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Sushi Eatery Rolls With Punches

Success: Couple give up top-of-the-line, meticulously prepared menu items and turn to all-you-can-eat format, less expensive ingredients.


STUDIO CITY — One month after opening their sushi restaurant, Maeda, Ryoji and Tan Oroku knew they were in trouble.

The permit they had to sell liquor at their old restaurant in Northridge wasn't good for the new location, which opened in November 1999. And their valet service quit, saying there wasn't enough parking nearby.

Diners, unable to park or drink, stayed away in droves.

Every night Ryoji threw out a third of the fish he had selected before dawn at the Los Angeles Fish Market. The couple exhausted $40,000 in savings and an $80,000 home equity loan trying to keep the business afloat.

Forced to close the doors last March, the couple reopened in June with new financial backers. The investors urged them to drop the expensive, meticulously prepared sushi items Ryoji prided himself on and instead adopt a down-scale format: all-you-can-eat sushi.

Moving to satisfy their investors, the Orokus changed the menu. Ryoji even made a big banner for the window: "Sushi bar all you can eat. Lunch $16.95. Dinner $19.95."

"It was two months before I could bring myself to hang it up," he said. "It was so difficult to change. I wanted everything to be the best quality."

But "I had to do something," Ryoji said. "This was our whole life."

Determined to make the new format work, he established a menu consisting mostly of rolls--California, Mexican, spicy scallop, chef's special. He bought only the most popular fish, mostly yellowtail, ahi, Japanese mackerel and halibut.

"Before, we had so much waste. Now we waste nothing," he said.

Gone are the live lobster, live scallops, live crabs. Exotic delicacies such as sea urchin and salmon eggs are on short ration.

"One order per customer," he said.

And Ryoji buys a lesser grade of seaweed now.

"If the seaweed is on the outside you can savor the delicate flavor. In a roll, the rice is on the outside, the seaweed is on the inside so it doesn't matter as much."

It is the same principle with scallops. He still buys the freshest scallops but not the top grade.

"There are subtle differences in flavor," he says. But with the mayonnaise on the roll, the difference is less noticeable.

He still marinates octopus the traditional way in salt and vinegar. But he buys a smaller octopus.

"Not as tender as the best one, but good enough," he says.


The concept seems to be working. Gross sales have nearly doubled. Dinner sales have risen from $400 per night to upward of $800; weekend nights sometimes bring in $1,400. Lunch sales have risen from $100 to $300 per day. Maeda is turning a slim profit.

Loyal customer Stephanie Brownstein was sorry to see the restaurant close. She owns neighboring SMB Management, a personal management firm serving the music industry, and Maeda was a favorite place to take clients. Having tried other all-you-can-eat sushi bars, she was skeptical of the new format: "Terrible," she said.

But the new Maeda remains a frequent haunt, said Brownstein, who appreciates the all-you-can-eat format.

"It's embarrassing how much I can eat," she said. "I can eat most men under the table."


Usually she starts with albacore, yellowtail and tuna rolls, followed by a special roll with scallops, soft-shell crab roll and finishes with shrimp tempura.

S.J. Casey Bernay, consultant and adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at the George L. Graziadio school of business at Pepperdine, says that if Maeda is more successful these days, it's probably because the owners have found a niche.

"They found a market segment that was not adequately served by the competitors," Bernay said, "There's terrific competition for restaurant dollars in that area, but there really isn't much along the fast-food model," she said. "Sushi is a nice lunch as opposed to McDonald's."

Besides cutting out expensive labor, buffet style saves time for customers on a finite lunch hour who can "jam in from the lot, get in, eat and be back in an hour," Bernay said.

In addition, "The all-you-can-eat model may not bring in the producer," she said, "but it will attract the crew" as well as "locals who are aspiring entertainment people."

"I think they like the smiling service," said Tan, who manages Maeda when she's not caring for their 3-year-old son, Riley.

The couple met in the 1980s, when Tan applied for a job at a Japanese restaurant in Thousand Oaks where Ryoji was working. Ryoji had come to California from Okinawa in 1981, when he answered an ad posted by the Japanese Restaurant Assn. of Los Angeles. The association set him up as a chef in Camarillo.

They married in 1991, and together they planned and saved to create their own business named in honor of Ryoji's ancestors. Although the all-you-can-eat format appears to be working, sushi purists don't favor the practice.

Masaru Mitchiti Katsu, one of L.A.'s pioneer chefs, wouldn't comment on Maeda specifically, but said he would never adopt an all-you-can-eat model.


Ryoji said he did what he had to do to stay in business, and one day hopes to scratch the buffet and go back to a more epicurean menu.

"This is just temporary," he said of the sushi buffet, "just a promotion."

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