Chef/restaurateur Jeff Osaka launched Sushi-Rama at 2615 Larimer Street in late 2015, introducing conveyor-belt sushi to Denver. Osaka's goal at the time was to add multiple sushi bars throughout the metro area and eventually expand beyond Colorado. The semi-automated production and delivery of sushi was intended as both a way to keep the price down for customers and to streamline hiring and training internally. With two new Sushi-Rama outposts already open this year and two more on the way, the company is looking at new ways to become more efficient.
The latest Sushi-Rama opened at 10012 Commons Street in Lone Tree the first week of August, complete with a conveyor belt that snakes its way through the dining room, carrying domed plates of nigiri, sushi rolls and other Japanese dishes to customers who can grab what they want and pay according to color-coded plates that correspond with menu prices. And like the other two shops, this one has more automation behind the scenes, including a rice ball machine and a rice "printer" that adds a layer of cooked rice to nori paper that employees then fill, roll and slice.
Still, with an Aurora Sushi-Rama coming toward the end of the year near Aurora's Fitzsimons neighborhood and a counter (without a conveyor belt) inside the A concourse of Denver International Airport expected to open in September, Osaka needed to centralized his seafood operation for the sake of quality and consistency. This week, he got the green light from the city to begin operations at a new commercial facility in north Denver, where whole fish are brought in, broken down and delivered to the various Sushi-Rama outposts.
"We're looking to create our own supply chain," Osaka says. "It's something we can pass on to the customer."
Part of the process of procuring tuna, salmon and yellow tail (Sushi-Rama's three top-selling fish) usually involves going through a network of seafood companies, but Osaka hopes to cut out the middle man for at least some of his products. He's been working with a broker in Los Angeles with contacts at major fish markets all over the world to bring in fish from Japan, Mexico, the Mediterranean and other places where commercial fishermen operate.
The commercial kitchen has a sub-zero walk-in freezer for holding fish until they're ready to be processed, a cold workroom (kept at about 40 degrees) where the seafood is broken down, and dry-storage rooms that will allow Sushi-Rama to buy printed materials and dry foods in bulk for more cost savings.
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With this setup, the chef can also keep an eye out for seafood that may not be part of his standard menus but can be brought in for a discount and served as specials. As soon as the facility was up and running, Osaka brought in a 180-pound bluefin tuna for processing. While not all of that 180 pounds is useful for sushi, his team can break down the fish into more usable pieces than if he were purchasing pre-cut fillets. And since he's controlling his own supply chain, he can ensure that the fish is purchased from sustainable sources. Bluefin is a controversial product because it has been over-fished to the point that it's considered an endangered species. But the bluefin in Osaka's kitchen was farmed, a relatively new practice in the fisheries industry — and one fish will provide meat for hundreds of nigiri and sushi rolls, since nigiri average a half-ounce of meat and rolls contain 2 to 2.5 ounces.
In addition to the five Denver-area Sushi-Rama locations, Osaka plans to expand out of state soon to bring conveyor-belt sushi to other Midwestern cities. His commercial facility is located in a row of warehouses owned by his business partner, Ken Wolf, the developer who also launched Denver Central Market and developed the RiNo properties where Osaka Ramen and the first Sushi-Rama do business. This kind of growth is not a new idea in Denver; right next door to Osaka's kitchen, chef Justin Brunson is building Red Bear American Charcuterie, which will begin making cured meats for the wholesale market later this year.
The next Sushi-Rama to open will be the DIA outpost, which will be part of the second Denver Central Market inside the A concourse that will also include Vero Italian, Culture Meat & Cheese, SK Provisions and Curio cocktail bar.