So You Want to Open a Sushi Bar
Diners have very strong opinions about what separates "good sushi" from "bad sushi," and most are willing to pay a premium for an expertly-crafted roll that can satisfy their cravings for the unique dish. Opening a sushi restaurant has its own unique challenges that other concepts don't, but that shouldn't deter prospective restaurateurs who are looking for a particularly rewarding venture. Having a business plan together will maximize your chances of starting a successful sushi restaurant.
Serving Safe Sushi
Serving sushi comes with additional safety concerns that serving other types of food does not. Though not all sushi contains raw fish, many popular rolls do, and that's what makes many squeamish folks swear off sushi altogether. Indeed, some of the horror stories you may have heard about people contracting illnesses including parasitic and bacterial infections from eating uncooked fish are true. Luckily, there are a number of precautionary measures that can be taken to virtually eliminate the risk of making your patrons sick by serving them uncooked fish.
Food distributors label fish that has been handled to minimize the presence of foodborne pathogens as "sushi-grade", which you may be surprised to discover has no legal definition.1 The FDA does offer guidelines for handling fish that will be served raw, including freezing the fish to -4 degrees F for 7 days or -31 degrees F for 15 hours to ensure that parasites have been destroyed.2
The most reliable way to source safe, fresh seafood is to get to know your supplier.3 If it's an option in your area, source your fish from a supplier that deals only in seafood, rather than from a catchall food distributor. In addition to ensuring that you're getting the freshest, safest food available, building a relationship with your supplier will help you understand what precautions are taken to keep their seafood safe, and you're also likely to be in the know on good deals and limited-supply catches.
Getting Your Licenses and Permits
Like any business venture, starting a sushi restaurant begins with a good deal of paperwork. Making your sushi restaurant a legal entity starts with a general business license. Those can be obtained at city hall, which is also a good starting place to learn how to open a sushi restaurant in your area and about the other local licenses you may be required to procure. Since you'll presumably employ other individuals in your sushi restaurant, you'll also need to fill out the paperwork to apply for an Employer Number through the IRS. If you plan to have five or more employees, you'll also need to carry Workers' Compensation insurance through your state's bureau.
In addition to those general business licenses, you'll be responsible for obtaining a number of food-specific permits and licenses as well. You'll need to register with the Department of Health and will likely be required to obtain a food handler's license before opening a sushi restaurant. If you plan on serving beer, you'll have to obtain a license from the local beer board, but to serve liquor you'll need the separate approval of your state's ABC board.
Picking a Location for Your Restaurant
Choosing an ideal location will have a dramatic impact on your restaurant's likelihood for success. The market for sushi is no longer limited to the urban settings that it was several years ago. Now you can find fresh sushi prepared in suburban grocery stores and on the menus of casual eateries that don't specialize in Asian cuisine. Sushi still thrives in urban centers, though, especially those with an active nightlife and a concentration of working professionals. Putting your business within walking distance of office workers on their lunch breaks can bring booming business during that daypart, and a thriving bar and club scene can bring patrons in for dinner and a midnight snack.
Hiring a Chef and Deciding on a Menu
It takes years to become a professional sushi chef. Traditionally, a chef-in-training will spend as many as five years just preparing rice and performing simple prep tasks before they're deemed ready to begin prepping fish. It's essential to hire a professional chef who knows the nuances of preparing sushi and who can train additional staff to do the work when he or she isn't there. Taking care to vet and hire a qualified chef is critical to ensuring you're serving a product that will keep customers coming back, and their professional knowledge will also be a valuable source of info on how to open a sushi bar.
The type of food that we generically call "sushi" encompasses several distinct dishes. Makizushi, literally "rolled sushi", is the type we traditionally think of in the western world, consisting of rolls of various ingredients wrapped in seaweed and rice and cut into bite-size pieces. A popular riff on the makizushi is the uramaki, meaning "inside-out" roll, so named because the rice is on the outside of the roll. Nigiri-zushi is a simple piece of raw fish on top of a ball of rice and vegetables. Sashimi is simply a fresh slice of high-quality, uncooked fish.
A diverse sushi menu that includes several entries in each of the major sushi categories will give your customers reason to keep coming back to your restaurant to try something new. Rarely can a restaurant find success serving sushi alone. In order to satisfy all prospective customers, you should consider serving other traditional Asian fare including noodles, stir-fry, and the traditional Japanese favorites hibachi and teriyaki.
Sushi Cases and Other Essential Equipment
The quintessential sushi bar equipment is the sushi case that puts your fresh creations front-and-center, with wide windows and bright lighting that entice customers to try something new. Choosing a sushi case begins with deciding on the right width. That's as easy as measuring the counter space you have to dedicate to the unit. Keep in mind that about a dozen or so inches of the total width will be taken up by the refrigeration system, with the remaining dedicated to cold storage for your sushi and sashimi.
Sushi cases need clearance on the end where their refrigeration equipment is located so they can intake enough air to effectively cool their contents. Cases usually require 6 inches of clearance on the compressor side, meaning they need to be installed with at least that much space between them and surrounding equipment or walls. Ensure that your intended setup will accommodate that requirement and choose a case with its compressor on the correct side.
Cutting boards are important tools to have, not just for the convenience of your chefs but also to maintain food safety procedures during all stages of prep. Consider investing in color-coded boards and other food safety products to ensure that you have dedicated utensils for each type of product you prep. This will cut down on the chances of cross-contamination, especially between raw and cooked meats.
Sushi chefs depend on highly-specialized cutlery to perform the precision tasks it takes to make world class sushi. These are generally traditional Japanese knives, including the deba and sashimi knives that are each made specifically for preparing fish, as well as the nakiri and usuba for prepping vegetables and other ingredients.
Since the experience of eating sushi is nearly as much about the presentation of the dish as the taste, it pays to put some thought into the serving items you use to present your fresh creations. Pieces available in this category include traditional ceramic, durable metal, and economical melamine and other plastics.
Sushi bars and Asian restaurants in general often choose melamine dinnerware for several reasons. First, melamine is offered in many patterns traditionally associated with Asian eateries, especially salad and soup bowls. Melamine is also a sensible choice where chopsticks are used since those utensils don't take as hard a toll on the surface of melamine as metal utensils do. Because melamine is generally less costly, more durable, and just as easy to clean than ceramic dinnerware, it can prove to be a cost-effective investment.
Essential Sushi Odds and Ends
- Tempura and other fried dishes can be cooked quickly and efficiently in a commercial deep fryer
- Cooking traditional Asian fare like stir fry is most efficiently done in a wok range, obviously using woks.
- Searing and grilling meats for entrees should be done on a commercial grill.
- Cooking steaks and finishing off a number of dishes is made easier with a broiler.
- Cooking rice in the large batches you need in a sushi restaurant calls for a commercial rice cooker, available in capacities from 10 to 100 cups.
Matsumoto, Marc. PBS.com. The Sushi Grade Myth. Acessed March 2016.
FDA.gov. FDA Guidance on Serving Raw Fish. Acessed March 2016.
NRN.com. Seafood Purchasing Best Practices. Accessed March 2016.