Behind the pass: Sticks ‘n’ Sushi shares the secrets of its kitchens

Chefs at work

Andreas Karlsson is used to being asked who his competition is. Prior to his current role as the UK managing director of Sticks ‘n’ Sushi, he spent the best part of 15 years in operations capacities at Wagamama, a chain that epitomises the way the casual dining scene has evolved and shifted over the last decade.

It is fair to say, then, that he takes a broader view of the competitive landscape rather than obsessing over operators that offer similar cuisine to which Sticks ‘n’ Sushi does. “I have the same answer today as I did when I worked [at Wagamama]: if you have £20 in your pocket and you are leaving your office and you are going to eat, then anyone who serves good, quality food is competing with you. The fact is that not everyone will eat noodles every day, or sushi every day, or a burger every day, but we are all competing with each other.”

Karlsson even refuses to accept that his former employer Wagamama — arguably the most well-known Japanese chain — is a direct rival, citing differences in the business model. “The guest experience you have with Wagamama and the guest experience you have with us are two different journeys. You genuinely spend another half an hour to 45 minutes dining with us than you do with Wagamama. We offer more of a full-on dining experience, so on that basis I would say we are competing with anyone who is providing a dining experience at the same average spend as us.”

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A new chapter in the Sticks ‘n’ Sushi UK story is set to be written this year as the company expands the number of sites it operates, including its first outside London. But to understand the ethos and DNA of the business you have to go all the way back to 1994, when the first restaurant opened in Copenhagen.

Sticks ‘n’ Sushi has been operating in the UK market for the past four years and is now plotting its expansion outside of London.

Founded by brothers Jens and Kim Rahbek and Thor Andersen, they took inspiration from their half-Japanese, half-Danish background to create a unique concept blending Japanese sushi and yakitori under one roof. Although perhaps an unusual move, it was a smart one — effectively doubling their chances of success in a city that, at the time, had few Japanese restaurants. Some 22 years later, their elderly mother, Keiko, who was born in Tokyo, remains the litmus test for ensuring its dishes are up to scratch. “She is still the toughest judge when it comes to miso soup and miso rice because if you can get those two simple items right then the rest will normally follow!” says Karlsson.

The founders, who are all still involved in the business, have favoured a steady approach to expansion over the years rather than embarking on an aggressive, all-conquering campaign aimed at procuring as many sites as possible. But this strategy should not be mistaken for a lack of ambition — their vision from day one was always to transfer the concept to other cities, especially London.

“That dream had always been there, but it really took shape about six years ago, eventually leading to the successful opening of the first restaurant in Wimbledon in March 2012,” explains Karlsson. “The UK journey is four years old and in that time we have managed to open four restaurants, with a further two restaurants to open this year. The following calendar year we are aiming for a further two, possibly three.”

You can easily spend between 15% and 20% of your overall CAPEX on the equipment side of the kitchen”

Sticks ‘n’ Sushi plans to open a sixth London site, adjacent to Victoria Station, in September, but perhaps the more exciting development in context of its long-term plans is the launch of its first operation outside the capital. A lease has been agreed in Oxford, where it will open at the end of 2017, but more recently it has started trading in Cambridge.

Finding suitable locations hasn’t proved difficult so far. “We are operating within the usual kind of space requirements that operators have, which is anything from 3,000 sq ft to 6,000 sq ft. Our restaurants are between 3,500 and 5,000 sq ft. We are not after those 10,000 sq ft locations — we are sitting quite nicely in the 100 to 190 seat category. That is the sweet spot for us.”

Sticks ‘n’ Sushi’s executive chef Peter Nielsen and UK managing director Andreas Karlsson.

While there is a certain kitchen footprint the company will need based on the number of covers, the configuration will ultimately be determined by the physical shape of the site. The kitchen in its first UK restaurant, in Wimbledon, could be described as a conventional square shape, but in Covent Garden, for example, it is distinctively long and narrow, almost like a corridor. Karlsson admits the latter design is actually least desirable because it increases the distance between the chefs and the various stages of preparation.

“When you work together in a stressful environment, as kitchens can be, it is easier when you can actually look at people and you can communicate by seeing each other’s faces. In a longer kitchen the plates have further to travel from prep to the pass compared to a square kitchen, so productivity can be affected.”

Open kitchens are a hallmark of Sticks ‘n’ Sushi’s operation and its architects are positively encouraged to integrate them into the overall design and feel of the room, incorporating any quirks of the building that might be present. In Cambridge, where the restaurant is located in the grade II listed Guildhall, the kitchen has been designed as a central island with no walls around it. “It is a spectacular sight for the guests,” comments Karlsson. “They can literally sit around the kitchen without any walls.”

One of the key influencers behind the smooth running of Sticks ‘n’ Sushi’s UK kitchens is executive chef Peter Nielsen. He originally worked for the chain’s Danish operation and has been instrumental in its international expansion, relocating to the UK ahead of its initial launch. Karlsson refers to him as his “food quality insurance”, such is his ability for ensuring that all kitchen and production matters are up to scratch.

Nielsen agrees with Karlsson’ view that an efficient kitchen boils down to design. “The logistics of it — how far the chefs have to walk — is very important. And, of course, you need to create that sense of community in a team, which you only get from seeing each other and being able to talk to each other. If the kitchen is designed so that you work back-to-back, or you don’t speak to the guy down the other end for 10 hours, then it is difficult to build good energy among everybody.”

Kitchen chefs
There is a strong emphasis on culinary craftmanship at Sticks ‘n’ Sushi.

In terms of equipment, Sticks ‘n’ Sushi relies on some key pieces of hardware capable of standing up to the rigours of all-day Japanese dining, seven days a week. Grills from the Clay Oven Company, hot-holding equipment from Alto-Shaam and fryers from Valentine are all features of its kitchens. High-end rice cookers from Panasonic are also used throughout the estate, costing up to £2,500 a piece. “You can get a rice cooker for £100, but the ones we are talking about are like computers,” says Nielsen. “Once we blew the motherboard on one and it cost £1,000 to repair. You can programme it to start at a certain point and it calculates how long it has been sitting all night in water and it changes the cooking time for it. It is a key piece of kit.”

When Sticks ‘n’ Sushi opened its first site in the UK, it followed its Danish parent in deploying a charcoal grill as its primary cooking device, mirroring the preferred cooking format of traditional yakitori kitchens, explains Karlsson.

The guest experience you have with Wagamama and the guest experience you have with us are two different journeys”

“While many operators over here used Robata grills or gas grills with lava stones, we were not comfortable with doing that because that’s not how we did it in Copenhagen and gas was not as widely used in Denmark as it is here in the UK, while electrical yakitori grills are very slow. But that changed when we opened the restaurant in Covent Garden and we moved towards using Robata grills. That might not be a big step if you are based here, but it was a big step for a Danish business to go for that solution. Now, we have actually introduced it to some of our restaurants in Denmark!”

If the Robata grills can be considered the workhorse on the hot side, there is no question what drives the business on the cold side: refrigeration. Without adequate refrigeration, the sushi kitchen would struggle to operate, so close attention is paid to making sure this part of the operation is sufficiently catered for. Its site in Covent Garden has more than a dozen refrigeration cabinets in the main prep area, while most of the sushi fridges it uses are built specifically to its requirements.

Covent Garden kitchen
The kitchen at the chain’s Covent Garden site is long and narrow, running the full length of the ground floor.

Karlsson is well aware of the significance of specifying catering equipment that is appropriate for the job, even if cheaper alternatives are available. He recalls running one of Wagamama’s busiest sites some 16 or 17 years ago when it switched out two teppanyaki griddles from Swiss brand Elro.

“We used to turn them on in the morning, turn them off at night, and clean them down. You could do that for a year and you didn’t have one call-out; they were extremely expensive but they worked with absolutely no issues. We then tried to lower the CAPEX investment by choosing something alternative at half the price and you genuinely could spend that extra money on call-outs and maintenance in year two after the guarantee had expired. So then you have to ask yourself, is it really value for money if it’s going to break down on a Friday night and leave you operating with one piece of kit instead of two, slowing down the speed of getting your food out.”

Like most operators, the challenge for Sticks ‘n’ Sushi is trying to achieve that perfect balance between the engine room and the retail space to deliver a profitable operation. “You need to be sensible about it,” notes Karlsson. “If you purely look at the equipment side of the kitchen, you can easily spend between 15% and 20% of your CAPEX on it.”

One unique and very visible aspect of Sticks ‘n’ Sushi’s kitchens is the emphasis on culinary craftsmanship. This is not simply for show, but a reflection of the heritage on which the company is built. “If you are a traditionally-trained chef you can work in many hot kitchens, but if you are a Japanese sushi chef you are more likely to stick to that trade,” says Karlsson. “So the chef needs to have a general passion for the Japanese kitchen to be working in it. And the skillset we are talking about is taking a salmon skin down to the exact specification for a piece of nigiri or sashimi. This is what chefs of our calibre, and those in the higher end of our segment, do and they take a huge element of pride in it.”

Good kitchen discipline underpins the values that Sticks ‘n’ Sushi holds dear to its model, but that sense of pride runs throughout the business. “There are plenty of others in this market place, we just concentrate on doing a good job ourselves and providing a good experience for our guests. And that is an everyday challenge. You have to be as good on a Monday lunchtime as you are on a Saturday night,” concludes Karlsson.

“The expression ‘build to last’ is very important to us”

Sticks ‘n’ Sushi UK’s equipment specification strategy comes down to working with models and manufacturers that prove their value and performance over the long term, rather than aligning itself to anybody in particular, according to managing director Andreas Karlsson.

“Do we have a special relationship with anyone? No. We just try and work closely with good people to master the lay-out and get that part of the operation right,” he explains. “The expression ‘build to last’ is very important for us. We have made many mistakes over the equipment or the finishes that we have chosen in the past, but it is always about making sure you don’t repeat the same mistake when you build your next kitchen.

“When Peter [Nielsen, executive chef] is doing his kitchen design, he is focused on creating the most productive operation possible. It is about measuring everything up so that the bin, the line fridges, the drawer, the handwash, the prep sink and the equipment are all in the right position so that chefs need to do as few crossovers as possible. That is how you operate a good kitchen in the kind of environment we are in.”

Core stores

WIMBLEDON: 58 Wimbledon Road

COVENT GARDEN: 11 Henrietta Street/Maiden Lane

GREENWICH: 1 Nelson Road

CANARY WHARF: 1 Crossrail Place

CAMBRIDGE: 2 Wheeler Street

Tags : chainsJapanese foodkitchensRestaurantsSticks 'n' Sushisushi
Andrew Seymour

The author Andrew Seymour

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