Restaurants of New York - Jado Sushi
Motonobu “Nobu” Otsu dreamed of opening up some kind of retail store, but he was an interior design professor at Fashion Institute of Technology from 1999 to 2011. He knew, though, that he could conquer his dream because he understood how to visually captivate his customers (Nobu worked Mattel’s visual merchandise for 14 years). Fortunately, in 2004, Nobu heard about Harlem redeveloping, changing and growing (gentrifying) as a neighborhood. He decided to walk up to Harlem from the Upper West Side that winter to check out the community, “that frontier of new development.”
“There was some construction going on, so I called one of the apartment buildings being built. The agent said, ‘Oh, you’re lucky. We just have our last two units left.’ It was happening already at the time. Back then, I was one of the early birds, but it was happening," he told me. Nobu and his partner made their move from West 85th Street up to Harlem into their newly developed apartment building. "We are lucky to have that apartment,” he said. Living in Harlem, Nobu observed that this neighborhood was the perfect candidate to help play a role to make his dream a reality. Harlem would ultimately behold a great opportunity for Nobu. He stated, “Design was in my background until I moved to Harlem.”
When Nobu first moved to Harlem, there were only three or four businesses on the Frederick Douglass Boulevard strip, giving the impression of a deserted community. “I thought what a great business potential. I got the itch if I don’t do anything now, I’m totally going to be a loser. It’s been my dream to open a retail store. I thought this was a great opportunity to start,” said Nobu. He envisioned a romanticism with retail, the selecting of merchandise he loved, the selling it and the making customers happy. “I didn’t focus on the wine business from the beginning. Actually, it could be anything. As a matter of fact, I even thought about dry cleaning because as long as it’s business, it doesn’t matter the category to me because my interest is retail business, but thank God I went into the wine business,” said Nobu.
“So imagine nine years ago. There was nothing on this strip and suddenly you have a beautiful wine store, almost like Madison Avenue-style, appear on the block and people freak out. Outside are the junkies still shooting up drugs, but within the store it’s beautiful and we treat the customers like king and queens. They loved it,” told Nobu.
He opened The Winery with two standards: the quality of the product and the quality of the employees, stating, “To me, those are the most important.” From the beginning, Nobu wanted to sell affordable yet high-quality wine for the majority of people who didn’t know much about wine, but who liked to drink it. “I liked to drink wine, but I didn’t know much about wine at the time of opening up the retail wine store, but the more I studied about it, the more I felt I had to learn. It’s a bottomless pit. I was so naïve, but sometimes naiveness helps you. You learn and there’s more to learn, it’s so deep,” said Nobu, “It’s the wine store for the rest of us. So I started with the concept that all wine should be under $20, and all of it should be of the highest possible quality you can buy,” stated Nobu.
After its opening date, The Winery grew stably and organically. Nobu had locals coming into The Winery to thank him for such a wondrous space that made them happy to have in their neighborhood. His wine store became a premier establishment and staple of Harlem, as well as a wine supplier for New York’s french restaurant Per Se, Japanese embassies and Columbia University. “I felt like I was ready for the next step and an obvious next step from a wine business would be a restaurant. I was always frustrated that sushi restaurants…there are many nice sushi restaurants in New York City, sometimes better than Japan, but unfortunately most of the sushi restaurants don’t have good wine knowledge and a good wine list. I’m always surprised at the poor wine choice they serve, so it became my mission to open a sushi restaurant with a nice wine selection,” told Nobu.
On July 25, 2012, after also realizing that no sushi hotspot existed in Harlem or within 55 blocks, Nobu opened Jado Sushi around the corner from The Winery, located at 2118 Frederick Douglass Boulevard. “There’s nothing to compare it to,” stated Nobu. Jado is the Japanese term for unconventional, which is exactly the concept Nobu wanted his restaurant to be founded on. He wanted there to be creativity that broke the Japanese rules of crafting sushi. He wanted a go-to sushi spot, but he did not want Jado Sushi to prepare your mainstream sushi dishes. Nobu develops the menus to be fusion-potential for his two Executive Chefs: Ken Shimizu, who prepares the sushi, and Braulio Amoro, who prepares the kitchen and adds that creative twist to traditional Japanese cooking, which Nobu was in search of in a chef.
Nobu’s interior design knowledge and skills were put to ultimate use at Jado Sushi. He knew that 80% of a customer’s decision determined itself based on visual aspects, the decision typically being made up front. “To me, as it is with wine, food is an art form. It’s a part of art. That’s what my life is all about, design and art. I think of the food as a painting. The food we serve is beautiful to look at, all my food has a beautiful design. People decide they like it or not as soon as they look at it. We love to eat something beautiful. Visual presentation is very important,” stated Nobu.
According to Nobu, the locals deserved a place like Jado Sushi, where they could feel comfortable to walk in dressed up for a date or dressed casually with family. “What I tried to get was to serve a hybrid. It’s a formal place that you take your boyfriend or girlfriend to, and in the meantime, the families can come in and have a good time. That is balance and the ‘how do I achieve that?’ was a major task for me when I designed this place,” said Nobu. His interior is “cheap and chic,” but nonetheless a refined, sleek international-style that visually appeals to the more formal customers. His friendly quality of service appeals to those who come in with their young family. “Anyone can come, and feel welcome,” said Nobu. He feels gratification when he witnesses non-sushi eaters try out sushi and try to further understand the taste of wine. Nobu stated, “Sushi for Harlem people is still exotic food. Many people don’t have a concept of sushi, so when we serve sushi and see customers’ palette, towards sushi, developing…it’s a pleasure.”
Nobu told me that 90% of his restauranteurs are purely regulars, an incredible racially and culturally diverse grouping. “But I hope, someday, people outside of Harlem will come to Harlem and see how well we do. It’s a pretty established neighborhood. Little by little, we get Upper West Side customers in this neighborhood. The more restaurants that open, the more power to magnet people from outside Harlem,” he stated. Nobu works at his restaurant almost every day, so he observes the positive changes in Harlem and truly feels that “this part of Harlem is changing to the direction of maybe being the next Hell’s Kitchen.”
He hopes, too, that the gay community in Harlem will gain power to open more outlets for enjoying nightlife. “I’m gay myself, so I wanted to contribute to the community. I wanted to offer a space for the gay and lesbian community, which we don’t have in Harlem,” told Nobu. He decided to give back to the Harlem community by hosting a weekly–every Sunday–Gay Night at Jado Sushi, DJ included. July 7, 2013, was the first and Nobu recalled, “The diversity of people was so great. I got the feeling this is going to be great.”
Nobu told me that "uniqueness" wasn’t the key to his businesses’ success, it was “to provide a space for the community that is a place where people can leave being proud…of having it in their community." He felt, too, that a small business, like a wine retail store or a restaurant, will be successful if the owner is–bottom line–passionate and has common sense (according to Nobu, it’s all about common sense). Nobu, since he came from a background of interior design, had the common sense to talk to experienced small business owners, gaining insight and understanding how small businesses run. “That’s most valuable to me. You have to do lots of research work. Almost everybody who talked to me said, ‘Start your business small.’ That’s the most common advice I was given,” said Nobu.
Last week, after eight months of waiting for confirmation from three different departments of the city, Jado Sushi’s 24-seat outdoor patio opened.“It’s so difficult to do business,” explained Nobu, as we discussed all the layers of regulations that New York restaurants have to follow. People ask Nobu how can he run a restaurant business, if he comes from a background where his father was a dentist? To which Nobu always answers quite frankly, “I jump in the water to learn swimming.” He continued, “To me it’s not challenging at all. I do what I like to do, it’s not work for me. I’m just pursuing my dream, so it’s never been painful for me to work hard. I’ve never felt I’m suffering. I think that’s the key to success of a business: you enjoy what you do. If you do, people will see it.”
Photos By: Melissa Kirschenheiter