where our food comes from. They are not eating at our restaurants just because they’re hungry; they’re looking for something to enjoy. Curiosity comes with our cuisine since it is unique. We have traceability for every single item that we prepare and present on our customers’ plates.

Our customers are very precious to us, and we don’t take any of them for granted. Managing customers also extends to our internal customers, i.e., our internal team and supplier-partners.

We are proud of our tuna, salmon and all of our seafood, and we love to talk about the specifics like where this food is coming from. Yellowfin tuna, which is our tuna of choice, is very sustainable and found in almost all parts of the world’s oceans. Yellowfins reach full size at around 100 pounds and have a very fast life cycle compared to other species of tuna. Yellowfin tuna also has a very predictable and dependable flavor and texture. We only buy #1 grade tuna, the best of the best.

Tuna is not graded by any government agency like the USDA. The fisherman and the supplier determine the grade of the tuna based on color of the meat, presence of oil in the meat, and the texture—these factors are good indicators to how the tuna will perform for our chefs and our guests. The staff is trained to discuss our food with customers, who are the best ambassadors when it comes to sharing their experience with their friends and loved ones. This transparency is a critical piece of our approach.

Before COVID, you would see staff and customers interacting and greeting each other by their first names. Nothing gave us more pleasure when our valued customers didn’t have to place an order because our team knew exactly what they wanted to eat and drink just as soon as they sat down. We had attained an ideal customer/staff relationship, and we look forward to the day when it will happen again.

How does the restaurant’s design cater to what today’s consumers want?
Our two newer restaurants have a contemporary feel. They are simple, not trendy, and clearly uncomplicated. We pay close attention to color because we cater to a calming, warm atmosphere. We want our customers to come in and feel safe, so we make sure to capture the highest level of comfort and cleanliness as soon as they enter our restaurants.

When we open a restaurant, the first few days everything looks beautiful. Then we have the little ones take crayons and become Picassos. We pay close attention to the material we use throughout the space and where people touch. It’s a work in progress, but we strive to maintain the crispness of a recently created space.

Because of the virus, everything we now design is touchless. Our newer restaurants have hands-free door knobs and sinks. We have now eliminated our menus to minimize touch. Diners order food on their phones even when in our restaurants. We’re not sure how this will look in six months, but for now, we will adhere to the guidelines.

I come from an aerospace industry where manufacturing tolerance is extremely tight. The restaurant industry has to be much tighter and there’s no room for improvising. We must have the same approach across the board—whether it’s our kitchen, dining room or restroom. The pandemic has basically re-reminded us that keeping our staff and customers safe is critical now more than ever.

Everything is affected by COVID right now, in particular the logistics systems in our country. You can have plans and make schedules, but we are at the mercy of logistics.

Is there a location that shows how the brand interacts with the community and customers? One of your favorites?
Our Kirkwood, Missouri restaurant is located in a close community, which reminds me of a German town I lived in for two years. There’s so much going on, lots of walking and bike riding. When the pandemic hit, our customer support was tremendous. I’m sure it’s not just our restaurant that feels this, but the residents are really trying to protect their small community. Business in Kirkwood hasn’t slowed down at all this past year. We opened this restaurant three years ago and were immediately accepted as part of their community. It’s our home.

Walk us through how and why it is designed the way it is?
We call the sushi bar our showcase because that’s where everything is assembled and comes together. We prepare the bulk of our menu items here, and we want customers to see the ingredients before our chefs turn them into culinary art. Our chefs are basically artists who take raw material and create a beautiful presentation.

Our sushi bars offer full transparency. Customers see a chunk of tuna in our showcase that eventually ends up on their plate. We pay attention to the flow of our kitchen and sushi bar to ensure that, even during the busiest of times, we can move and seamlessly function based upon where the equipment is located all the way down to our actual layout. We apply lean concepts to minimize having our chefs walking back and forth from their workstation to the cooler and freezer. We try to make everything at hands reach to be more efficient.

Take us through your construction and design strategy.
Our typical restaurant size is 3,000 square feet and with an ideal shape closer to a square than a long rectangle. We start with our footprint—people love sunshine, even here in St. Louis with the four seasons. We pay attention to which way the sun rises and sets, also noting the importance of natural lighting. We look for a spot where we can accommodate a patio space that takes advantage of the sunshine.

Once we pick a location and sign on the dotted line, we hold design meetings that take all the lessons learned from previously opened restaurants to improve upon our newest location. Our meetings include our entire team—our head chefs, FOH managers, architect/interior designers, kitchen equipment designers and construction supplier-partner. It takes a total of five months to open with four of those months dedicated to actual design and construction.

Each of our locations has a contemporary feel with a very functional kitchen. Since 2011, we have worked with St. Louis’ Spiegelglass Construction Co., who has created all of our restaurant’s interiors. The design and build strategy gets better and easier each time.

Give us a rundown of the market’s layout.
The Midwest is unique in that it is very stable. You don’t see a housing price spike every year. Even the people’s approaches to different cuisines are measured and different. That’s why I’m a firm believer that a concept that succeeds in the Midwest can go anywhere. I see Wasabi as having potential growth opportunities across multiple states based upon this mentality.

The Midwest is cautious by nature. That means you could go trendy and do well for a short time, but I appreciate stability in the Midwest as an attribute in raising my family. The region can also be challenging because it takes time for different cuisines like ours to catch on. We may be behind the East and West Coasts in terms of more acceptability by a wider audience, but the Midwest’s “measured” demand is growing so that’s a tremendous opportunity for our brand.

What’s the biggest issue related to the construction side of the business?
Everything is affected by COVID right now, in particular the logistics systems in our country. You can have plans and make schedules, but we are at the mercy of logistics, i.e., getting the right part when you need it. The added inflation costs of construction and raw materials is a concern, but that’s not unique to the restaurant industry.

Talk about sustainability.
We strive to use disposable items for carry out. It costs more, but we want to do our part in remaining environmentally friendly.

In addition to our tuna of choice (yellowfin, which is very sustainable and found in almost all parts of the world’s oceans), we use Scottish salmon, which is a premium farmed Atlantic salmon that’s sustainably raised off the coast of Scotland. The frigid waters and strong currents produce salmon that are both strong and high in fat content, leading to a buttery texture. In addition to Scottish farmed salmon, we look to the future of farmed yellowfin as well as bluefin tuna for this long-term sustainability option, which will be good news for consumers and restaurant owners.

Are you optimistic about how the marketplace has responded today?
Absolutely. Based upon our experience—and I’m only talking about the segment we’re in—customer loyalty helps a restaurant stay in the game. We are so grateful to our customers for their never-ending support, which has enabled us to retain all of our employees without making any layoffs. Our staff are extended family, with most of them working at our company for many years. We could have reduced our staff and brought them back when things improved, but we chose not to in order to be prepared for the pent-up demand we all are hoping and expecting in the near future.

What’s your growth plan? What areas are you targeting?
We would eventually love to open in Kansas City, Missouri because it’s a great market and within driving distance of our seven restaurants. There is still plenty of room for growth in the St. Louis area but, if we had to pick the next state, it would be Kansas. We have been asked about franchising opportunities, and we are diligently preparing ourselves to meet that demand. With our repeatable infrastructure in place for scaling—lean approach, “build to print” method from training to execution, strategic supplier-partnership and brand recognition (WASABI is a registered mark with the US Patent and Trademark Office)—we’re carefully optimistic about converging toward that goal in the not too distant future.

What trends are you seeing?
The days of planning ahead when you wanted to dine out are behind us—eating food outside of the house is just a way of life. The pandemic has created more of a need for delivery and takeout. We work with the major delivery services, which in itself is a work in progress. Once the food leaves our restaurant, there is a greater risk for error based on the delivery performance. I think the next trend will be to provide more convenient, timely, and safer options for our customers. It’s a challenge, but also very interesting because we will be able to create opportunities. Paying attention to changing customer demand is more important than ever before.

What’s the secret to creating a “must visit” restaurant today?
It all goes back to the brand. It starts with sourcing the best food all the way to delivering that quality either to the customer’s plate or their front door. Pay attention to the whole process because there’s no room for compromising or improvising. The intangibles—being accepted as part of the community and creating customer relationships—is a critical part of our secret.

What’s today’s consumer looking for?
The best benefit at the least cost. Plus, consumers are very dynamic, so we can’t pigeonhole them because they frequently change their lifestyles. We are finding our customers to be focused on health and wellness. They are very enthusiastic about being open to different cuisines and flavors to expand their palates.

What’s the biggest item on your to-do list?
As a company, we need to be more efficient. We have different systems—we have food supplier logistics systems to purchase food, as well as Point of Sales systems to track what we sell. We need to integrate these systems to best comprehend our customer’s behavior and improve our labor and material planning. We’re working on developing integrated planning systems for better projection and execution which will ultimately allow us to better serve our customers and continue our company’s growth.

Describe a typical day.
We are a fairly lean company, so we all are very hands on in terms of overseeing even the smallest tasks. I learned that Murphy’s Law—where “anything that can go wrong will go wrong”—is very much alive in the restaurant industry. We have seven locations, and it takes a tremendous amount of energy to keep everything in working order.

My days are filled with addressing problems to keep the operations moving, interacting with customers and supplier-partners, planning for the future, and consulting with my team. I make sure to communicate with my head chefs, whose stomachs should always be full since they are sampling every menu item to ensure it is perfect when it is served to our customers. Oh, and I get my fair share of tasting in too.

Tell us what makes your brand so unique?
In order to deliver quality, it takes discipline. Our efficient approach is pretty straightforward—we were able to grow our company from one location in 2003 to seven locations in spite of a pandemic. We base success on the human factors of our business where we have built face-to-face relationships among our customers and supplier-partners, as well as within our internal work culture.

Our customers are very precious to us, and we don’t take any of them for granted. Managing customers also extends to our internal customers, i.e., our internal team and supplier-partners. Our motto is, “Anybody who is not you is your customer,” and that resonates loudly in our brand’s culture.

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Story by Michael J. Pallerino, editor of Commercial Construction & Renovation magazine. Over the past 30-plus years, he has won numerous awards, including the “Jesse H. Neal Editorial Achievement Award,” recognized as the Pulitzer Prize for business-to-business magazines. He can be reached at mikep@ccr-mag.com.

One-on-One with…
John Kim, CEO, Wasabi Sushi Bar

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
Watching our team members grow and evolve into something bigger. We have an employee who started as a dishwasher over 10 years ago and is now a head chef at one of our busiest locations. One of our Directors of Operations started as a busser; the other as a first-time customer who initially joined us as a host. These are good stories that make us who we are.

Best advice you ever received?
Take your ego out of the equation. There is nothing wrong with having passion and feeling pride for what you do, but truly listen to the advice and recommendations of others to make things better. I’m not a chef, and I have zero ego when it comes to improving our food. If I share a dialog with our trained chefs or customers, then I’m all ears and will hear what they have to say to improve the process and make our products better.

Best thing a client ever said to you?
When a customer says we have consistency throughout multiple locations not only in terms of our food’s quality, but also in the dining experience. There should be no surprises or inconsistencies from one location to another. We pride ourselves on personal recognition and calling our customers by their first name. It’s all a part of the bucket of quality we embrace.

Name the three strongest traits any leader should have.
Understand the team concept (a leader must guide the team to become better); have vision (set specific goals and objectives); and be passionate about strengthening the team to grow continuously.

How do you spend your down time?
I’m a big believer in having a strong mind and strong body, so I try staying disciplined. It takes an abundance of energy to keep up with my young team and my children. I am also in an abusive relationship with golf.

What are you going to do once we get back to some sense of normalcy?
I love family road trips. The first place we want to visit is Chicago, which is a beautiful city. We want to stay in a hotel, eat at restaurants and build memories—the simple things that we had taken for granted before the pandemic.

 

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