That was just a month ago — and things have changed drastically for Lee, as well as for restaurant owners all over the city. As of March 18, he switched from a primarily dine-in model to exclusively takeout so that the three locations would comply with the city and state orders to close all restaurants to dine-in customers. "In Lakewood, we were only open for four weeks before we had to close," Lee notes. "It was really heartbreaking, especially for my wife, who put so much work into opening it. She drew all the murals on the walls inside."
Lee says that before the coronavirus shutdown, Sushi Katsu only did about 1 or 2 percent of its business to-go, but now it must be 100 percent. "We also did unlimited beer for $10 at the Lakewood location," the owner adds. "Sales were very low for three or four days, so we had to quickly change our business model."
So instead of all-you-can-eat, Sushi Katsu started an "all-you-can-fit" special, in which the sushi chefs would pack two takeout containers with as much food — rolls, appetizers and nigiri — for $10.99. That got the attention of quite a few customers, but it was also draining food supplies, so Lee switched it up to two containers filled with enough food for two people for $12.99, with a choice of either four appetizers and four rolls or two rolls and seven nigiri orders.
While Lee has had to lay off part of his staff, he's been able to retain about 30 percent of Sushi Katsu's employees, especially his sushi chefs. "We have a lot of sushi chefs who support their fathers and mothers, so we couldn't let them be out of work," the restaurant owner explains. "Even if they can get unemployment, those checks take several weeks to get."
Operating restaurants runs in the family; Lee says he and his wife were living in Florida when his father, an experienced restaurateur, called them with the opportunity to buy the two Sushi Katsu eateries. "We've learned a lot over the past four years, but nothing could have prepared us for this," he states. "We turned into a very small operation very quickly."
Changes in the restaurant supply chain have also made things challenging. "There's a limit to what suppliers will deliver, so I've been going to all of our suppliers one at a time to deliver everything [to our three locations], and so far I've been able to find just about everything we need."
Of course, the restaurants are going through far less seafood than before the crisis, so Lee's purchasing power has changed and the variety of fish offered is less than usual. "But we're still getting whole fresh tuna and filleting it ourselves," he adds.
Lee also wants customers to know that all of his employees are wearing masks and gloves and taking the utmost precautions to maintain a safe, sanitary workplace. And even before the mandated restaurant shutdown, Lee's wife was making hand sanitizer at home for customers and staff, following an approved recipe and packaging it in Sushi Katsu-branded pump bottles.
Along with the two-packs of sushi and appetizers, all three Sushi Katsu locations are offering 20 percent off beer and sake with food orders, and gift cards are also 15 percent off.
For that, Sushi Katsu customers are grateful — and Lee says he's grateful for them. "This is one time I've realized that people can be so kind," he notes. "People really love Sushi Katsu, so we're going to do our darnedest to try to stay open."
The three Sushi Katsu locations are open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, offering curbside pick-up if you call ahead and delivery through DoorDash. Visit the restaurant's website at denver-sushi.com for phone numbers and other details.