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Sushi restaurateur swims past pandemic mayhem with thriving sales

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The coronavirus pandemic has been strangely good to New York City restaurateur Garry Kanfer.

At a time when most Big Apple eateries are struggling to survive, Manhattan sushi restaurant Kissaki has been thriving, according to Kanfer — thanks to some pointed business decisions like importing fish directly from Japan, making a takeout-friendly menu, and investing in sushi-making robots.

The bold moves have paid off in spades, allowing Kanfer to open a second outpost on East 54 Street in the midst of the mayhem. He plans to launch a third location in the Hamptons on Thursday.

It’s an unexpected turnaround for the Lower East Side Kissaki, which only opened its doors in January as an eatery focused on the luxurious but costly Japanese tradition of letting a chef choose the meal — known as omakase. When the pandemic forced Gotham restaurants to close their dine-in operations in mid-March, Kissaki wasn’t exactly the go-to option for takeout.

That started to change on May 1, however, when Kissaki launched a takeout-friendly menu. In addition to omakase courses that can run as high as $147, the restaurant pivoted with items like donburi bowls of rice and fish for $20.

By mid-May, Kissaki was raking in around $55,000 a week — close to what it was earning pre-pandemic, Kanfer says.

The serial entrepreneur and former financial analyst also started sourcing his own fish directly from Japan, which has resulted in significant cost savings.

“We have been importing direct from Japan with no distributors. The fish leaves Tokyo, clears JFK the same night and is in the restaurants the next day — much fresher than having it sit in a distributor’s warehouse,” he says.

The blackthroat seaperch, or rosy seabass, that used to cost $65 to $85 a pound, for example, is now $25 a pound, and Kinmedai, aka splendid alfonsino, goes for $24 a pound instead of $32, while bluefin tuna is $12 a pound, down from $20. In addition, Kanfer claims he has access to some fish that distributors stopped getting during COVID-19, like Hotate scallops.

“They’re not even available through distributors because of COVID. We used to pay $50 for a pack of 12 pieces and now we pay around $40,” he says, adding he also saves on Hokkaido uni trays.

Kissaki chef Mark Garcia prepares sushi meals for delivery.
Kissaki chef Mark Garcia prepares sushi meals for delivery.AP

What’s more, the new sushi robotics have slashed labor costs — while keeping production humming during a time when employees were wary of coming to work because of health and safety concerns.

The robots, which look more like a heavy kitchen appliance than something out of “Star Wars,” are used to roll nigiri rice balls “delicately, without crushing the rice grains,” Kanfer says. He’s also invested in maki-making machines that produce sheets of rice of various thickness at a pace of up to 1,300 sheets per hour.

The equipment sales came with a coronavirus discount of 15 percent to 20 percent, or around $12,500 each.

Kissaki’s second location is based inside Greek restaurant Nerai, which has resorted to a profit-sharing model during COVID-19 to make use of its three-story space. All the restaurants contribute to rent.

The next move, Kanfer said, is the Hamptons. “A lot of our customers are in the Hamptons for the summer. First, because of COVID, and now because of the protests. We feel there are more people in the Hamptons than ever — and that’s where we needed to be.”

He opened a place in Water Mill, formerly home to Mirko’s. Takeout opens this week and outdoor dining is slated for the end of the month.

“Thank God our takeout model worked,” Kanfer said. “It is definitely a great, positive story.”

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