The year was 2006, and Kristofor Lofgren liked what he was hearing about sustainability and the farm-to-table movement. But why, he wondered, was the conversation always centered on terra firma? What about applying similar principles to the sea? Naysayers said it couldn’t be done, so Lofgren set out to prove them wrong, abandoning plans to become an environmental lawyer and instead founding Bamboo Sushi, the world’s first certified-sustainable sushi restaurant. This spring, the Portland, Oregon-based concept entered the Denver market with a location in Avanti Food & Beverage. Lofgren is also working on a much larger Bamboo Sushi, slated to open later this year in LoHi. Find out more about the hurdles that he’s jumped along the way — including having to start his own supply chain — in the conversation that follows.
Westword: When did the first Bamboo Sushi open, and how many locations are there now?
Kristofor Lofgren: Bamboo Sushi first opened in November 2008, right after the financial collapse. We now have six restaurants and will open numbers seven and eight before the end of 2016.
At heart, do you consider yourself a restaurateur or an entrepreneur? Why?
I am both an entrepreneur and a restaurateur. I don’t necessarily know if I consider myself more one or the other. Probably if I had to pick, it would be entrepreneur. The company is run with the spirit of innovation and constant improvement. That is much more of an entrepreneurial way of thinking than a traditional restaurant focus.
Bamboo Sushi is considered the first sushi restaurant to be certified by the Marine Stewardship Council. Unpack what this means for us.
Being sustainable is more than just how we source our fish. Obviously, how we source our fish — and all of our food — is the backbone of what we do, but sustainability must be a multifaceted approach. It’s how we treat our employees. It’s how we build the restaurants and construct them from the ground up with our development partners. It’s the fact that we want to be profitable and successful as a business and be here many generations from now. To us, we feel we have a responsibility to the environment, and to the people of this planet, to do the right thing to make the world a better place. More than just a marketing tool, it is, in fact, the ethos and culture of how we live each and every day as a company.
If all sushi restaurants were to get certified — admittedly, a very big “if” — would there be enough sustainable seafood to supply the global appetite for sushi?
Absolutely. There would be enough product to supply the entire global appetite for sushi restaurants if they were all sustainable. All being sustainable — or doing the right thing — does is tell the market to create more of that type of product rather than an unsustainable type of product. Human beings are the most innovative and creative species ever to exist on this planet. We will easily find a way to make things work in our favor. Currently, our food systems are broken. But they don’t have to be. When companies and customers choose to do the right thing, it changes the food systems and food dynamics of the entire globe. How we vote with our dollars is the most important decision we make each and every day.
Running a sustainable sushi restaurant is a noble mission. But, as with all noble missions, there must have been a point when you questioned whether it was actually feasible. Tell us about that moment.
Before the restaurant was ever created, I was told by a lot of people that it was not possible to create. There was just no way that there was enough supply available for what we needed, and no distributor would ever sell me all of the fish that I needed to be able to make it work on a nightly basis. Therefore, I decided to build my own supply chain and work directly with fishermen and aquaculture farms around the world. I then worked with distributors to bring in the product that I wanted and used my own network to create a company I wanted to build. It was much harder at the beginning to do what we are doing now. Even though we are scaling up and growing rapidly, the word “sustainability” — or any idea that “sustainable” food should be a normal, everyday thing — is readily available now, versus 2008.
What’s next for you? Significant expansion? Do you want to take on another concept or tackle another supply chain? Entrepreneurs often get antsy in the growth stage.
I am 100 percent focused on growing this into the best restaurant company in America. We have no qualms about wanting to set the standard that other restaurants should follow, from social responsibility to how they treat their internal employees and teams to how they operate in their communities to how they purchase and buy their food and goods. We absolutely want to expand, and we want to set the new standard for what a full-service restaurant chain should look like. We think the days of the old 10,000-square-foot Cheesecake Factory restaurants are numbered. We are much more small-scale, more neighborhood-focused, ingredient-focused, employee-focused, and we want to be able to bring what we do to the neighborhoods of America.
What’s not on the menu because it can’t be sourced responsibly?
There are many items that we have not had on our menu since day one. Bluefin tuna is the most obvious. We have never had Atlantic farm-raised salmon, Southeast Asian farm shrimp, or any number of other “red-listed” items.
What’s a sourcing success story? Was there an item on your menu that was particularly challenging to source, and how did you eventually procure it?
I would say the item that we are most excited to finally have on our menu — one we did not have for the first six years of the company — is octopus. It’s not that the species itself is endangered so much as the fact that the catch method for octopus is normally incredibly detrimental to an ecosystem. They are usually dredged, and that means destroying the coral reefs within which they live. Therefore, obtaining octopus was very difficult for us, as we had to have it caught by hand. We found a diver in the Mediterranean who catches all of our octopus for us, and are very excited to have hand-caught octopus at all of our restaurants now.
What was the spark for Bamboo Sushi — your love of sushi, an underlying commitment to sustainability, or something else?
Simply put, the idea for Bamboo Sushi came about because there was no sustainable sushi available. Sushi is my favorite food, and I couldn’t find sustainable sushi anywhere. It seemed that every other type of restaurant was focusing on farm-to-table food, and there was a real movement around sustainable and organic food — but not sustainable seafood — back in 2006, when I created the idea. Therefore, I decided to do it myself in 2008 after creating the supply chain and figuring out that it could be a possibility.
Quick bio: How old are you, where are you from, what did you study, etc.?
I am 33 years old, born in San Francisco. I was raised in Los Angeles and went to Berkeley for my undergraduate studies. I was planning on becoming an environmental lawyer. Instead, I decided to create Bamboo Sushi, and have been doing that ever since. I am very happy I am not a lawyer.
What do you eat when you’re tired of sushi?
I love all kinds of different foods. I generally like ethnic foods the most, but there’s nothing wrong with a great, simple, new American dish every now and then. But normally I prefer to go toward Indian food, Thai food or Mexican food when I’m not eating Japanese food.
What’s your idea of happiness?
The definition of happiness is very difficult, but I would simply say that it is being at peace with who you are and what you do. It is doing what you love and being able to do it with those you love.
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Name one famous person, living or historical, whom you’d like to sit next to at dinner.
The person I would like to have dinner with is Elon Musk. It’s funny, because I know his brother Kimbal, and I’m friends with him, but have yet to meet Elon.
I love good quotes, and there are so many. I would say that one of my favorite mottos is “To whom much is given, much is expected.” I feel very blessed to have grown up in this country and to have been given such great opportunities. Both sides of my family in my grandparents’ generation came over as immigrants. I feel that I’ve been given more than enough to give back, and that is why I feel such a strong desire to create a company that is a living embodiment of doing good.
Bamboo Sushi at Avanti F&B is located at 3200 Pecos Street. For more information, call 720-269-4778 or go to bamboosushi.com.