July 23, 2016

Mostly clear

Bringing sushi to the people

MEDINA — When Ken Oppenheimer and Jon Roller launched their make-it-and-take-it sushi business four years ago, they never dreamed their path would lead to opening a restaurant.

Thanks to continuing strong sales, Sushi on the Roll, originally located in Bath, needed more elbow room. To accommodate the expansion and the addition of retail to its wholesale/manufacturing division, the company relocated to 985 Boardman Alley, just a stone’s throw from Target on one side, Dairy Queen on the other.

Kiera Wood of Seville, left, and Tom Winter of Medina, center, learn the art of making sushi from Cory Lynch, manager and chef for Sushi on the Roll, which celebrated its relocation from Bath to Medina with a ribbon-cutting ceremony Friday. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY JUDY A. TOTTS)

Oppenheimer said they employ 17 people, but the move will enable them to hire more.

As renovations continued in the kitchen before opening day Monday, the clatter of tools and the occasional exclamation point of an electric saw punctuated his story of the company’s history.

When the mortgage market meltdown overtook the lending company they worked for in 2007, Roller and Oppenheimer began to brainstorm.

Two things inspired the business plan that produced Sushi on the Roll.

Oppenheimer described the woman who sold bagels in their office building.

“People flocked to her as if she brought manna from heaven, and she charged $3 or $4 for a bagel and cream cheese,” Oppenheimer said, adding the eye-opener was that “people were willing to pay that much.”

The second revelation occurred when they discovered no restaurants or caterers in the area could deliver an order for 300 sushi rolls for a sales meeting on short notice.

“It didn’t happen. They (the business they called) didn’t have the capacity, the timing or delivery. We never got our sushi for lunch, and they missed out on a $1,000 order.”

So if someone could sell bagels in offices and other venues, why not sushi?

“Jon said, ‘We can bring sushi to the masses,’ we can make them and take them to offices,” Oppenheimer said. “Sushi on the Roll.”

Neither man had a culinary background, but they forged ahead, rented a commercial kitchen and worked with a traditional sushi chef to develop their signature recipes and learn the art of sushi.

“It’s not as hard as you think,” Oppenheimer said, waving one hand at the new menu board posted above one of two ordering stations at their spacious new location. Armed with their new knowledge, they rose early to make dozens of sushi rolls, fill cooler bags and set off to convert corporate America into sushi fans.

“In the corporate world, what to have for lunch is one of the biggest decisions of the day,” Oppenheimer said with a laugh. The greatest challenge — and one that both men said they relished and still do — is educating their customers about sushi.

“Everyone immediately thinks ‘raw fish,’ ” Oppenheimer said, explaining sushi translates as “seasoned rice,” and only about 20 percent of their menu items include raw seafood. The other main ingredients are fresh vegetables and cooked seafood, chicken and beef.

Once they offered samples to potential customers on their rounds, the visit usually resulted in a sushi sell-out and sealed the deal for a return trip. They expanded to supplying sushi to hospitals, sports venues and schools such as the University of Akron.

“We have a passion for this,” Roller said. “First and foremost, we love sushi.” He said some of their own employees who started out with lukewarm feelings about the food are now fanatics who crave sushi.
“That’s 95 percent of our success rate, that passion. We love the challenge to get people to eat sushi.”

Oppenheimer and Roller said sushi converts have told them they would never have tried sushi if not for the education component paired with samples offered at hospitality sites like the Cleveland Browns’ and Akron Aeros’ stadiums.

“They don’t want to go into a sushi bar, because of the misconception and the worry over not knowing what to order,” Roller said. “It’s exciting to see people try sushi for the first time, pick up their cell phone and call their spouse and say, ‘Guess what I’m eating?’ ”

“I think part of our success comes from people looking for healthier options,” Oppenheimer said, adding that along with using quality ingredients, the company’s success stands on four components: wholesale and manufacturing, catering, providing on-site sushi chefs and retail. Plus the fact that “we listen to our customers.”

The Ohio Department of Agriculture regulates the wholesale/manufacturing division, which operates under the principles of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point.

“This is a delicate business, when you work with some raw products. It’s very controlled,” Oppenheimer said. And, he said, quality and food safety are a high priority for the business, which now makes thousands of rolls a day.

The company’s catering division supplies restaurants, hotels, sports arenas, corporate cafeterias, country clubs and retail kiosks.

“The on-site sushi chef component is almost bigger than the wholesale end,” Oppenheimer said, adding that people like to see their food being prepared. “That’s what it will be like here. People come to the counter, give the chef their order and watch it being prepared.”

The company provides on-site sushi chefs throughout Ohio and Pennsylvania for everything from large events to more intimate gatherings.

“Customer service is very important,” Oppenheimer said. “This is one-on-one. I don’t care how good the food is, if I don’t like the service, I won’t go back to a restaurant. With us, if you don’t like it, you don’t pay for it. We listen to our customers. It may take a year to get a customer to come in to a restaurant, but you can lose a customer in five minutes. People look for cleanliness, service and quality food.”

“This will be a family-friendly place to gather,” Roller said. “We love kids, we want people to have a good time.”

And for people who want to take the mystery out of making sushi, they offer classes in the art of sushi making. Online ordering is available at sushiontherollonline.com or by calling (330) 661-0600.

Contact Judy A. Totts at jatotts1701@gmail.com.