You may not know it, but there's a culinary revolution unfolding right under our noses. Right now, a man in a black chef's coat and a green bandanna is standing in the courtyard of the World Trade Center at 16th and Court streets, handing packages to customers who've placed an order online.
This isn't some giveaway or delivery service, though. This is the launch of Sabi Sushi, the world's first restaurant without a restaurant.
"First there were traditional restaurants," owner Shaan Puri explains. "Then fast-casual, then food trucks, which are traditional restaurants on wheels. Sabi is the next step. We're attempting to deliver high-quality food and service without the actual walls or confines of a restaurant."
Puri and his former roommates at Duke University, Trevor Ragan and Dan Certner, have worked with Food Network chef Phillip Yi to create a tight menu of sushi rolls that they believe are better than any other sushi in Denver. They're crafting those rolls in a rented commercial kitchen a mile from downtown, taking orders from diners via an online restaurant front, and then making deliveries to a central location every ten minutes or so, where people can pick up their orders.
Why a central location instead of making individual stops? "Downtown, traditional delivery sucks," Puri explains. "It often takes 30 or 45 minutes, and you'll have stops ahead of you, which means your food just gets cold. This way, your food shows up fresh, and it takes you no longer than going downstairs to get takeout from another restaurant."
The partners conceived of Sabi when they took a "Getting Rich" class at Duke. "It was basically personal finance, but there was an overall message to take risks and do interesting things while we're young," says Puri. Around the same time, the friends became obsessed with sushi, and they began scheming to create a fast-casual concept that centered on the fare.
They entered the Duke Start-up Challenge and won, netting themselves some seed money. And with that, they abandoned their original post-graduate plan of establishing what they were then describing as the Chipotle of sushi. "Winning the challenge gave us the seed money," Puri explains. "It gave us the opportunity to do something special."
As they researched the ins and outs of fast-casual build-outs, the trio started interviewing sushi chefs in North Carolina, but they didn't find anyone who brought the combination of knowledge and creativity they were after. Then they saw Phillip Yi on Food Network, and they got in touch.
"What started as 'Just give us five minutes of your time' turned into 'Just let us send you our plans,'" explains Puri of that first phone call. After the friends explained that they were looking to do "the best sushi you've ever had, just in a different model," the chef jumped on board to design recipes with the partners, and the college grads headed out to Los Angeles to train in Yi's restaurant while they slept on his couch.
But then the 22-year-olds hit a snag: They couldn't put together the $750,000 or so that they'd need to get a physical space up and running. That's when the idea of the restaurant without a restaurant was born. Instead of bricks and mortar, they'd build an online storefront and deliver the restaurant experience without the restaurant itself.
Idea finally fully formed, Puri, Certner and Ragan gave themselves a month to launch, looking at Chicago and Denver before settling on the Mile High City because not only did they think the market was right for the restaurant-without-a-restaurant concept, but also because they thought they could offer the best sushi in town.
And they made their deadline: The online restaurant went live at 4 a.m. this morning, and the guys have been delivering sushi to their drop zone all day long.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Long term, Puri says, they'd like to scale Sabi Sushi to other cities -- and also use the online restaurant model for other concepts.
"Our motto is 'Do what you do,'" he explains. "We want to give chefs the opportunity to do what they do, and we'll provide the mechanics of getting the food to the people."
To order from Sabi Sushi, go to the website, which also lets you suggest future drop zones if 16th and Court doesn't happen to be convenient.