I was still working at a small graphic design office and was working part-time at Izakaya restaurant in Sunset. Also at a Catering Company, on-call catering chef.
The graphic design company’s main client was Dockers brand by Levis, doing their quarterly print catalogs. Because of the advancement of digital technology, iPhone and iPad, the workload was decreasing every season, and even during the three years I was there. I knew that it was a matter of time that they have no work for me, so I knew I had to find a different place to work before they let me go. I was forty-one, so it wasn’t like there were tons of opportunity for me. I knew I had to start something on my own. I tried to get a full-time designer job, but because I had a ten-year blank period with no portfolio, it was hard to get a job. In fact, I tried a several job placement agencies and got nowhere.
The only thing I had going was my part time sushi class. In November of 2010, Dockers had a massive lay off. As expected, Dockers commissioned fewer projects than the previous year. My hours were cut down, and I was making less money, just enough to make my ends meet. So, I took a leap of faith: To start sushi class business. It was a good idea, many of my friends told me so. However, coming up with the money to start the business was a challenge, so I had to find many creative ways to get things rolling.
I needed a business counseling and a good mentor. “Is there anyone who could give me a free advice?” I asked myself. I did an online search and found Score and SBA, The Small Business Administration, which is a US government agency that provides support to entrepreneurs and small businesses. I was assigned to a counselor named Peter, who was retired food business expert. I met him every week and got his advice: “Do whatever you can to promote and establish your business. Put up flyers, business cards and get your website up!” I knew all that and I did not money and resources to put up a nice website up. Back then, designing and programming a nice site took some knowledge, and I was not up to learning HTML, nor did not have the luxury of studying it. I was in a hurry.
I did not have much – no business license, no permits, no business address, not DBA, no website, and no client. The one thing I had was an idea. An idea to make my sushi class business work.
I knew I wanted my class to be different. I wanted to my class to be more that just teaching people how to make rolls, nigiri, sashimi and sushi rice. I wanted my class to be more than food. I wanted people to think outside of a box. I wanted class to be an experience, an opportunity for people to come together, be inspired, be motivated and learn something valuable so they can use it in their lives.
I wanted my first breakthrough sushi class to be a fun and challenging. So, I decided to use the Iron-Chef style sushi making a competition class. Now, all I needed was a venue to host my class.
I found a place called HUB San Francisco, a Non-Profit co-working space in San Francisco Chronicle building. I contacted the event organizer and offered my idea of breakthrough sushi class involving sushi challenge – to create a new style of sushi. She liked it and wanted to do as a community event for the members at HUB. The only thing was the fee. I wanted it to be $100 per person and the event manager said that would be too much. They could only charge $25. Only $25? I thought. It would not pay any fees or I would not make any money at all. But then, I had nothing, no yelp reviews, no Facebook page, no followers, and no news coverage. I was nobody. So, I agreed to do with $25 and asked for ingredients donation. I contacted several local supermarkets, and Whole Foods in SOMA said they could be our sponsors for the event because HUB was a non-profit. I got about $200 worth of ingredients donated to me: cucumbers, rice, rice vinegar, seaweed, sesame seeds, crab meat and smoked salmon to use for the class, as well as plates and just about everything, which cut down my cost drastically.
I got a venue and ingredients, now, I had to find a sushi chef to help me prep, set up and assist the class. Peter at Score mentioned me about a chef who came in for a business counseling, wanting to start a sushi catering business. His name was Adam, so I emailed him to ask for his help. He had some sushi experience while working at many restaurants doing some pop-ups.
Adam helped me to find a kitchen to prep because at Hub, members were using the kitchen until 5PM and we did not have enough time to prep and set up by 6PM. There was a bar in Mission and Adam knew the owner of the bar. He did several pop-ups there and he said the owner allowed us to use the kitchen since bar does not open until 9PM. The kitchen crew did not come in till 5PM. That was great. The prep kitchen for free. Excellent. It worked out wonderfully.
On the day of the prep, I biked to Whole Foods SOMA to pick up ingredients, carried five shopping bags full of groceries out to the cab, which I called in. I asked the cab driver to go to the bar in Mission to rendezvous with Adam. We prepped for three hours. Adam was great. He knew many sushi techniques and also, western style of cooking and gave me some fresh ideas that I could adapt to my sushi. After the prep, we packed all our food tightly in the containers, called another Cab and went to HUB on Mission and 5th Street. I had some of the equipment in the plastic storage containers, which I had to put in the cab also. The cab driver looked us rather uncomfortable, as we load all the equipment and food in the aluminum pan.
Upon arrival, Adam set up the food and I set up the tables with cutting boards, knives, and some ingredients. I did not have any aprons for people to wear, because I did not have any money to buy them. We made Tuna Temari Ball Sushi, Smoked Salmon Sushi on Cucumber, and Chirashi Sushi in a cup for people to eat before the class.
There were about 30 people there including Peter from Score, who told me, “You have a great turn out!” He seemed pleased with what I put together. Well, it was all thanks to the event manager at Hub, Calgary.
Guests were enjoying the food we made and socializing. I have to say that I wasn’t so nervous about hosting the class. I think I was more excited for what was to come.
I started out with a California Roll. I explained and showed each step thoroughly, as everyone watched me carefully, then, I told everyone to make one for themself. Spreading sushi rice on the sheet of Nori seemed the most difficult, yet, a fun part of making the roll to them. Many were saying how sticky the rice was, laughing, as they struggle with rice, sticking to their hands.
After that, I divided attendees into a group and it was time to do the Sushi Challenge, or I was calling it “Break.” The format was similar to Iron Chef TV series. I gave one fish to each group as (not so) secret ingredients to use to make sushi in thirty minutes. Because no one knew what the word “Sushi” refers to, I started by explaining what Sushi means. In the US, many people think Sushi as raw fish; however, the word sushi refers to Seasoned Rice, which says nothing about fish or raw fish. So, by definition, the sushi can be any form, shape and ingredients including fish both raw and cooked, as long as you use Sushi Rice, which is seasoned with Rice Vinegar, Sugar and Salt. After I explain this, I told the attendees to be creative and make new kind of sushi the world has never seen it before.
“This is the plate to plate your new sushi. When finished, please bring it to the front table and one person from the group must explain your sushi and the theme.”
After thirty minutes, five groups came up with such creative sushi I would never dream of. One of them made a Sushi Boat – putting sushi rice, some vegetables, and fish on a piece of red bell pepper to make it look more like a salad. The other group made pie-shaped sushi, cut into six pieces with smoked salmon and cream cheese inside, and called it “Sushi Cake.” Brilliant!
Overall, the event was a success and went almost exactly as I imagined. When I got home, I told my wife that the class was fantastic and showed here all the pictures I took during the class. It was one of the happiest moments in my life, as I always always wanted to start my own business since in my twenties and now, finally at forty-two, I knew I had something going. I knew it was the beginning of something fantastic!