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In the Kitchen: On a roll

Sushi fuels growth at Innovative Dining Group

Outstanding seafood is the backbone of IDG's
    reputation. - Photo courtesy of Innovative Dining Group
By Joan M. Lang
October 01, 2008

Sushi is more than just a menu signature at the restaurants of Los Angeles-based Innovative Dining Group, which started out in 1997 with the hip, contemporary Sushi Roku and has since expanded to five different concepts in two states. It's also the premium item that pulls in margins, the product that loyal purveyors know the concepts by, and the entry point into such new menu concepts as robatayaki (Japanese-style grilled skewers) and the priced-for-everyman conveyor-belt sushi known as kaiten-zushi.

Sushi even kept the company's second concept, Katana Robata & Sushi Bar, afloat while the company endeavored to introduce Angelenos to the Japanese concept of making a meal of grilled skewered foods.

"Yes, sushi has been very important to us," says Tom Cardenas, VP of operations, who in 1998 joined the company his brother Michael co-founded. "It's made our reputation."

With its sleek décor, trendy cocktail and sake list and a menu that features traditional sushi and sashimi by the piece, as well as signature cooked items like Baked Cod in Sweet Miso, Sushi Roku created a Los Angeles dining sensation. It is also IDG's primary growth vehicle with four units currently in operation, having expanded to Las Vegas and bound for openings in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Hawaii.

But IDG is nothing if not anxious to find the next new thing, especially if it concerns an exploration of Japanese menu concepts.

"In Japan, restaurants are very specialized," says Cardenas, who was raised in Japan. "If you want sushi, you go to a specialized sushi bar; if you want noodles, you go to a restaurant that serves noodles."

IDG opened Katana Robata & Sushi Bar in 2002, to begin its introduction of grilled skewered foods that IDG christened robatayaki, after the charcoal-
fired grill.

"If we hadn't had the element called sushi we wouldn't have made it," says Cardenas. "People knew sushi and they loved it, so at first they came to Katana for sushi."

In the meantime, the robata menu needed some help. "People didn't get it," admits Cardenas, noting that the prototypical skewered item in Japan is yakitori, various chicken parts including the skin. "We needed to Americanize the selection."

What followed were cross-cultural specialties like yellowtail-wrapped enoki mushrooms, shrimp with kaffir garlic butter and American kobe beef with black pepper sauce, along with kitchen-cooked foods like noodle and rice dishes, mussels steamed with sake and shallots, and spicy tuna on grilled rice cakes. There is also sushi, signature dishes like tuna carpaccio with wasabi-soy-truffle oil and Parmesan cheese, and a great number of specialty cocktail sakes and sochu. The concept now enjoys 50 percent of its sales from the robata bar.

That was success enough for the company to open a more traditional Japanese grill called Robata Bar last year, located next to the Sushi Roku in Santa Monica, Calif., and serving a no-entrées menu that is 80 percent a la carte skewers (from salmon and jumbo shrimp wrapped with bacon to chicken meatballs with teriyaki and lamb chops in soy), and 20 percent raw bar items. With many skewers priced at under $10, Robata Bar is positioned as a more affordable and casual alternative to Katana.

The latest addition to the IDG stable is Luckyfish, a high-energy post-modern sushi bar where more than 80 different selections rotate past diners on a conveyor belt. With its sleek, techno-hip ambience and $26 average check, Luckyfish appeals to younger diners as well as those who don't want to spring some $45 for a meal at Sushi Roku. Prices can be kept relatively low because Luckyfish has "hopped on Sushi Roku's coattails" with corporate purchasing deals.

IDG has become known for its outstanding seafood, whether sushi and sashimi or cooked and otherwise traditionally plated items. The top-selling seafood item, by far, is tuna.

Fresh fish is supplied by two California-based vendors: Ocean Fresh and True World. The two companies deliver five times a week, and all butchering and portioning is done in house. IDG also contracts frozen items like shrimp and crab from distribution giant Sysco.

IDG's two corporate executive chefs set purchasing specs and maintain purveyor relationships - brother Vernon Cardenas for kitchen items and Hiroshi Shima for the sushi bar - but the individual location executive chefs visit the local fresh fish markets at least twice a week.

These relationships are so strong that purveyors were happy to follow IDG when it opened Sushi Roku in Las Vegas. The companies also set aside top-of-the-catch quality for their IDG customers as well as rare specialty items like Hokkaido scallops. "They know the quality we expect, and they also know that the more we grow, the more they grow," says Cardenas.

With tight specs and daily weekday deliveries, the group is able to turn its seafood quickly, but anything that is deemed past the prime to serve raw can be incorporated into cooked items.

"If something isn't served as sushi the day it comes in, it's an appetizer the next day," says Cardenas. "If necessary we might even run a special and let the servers out doing their spiel to get interest going, but we never have to throw anything away."

As the company expands Sushi Roku into Scottsdale, and in late 2009 to Hawaii - plus a second Katana in L.A. next year - its vendors are ready to accommodate the expansion. "All they need to know is that Sushi Roku-san is on the phone," laughs Cardenas.


Contributing Editor Joan Lang lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine



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