A row of wooden decks lines the street outside Sushi Den at 1487 South Pearl Street, each just big enough for a patio table and six chairs. A few more decks mirror the scene across the street at Ototo. Neither restaurant has served a sit-down guest since all Colorado restaurants were forced to close their dining rooms on March 17 to help combat the spread of coronavirus.
In fact, Toshi and Yasu Kizaki, who own Sushi Den, Ototo and Izakaya Den, all at the corner of South Pearl Street and East Florida Avenue, haven't served any food at all out of Ototo in the past five and a half months. But that will soon change. Ototo will reopen this month, once a few additional changes are made inside the restaurant. It's being transformed into a deli serving grab-and-go Japanese fare (sushi, bento boxes, onigiri and rice bowls, for example) to satisfy neighbors looking for something quick; three deli cases are being installed at the front of the compact restaurant so that customers can pick up what they're craving, pay at the bar and leave through the garage door on the side. Ototo will also serve a happy hour and hot food (including ramen and udon) on its new decks, which will be outfitted with tables, chairs and umbrellas, for as long as the weather cooperates.
The decks outside of Sushi Den are also getting decked out. Shortly after the closures in March, the Kizakis converted Sushi Den, now more than 35 years old, into a streamlined takeout sushi factory, turning out as many as 350 orders a night in the first two months of the pandemic. Inside the restaurant, dining tables and chairs were put in storage, replaced with staging tables and alphabetized racks to keep track of bagged orders waiting to be picked up by the restaurant's many loyal customers. Gleaming knives still flash behind the sushi counters, but they're slicing fish destined to be boxed and bagged instead of served across the counter as perfect jewels of seafood. But Sushi Den is now ready to begin seating customers outside as soon as the brothers receive final approval from the city, which could be this week
They recently reopened Izakaya Den for dine-in customers, so it's the only one of the three restaurants with dinner tables — spread far apart on the restaurant's airy second floor and in the front room facing Pearl Street.
"We've had to downsize here, and now we're in the process of rebuilding a team," Yasu explains, noting that at one point the three restaurants employed more than 200 people; now they number just under 100.
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But the Kizakis are hiring for more than just the Den Corner, as it's known; they're also aiming for a late-September opening of Temaki Den at the Source. Temaki Den was originally planned as a 22-seat sushi bar specializing in hand rolls (or temaki) in the space previously occupied by Mondo Market, but since bar seating is currently not allowed under COVID-19 restrictions, the eatery is taking over the Source's central space, where cocktail bar Isabel had previously operated. Toshi Kizaki's original vision will otherwise remain intact, though his executive chef, Kenta Kamo, says, "We're still imagining that takeout will be a large part of our business."
And because temaki rely on the balance between warm rice and crisp nori wrappers, Kamo has sourced a product that allows customers to slide a plastic film out of the roll just before eating their takeout so that the nori doesn't become damp and chewy in transit.
These big changes and innovations have allowed the restaurant group to keep serving customers while planning for the future, which Yasu says is still very uncertain. "Even next week we don't know what's going to happen," he says.
"We came to the conclusion that we cannot wait; we have to move forward," he adds. "We still have an obligation to our people."