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what the hell is going on with Sabi Sushi?

part. II – The Pivot

(if you missed part one, The Location Hunt catch-up here)

I couldn’t help but laugh. Not a “hahaha- you’re so witty!” laugh. It was a “hahaha- are you serious? I just spent the last year believing steadfastly in something, and you just made me go back and question everything….asshole!” – you know, one of those laughs.

The Pivot came during our last day at the Mass Challenge. For those of you who haven’t heard, it’s the largest start-up competition in the world, with over $1,000,000 in prize money, and a 3-month accelerator program in downtown Boston for its 125-Finalists (which Sabi is one of….nobigdeal.)

On our last day in Boston, we reached out to a mentor on the list named John P., founder of BlueLeaf, and to our surprise, one of the original franchisees of Boston Market (formerly Boston Chicken). He sat us down in his ultra modern, inside-of-an-ipod designed office.

We walked in, expecting to shake hands, trade business cards – hear him drop a few big names and thank him for his time. Instead, he flipped through our business plan (the one that’s won us over $25,000, and entrance into this prestigious Mass Challenge) and jotted down a few notes. Now most people would hesitate to be brutally honest, especially considering that we just met, but John immediately began to rip us into shreds….(this is what makes John awesome, he’ll support you, but will do so as a straight-shooter). (UPDATE: John’s response to this blog)

We had the following verbal joust:

John P. – I love your concept, obviously, that’s why I took this meeting…I do think there’s a huge need for great sushi, and more accessible through your style, price, speed…but I don’t think you’re going about this the right way. 

Shaan/Dan – (zoning out, ready to hear another person talk generically about how 90% of restaurants fail)

John P – Let me ask you this. How much does it take to open a location?

Shaan – About $400k to be safe

John P – And how long is the lease?

Shaan – 10 years..

John P – How long does it take to find a location…6 months? And then to build/design it – another 5-6 months?

Shaan – (nodding, grimly)

John P – So lets say you sign this lease tomorrow. You put in $400,000 to build it, it takes 6 months to open, you’re on the hook for 10 years…and the landlord’s asking for a $100,000 security deposit? And assuming that goes well, it’ll take another year or so to get the 2nd location, and you’ll have to go raise another half a million dollars to pay for it…

Shaan – (nodding, and quickly becoming nauseated)

John – so from the start, commitment is pretty heavy…How many customers do you have on board so far? Have you tested the concept…at all?

Shaan – Well its hard to test the restaurant…without the restaurant!

John – That’s what I thought to myself before you guys came in. I’ve owned restaurants before. And well: everything’s great about owning a restaurant…except the f*%&ing restaurant! So listen to this idea, and tell me what you think…

That’s when he outlined the idea. A radical one. An idea so strange that he left me (someone who talks so much that he’s on pace for an arthiritic jaw by the age of 28) – speechless, with no rebuttal.

The Idea: (well…the most basic, simple version of the idea)

– Who – take a highly dense urban area of young professionals

– What – deliver them awesome sushi. Deliver it in a way that makes them understand that you’re changing the game of delivery. Deliver food created by a tremendous sushi chef. Deliver on time. Deliver for free. Deliver in packaging that looks like it was designed by Apple (N.M.S. – No More Styrofoam).  Don’t just deliver food, deliver happiness.

– When – stop waiting on external factors. Rent a commercial kitchen. Get a business license. Set a launch date (1 month from the moment we heard the idea).

– Where – Downtown Denver

Why – Focus on our strengths – great food, hustle, creative marketing, and again, great food. Think about what Food Trucks (a restaurant, on wheels) has done so successfully. We will be the next step in the evolution of the industry (a restaurant, online).

– How – Rent a commercial kitchen 1mi from the heart of downtown Denver. Get initial customers through Sabi Sushi VIP tastings, and just meeting people, telling them our story, and letting them try our food. We also had to change the mechanics behind our delivery model (sorry, that’s our secret) to make sure that all the orders are fresh, accurate, and on time.

—-

…so that’s it? Delivery sushi…?  No….it’s The Restaurant Without a Restaurant. We’re taking the entire restaurant experience: ordering, service, food, and packaging – and doing it our way. What does that mean? It means its going to be bold, its going to be creative, and its going to be better than its been done before.

which leave us with one last bullet point:

The Long-Term Dream – With this model, we can quickly/cheaply test new markets, and grow the company organically. We want to be an example for who may not be the most marketing/design savvy, or be the best at managing a restaurant – focus on making great food. We can plug them into our business model, host them on our smooth website, deliver their food in our efficient system, and let them focus on making killer dishes. Do what you do – at its best.

Will it work? Will people be too sketched out by the thought of sushi being delivered to them? Honestly…I have no idea.

What I do know is that we’re off to a great start. We’ve got promising relationships with the Colorado Athletic Club and the Westin Hotel downtown. Everyone that’s tasted our food has loved it (although people generally enjoy all types of free food).

Seeing people’s reactions to the website (currently under dev. thanks to my man Frank L and ongoing support from our guy at Duke – Siyaun T.) and the food so far have me believing that this is really going to be huge. The point is, it doesn’t matter what I think is going to happen…I’m just happy its happening. In fact, its happening in 3 days. That’s right, we’re launching Sept 1st. We’ve already been doing private menu tastings (see vid below) to get feedback and our name out there. We’re starting small at first, just targeting one ‘hotspot’ for a few buildings downtown, but soon we’ll be doing it big. That’s where we’ll end the : “what the hell’s going on with Sabi Sushi” series with part III – The Launch . No promises on when I’ll get that blog up, this next week’s looking a little busy…

With an idea that’s so disruptive to an industry as this is – it’s either going to explode, or completely fizzle out, rarely do game-changing ideas fall into mediocrity. Which is good, because mediocrity is a place that you’ll never find Sabi Sushi.

Shaan

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Here’s what you need to know: Its big, and its going down – 11a.m on Tuesday – Feb. 22nd.

Now – I’ve had enough questions about this highly anticipated event so, its time to break it down, one step at a time:

– The Plan –

Imagine a giant college lecture hall. Seats about 500 kids. Students are sleeping, texting, facebooking, doodling…we know how it is – you’ll do anything to avoid paying attention. Now all of a sudden, a girl gets up from her seat, and starts to strut her stuff right down the lecture hall steps, like they were built to be her personal runway.

The professor has no idea what this chick is doing, but she appears to be in her own little world, like she’s on the runway on Hollywood Blvd. instead of the lecture hall steps of the Math100 classroom.

While everyone wonders what the hell is going on, another girl from across the room gets up and does the same thing. Then another. The beat drops and now we’ve got music blasting through the once silent classroom. Holy shi*t! All of a sudden you’ve got models coming from down all the steps and through each doorway, dressed by our stylist, with clothes from the local Boulder favorite, the Buffalo Exchange, and rockin’ the Sabi Freestyle Shades (not for sale just yet…)

Going to class just got way more interesting.

– The Reason –

As fresh graduates (we miss ya Duke) we remember how boring class is.  No matter how much you love the teacher/subject/learning – there’s something (allow me to get my Darwin on) evolutionarily (see Mom? My BIO major isn’t completely wasted) built inside us: We HATE being forced to be in a classroom..especially in the morning.

Let’s take the mundane, the routine, the boring – and make it exciting.  We can’t open the doors to our restaurant yet – but we can still make some noise out here in Colorado.

– The Players –

The Stylist – Her name is Kerry Doran.  She moved out to L.A when she was 17 years old to study fashion and design at the finest school in L.A, but was turned off by reality of Hollywood fashion culture. She came out to Boulder and found her niche…I can’t do her story justice (that’s coming in our Do What You Do episode we’ll release later) – but she’s the fashion eye in charge of our models’ style.

The Clothes – I asked Kerry what she would change if she had the power to change anything about Fashion, and she said “I hate how in fashion, everything is either “in” or “out”…something that is truly great, truly creative…should last – regardless of the circumstance”. So we took that idea, and decided to go against all the high-end fashion boutiques that normally get showcased in Fashion Shows.  Instead, we looked for a store that appreciated the cyclical nature of fashion, and is stocked with clothes that can simply be described as cool – enter the Buffalo Exchange. A local shop here in Boulder that’s been awesome enough to give us access to their line.

The Models – An army of skinny blonds.

Just kidding. Our models come in all shapes/colors/sizes, and from all parts of the university – the ski team, theater, dance, sororities, just to name a few. Now don’t get me wrong – this isn’t some silly diversity brochure we’re creating (I’ve been the token Brown Guy in enough of those to hate them..)

Each of our models has one trait that can’t be diverse. It is completely in common among all of them –  the confidence and swagger to pull off a stunt like this. We figured since that since those are the most attractive traits in a girl to the founders of Sabi (take note, sushi groupies) – it is the only criteria we have for the models..and that they have fun with this project.

With our stylist and models – we’re going to rock the house – using creativity and swagger to turn an everyday boring situation –> into something you will never forget. (starting to see how this relates to the restaurant yet? Our attitude towards business is the same as our attitude towards life.  Not only will we “do what we do” to make our restaurant great, but in anything we do….even a damn fashion show!)

This is going to be something you’re going to be telling your friends about. I’m talking facebook status material. Hell – we might even have someone get so excited they Tweet in their pants.

What the hell does this have to do with Sushi?

Well on the surface it doesn’t. Then you dig a little deeper…and it still doesn’t.

BUT while it doesn’t have to do with sushi – it has everything to do with SABI.  After all, our motto isn’t about fresh salmon or tasty tuna…it’s : do what you do.  A credo we live by, and our mission to help others with. So when we met our stylist, heard her story, we knew we had to find a way to let her do what she does.

For us? Well, we’re committed to keeping this event cool. That means no banners. No posters. No “brought to you by…Sabi Sushi!!!” in the end of the show.

This is part of a much grander Marketing strategy. I’m in charge of marketing at Sabi, and to me- Marketing is just about telling your story – if you’re interesting, then people will give you a try, then its up to your product to deliver.

Now, most companies tell their story through commercials and brochures…us? Aside from the fact that we couldn’t afford that, we prefer to just go meet people, find out what they’re passionate about, and find a way for them to do what you do. So we create projects with them, and they learn about our story in the process. It may work, it may not (your guess is better than mine, lets hear it in the comments bubble on the top right of this post!), but either way…its hell of a lot more fun than standing at an intersection spinning a sign around about the new sushi restaurant.

Who will support Sabi for sure? Well there’s only one group we can count on – Friends and Family.

Since I ain’t in the baby makin’ mood, I had to stick with the family I already got – and focus on making more friends.

We do that by working together to create something cool. Something bigger than our individual talents and abilities – now THAT is a connection. That’s marketing that’s bigger than you “liking” our Facebook Fan Page, or following us on Twitter.

That’s a relationship that’ll get you to come to our next event…and our next one…and the grand daddy of them all …Opening Day.

Once you’re there – you’ll try our sushi, and that first bite into one of our delicious rolls will do the rest of the work. Our chef that we found on the Food Network, and had the absolute pleasure of training with all summer : Phillip Yi, can guarantee you that.

So call it a marketing stunt. Call it random. Call it bullsh*t…..Just don’t call it Glee.

We call it the Flash Fashion Show. And its coming soon to the Math100 Classroom on CUs campus. Tuesday, Feb 22nd, 2011 – 11am. See you there.

-Shaan

This is the final installment of the 3-part series “How We Met Our Chef” , see Parts I and II to catch-up..

It was time to deliver.

We disagreed over how to seal the deal with Phillip. Another call or email seemed redundant. Luckily, we had a meeting that week with Richard Brodhead, the President of Duke University. Although it seemed that a meeting to talk sushi would be a waste of his precious time…he loved it! He laughed that it’s moments like this that make him happy to do his job, (“I’ll quit the day I lose touch with the randomness of college life”). Upon hearing our predicament, he said the solution was simple. Wine and Dine him. Buy him a plane ticket, a hotel, court-side seats to the Duke basketball game, give him the full repertoire.

We laughed politely, unsure if he was serious.

Then we followed his advice.

We scraped together $320 bucks between the three of us and bought Phillip a flight from LAX to Durham. Our friend working in the apartment complex agreed to risk her job and let us use the “Model Room” to host Phillip for free (thanks Ashley!), and we were all set.

Of course, things never really work out how you plan them. We wanted to pace ourselves, get a good nights rest, discuss business in the coming two days. Well all that went to hell around 2 a.m when Phillip called my cell phone:

Phillip: “Hey you guys still up? I’m still on west coast time, so I can’t sleep. Bring down some beer and lets hangout.”

We didn’t even have beer in our apartment (What kind of college guys are we? I blame Dan, come’on Fratstar!), so we scrambled to make things work.

This was one of the most important “meetings” we have ever had. Even when all the business terms work out, if you can’t genuinely enjoy each other’s company, you’re doomed to fail in the restaurant business.

We ended up joking around until around 5 a.m. before calling it a night.  We traded stories and made fun of each other, and by the end of the night, I felt like Phillip had been part of the group for years.

We spent the next two days introducing Phillip to the amazing people that had gotten us where we are today. Whether it was talking management with the Director of Duke Dining Jim Wulforst, bonding with our mentor Laura Hall over her delicious Vegan Chili recipe, or talking Indian culture with our design expert Vandana Dake, Phillip showed us his amazing ability to connect with people. I’ve never seen anyone able to establish a genuine rapport with strangers as Phillip did that day on campus.

We felt the momentum building as Phillip learned that this venture was bigger than the three of us. Bigger than any amount of money. It was a grassroots venture that was built out of collaboration from the brightest and nicest people we’ve encountered at Duke, taking the time to lend their talents to something new and real.

The last night we took Phillip to the best local sushi restaurant in North Carolina, so he could get a feel for what the sushi quality is like outside of California. Our plan to “wine and dine” him had been going great. Although it was breaking the bank, he was our guest and we were happy to treat him after he traveled so far to meet us.

However, that didn’t stop my heart (and account balance) from sinking when I heard him look over the sushi menu and say to the waitress:

Phillip: “We’ll take two of everything.”

I think he must have noticed me ‘carrying the one’ in my head trying to figure out what that order just cost us, because he interrupted:

Phillip: “Tonight…Mange a me”.

Now I don’t know French. Or Italian. Or what-ever language Phillip was speaking, but the message was clear, step aside children, Daddy’s got this one.

He quickly began ordering things that weren’t even on the menu, letting us know that if we were going to be in business with him, it as gut-check time (literally). We took shots of Monkfish Liver and Sea Urchin, washed it down with some Salmon eggs and their finest Sake.

Phillip could not be stopped. One crazy order after another.

As we would anxiously await the next plate, Phillip would fill our shot glasses with Sake and say “Kompai”, a Japanese word that translates to “Cheers”. It’s a bit different than the jolly aussie version of Cheers. Drinking shot after shot of straight and cold sake can be difficult. This is why you raise your glass in the air, stating firmly and resolutely, “Kompai”, a commitment to doing the shot. It’s a commitment to each other. No hesitation. No flinching.

The night was just beginning, we had arranged courtside seats at the Duke Basketball game for us, but the momentum was undeniable.

All of a sudden it hit us. Here we were sitting across from me was Phillip Yi. Food Network Favorite. Throwdown With Bobby Flay Winner. Owner of Sushi Central in LA. Director of the California Sushi Academy.

The Challenge. The Story.  Partnering with renown Chef Phillip Yi had overtaken us. We got caught up in the excitement, wining and dining, eating exotic sushi and fine sake with the master. Watching him dissect and re-roll sushi we ordered. Teaching us the flavors and techniques right there, live at the dinner table.

We had become too absorbed in the excitement. This can’t just be fun and games, at the end of the day, this is business…right?

Phillip put down the sake bottle and became suddenly serious.

Are you guys ready to do this?”

We were stunned that the person we had been hustling for, the one person we had tried to convince everyone else was possible to partner with. Was there. He was ready, and now we were questioning ourselves.  Was this the right move? How could we afford to compensate him for his time and talents? What would become of his restaurant in LA? How could he travel away from his family? What was plan B? Hell, what was plan A?

All along, people have questioned our experience. They usually refer to restaurant expereince, but its times like this where you need life experience. To trust your gut instinct and make the right move. A leader. It was at this time when I started to compare Phillip to Barack Obama.

Hope. Change. Sushi. Yes. We. Can.

It sounds silly, but what Barack  and Phillip have the ability to do is to communicate powerful messages in simple phrases.  Many people can firmly say hollow words to convey empty sentiments.  True leaders use their words as anchors to echo confidence and reassurance that the tough decisions that we must make, are the right ones.

That with clear eyes and a full heart, you can’t lose.

As we sat in silence, glancing at each other searching for the right answer. Phillip quietly poured us each a shot of sake. We each raised our glass in the air, leaving doubts below. His voice was firm as he looked each one of us in the eye, unwavering.

Kompai.

-Shaan

PS. To reward you for sticking with the story, here’s some bonus material:

A clip from our conversation with Phillip where he explains the “Only reason I decided to talk to you guys”: (*Click below to listen)

Phillip Yi – Telecon