Just a couple of decades ago, the mere concept of sushi would have been horrifying to many Americans. These days, you can pick up a spicy tuna roll along with your Cheerios at nearly any grocery store. One of the biggest proponents of the mainstreaming of this once-exotic cuisine has been Jeremy Umland, a seafood connoisseur and founder of Ozumo, a small California chain of Japanese restaurants that has been at the forefront of bringing uni, unagi and all things sushi to the masses.
"Sushi rolls have almost become a commodity. You can get them premade and refrigerated at Costco," he says. "My wife used to bring them home twice a week, and the seaweed would get soggy and the rice would harden. I thought there was a great niche there for preparing fast and fresh sushi rolls."
Last year he conceived a middle ground between his upscale restaurants and the mass-market sushi wilting at the supermarket. He came up with a quick-serve concept called u-sushi: Customers design their own rolls at the counter, then a kitchen full of automated machines helps cooks prepare them for takeout in just minutes.
In January Umland opened his first two u-sushi restaurants--in San Francisco and Beverly Hills, Calif. While u-sushi won't begin franchising until it has at least a year's worth of sales and research under its belt, Umland is confident the concept will appeal to a broad segment of Americans. "I think there's been a generational change," he explains. "It's cool to eat more healthfully, and kids are being exposed to more things. At the end of the day they realize they won't keel over dead after eating raw fish, and when they try 'sushi 101' items without fish, like California rolls or tempura shrimp rolls, they say, ‘Hey this isn't bad.'"
Umland told us about his gizmo-aided sushi between bites of an Alaska roll.
How will you wrangle the holdouts who still haven't embraced sushi?
Customization was the last piece of the puzzle. We noticed over the years at Ozumo that people would customize their orders, like leaving off the fish eggs. We realized that when you design it and have it your way, it takes away the fear and any veto. Sushi rolls are the least threatening style of sushi. You don't see a big slab of fish on rice, and you have the ability to put anything you want in there. It could play in more meat-and-potatoes areas.
Why do you use so many machines?
Mechanization has been around for a while, and the sushi machines are readily available. This is not robot sushi, and it doesn't replace the chef, but in a high-volume restaurant it speeds up the process. We have a rice washer, a rice cooker and a rice mixer to combine the ingredients to make just the right consistency. Then it goes through a rice sheeter, which makes it into a perfect square, and a cutter slices the roll into eight perfect little pieces. We couldn't do this concept without the machines. It saves significant labor costs, and we can't do the volume or charge the prices we do without them.
How have you tweaked the concept?
We had two different versions when we opened. One was a very small location, under 1,000 square feet, serving only sushi rolls. The other had a kitchen where we sold rice bowls, which we eventually dropped as we moved forward. Since it's a brand-new concept, it's really tough to hit it out of the park in one go. We've learned a lot in nine months and how actual pricing comes in. We saw that a sushi-roll-only focus was a much more profitable version of the restaurant.
Who are your customers?
It really depends on the location. In Beverly Hills we have kids coming in who love sushi; they were fed it at an early age. We cater to sushi junkies who want a quick fix because our food is so fresh. And we have customers who aren't as adventurous with sushi but who will say, "Yeah, I'll have a California roll for lunch."