Jeff Osaka on the success and expansion of his restaurant empire
As Osaka takes a step back from the kitchen, he is focusing on a whole new side of his restaurants
The restaurant industry is a notoriously laborious and difficult business to break into. But with seven (soon to be eight) restaurants across the Denver-metro region, Chef Jeff Osaka and business partner and real estate developer Ken Wolf have seemingly found success in this fickle industry, even if Osaka doesn’t see it that way.
“I don’t think we’re successful yet, we have a lot of restaurants and they’re slowly becoming profitable. It takes some time,” Osaka says. “A lot of it is marketing. Right now, I’m just trying to get butts in seats and sustain a business. I have over 200 employees now, so that’s priority number one now.”
Osaka has been in the business of food for most of his life, working as a chef in a variety of ventures across the western United States. But it wasn’t until 2008 when he moved out to Denver that he began to build his own restaurant empire.
In his first year in Denver, Osaka opened the original Twelve in Denver’s ballpark district (which closed in 2014 and reopened as 12 @ Madison in 2016) and met his would-be business partner, Wolf, who was his landlord at the time.
The duo has since opened and managed a number of ventures across Denver — Osaka Ramen, which originally opened in Cherry Creek but is now located in RiNo; 12 @ Madison; Denver Central Market, Wolf owned the RiNo property when it opened but has since sold it, and Osaka helped procure some of the vendors and is minimally involved in Tammen’s fish market; Osaka also recently took over The Empire in Louisville in July; but of all the ventures, seemingly their most successful and the “obvious choice for development,” according to Osaka, has been Sushi-Rama.
On the expansion of Sushi-Rama
While Wolf and Osaka go back on forth on whose idea Sushi-Rama was, the conveyor belt-themed restaurant was made to be replicated. “We wanted to have them pop-up all over the place because there wasn’t anything like it in Colorado,” Osaka says.
The restaurant was designed to be a fast-casual sushi restaurant where you can eat immediately. “You can sit down and pull plates off the belt right away, the food comes to you,” Osaka says. “We thought [the concept] was perfect for the areas we were targeting — the lunch crowd, the business crowd, which can get in and out really quickly.”
Sushi-Rama has now had four locations “pop-up” in RiNo, Denver Tech Center, Lone Tree and Fitzsimmons. And now, the fifth location is scheduled to open in early 2020 in the new Arista Broomfield mixed-use development. According to Osaka, the locations were chosen for having accessible parking, being close (and walkable) to residential areas and near other fast-casual concepts.
Each location has the same standards for design, customer relations, job roles and recipes based on the restaurant’s solid foundation, well-defined concept and core values. This consistency has been vital to the success of the brand. “It is extremely important to us to ensure each restaurant has the same atmosphere and guest experience,” Osaka says.
On the business side of things
Now that Sushi-Rama and Osaka’s other ventures are hitting their stride, Osaka has taken a step back from the kitchen to focus on the business-side of the restaurants. “The kitchen is my comfort zone, but it’s just an evolution of my position,” he says. “Really building the business is where my focus is right now and I can’t do both.”
At first, taking a step back from the kitchen was difficult, but it’s getting easier as they hire and train the right people at each of the locations. “It's important to find (and invest) in people with a foundation of the skill set you're in need of and then build upon that,” Osaka says. “For instance, our Executive Chef, Shaun Motada, brought years sushi experience from his time in Hawaii and so we worked together to build his skills to incorporate management of 80 plus people across multiple locations.”
The partnership between Osaka and Wolf has also enabled the growth of this Denver restaurant empire. “He allows me creative freedom even though he's quite the creative mind himself. His passion for travel is always sparking new ideas. Combine that with his business background and vision of growth structure (which is integral in this venture) with my strengths on the execution of operations and culinary direction, and you've got a strong business relationship,” Osaka says.
Success can be defined in many ways, and from an outside perspective, Osaka has certainly found some by hiring the right people, having a complementary business partner, creating replicable, unique concepts and in creating menus and recipes that people want to enjoy again and again.