Ones to Watch | BY LYNNE MILLER
Many Americans are unfamiliar with, even intimidated by, sushi, though it’s been on restaurant menus in the states for decades.
Kent Scholla himself had to swallow hard the first time he tried it. As a college student, he ordered sushi to impress a date. Scholla says he always thinks about his own first-time apprehension when he works on marketing plans for Bumblefish Sushi & More, a quick-service chain he founded with his parents in 2005.
“We want to make sushi more accessible to the American palate,” he says. “Our brand is very Americanized.”
Scholla wants Bumblefish to do for sushi what Taco Bell did for tacos. Specializing in pre-packaged sushi rolls and other Pan Asian favorites made with organic and all-natural ingredients, Bumblefish is attracting customers who want a quick and healthier alternative to a traditional fast-food lunch.
To all the sushi virgins out there, Scholla has a simple message: “You just have to be brave and go for it,” he says.
Much to Scholla’s satisfaction, Bumblefish appeals to customers who’ve never tried sushi. In fact, nothing pleases him more than a new convert. He likes to tell the story of how one regular customer, a 62-year-old U.S. Postal Service worker, had never touched sushi before tasting it at the Bumblefish store in Philadelphia.
“We had to force it on him,” Scholla says. “He loved it and took it home to his wife.”
Scholla and his parents, Paul and Kim, operate the four-unit chain of company-owned stores. Scholla had a background in marketing and banking but no restaurant experience before Bumblefish. His dad is a former CFO for a Fortune 500 company, and his mom brings 25 years of foodservice experience to the table. She develops many of the recipes including the peanut sauce, which is made from scratch daily at each location.
When the Schollas developed the concept for Bumblefish, they didn’t look at any Asian restaurant chains. Instead, Scholla points to U.K.-based Pret a Manger, which specializes in sandwiches, baguettes, and wraps, as the restaurant company that served as a model of sorts for Bumblefish. The Schollas were impressed by Pret’s speedy service delivery.
Like Pret, everything at Bumblefish is grab and go. Unlike Pret, however, Bumblefish can also prepare a meal made to order for customers with special requests. Customers who aren’t used to quick-service-style sushi are surprised by how quickly they can get their orders filled, Scholla says.
Bumblefish color-codes its packaged products and menus to make ordering easy. Avocado and cucumber rolls and other vegetarian choices have green labels. For sushi first-timers who aren’t ready for raw fish, crab, shrimp rolls, and other cooked items are marked with brown labels. Spicy tuna and salmon rolls are found in packages with red labels. Soups, salads, dumplings, and spring rolls have blue labels.
The No. 1-selling item for lunch is the spicy yellowfin tuna roll, prepared with an oil-free sauce seasoned with sun-dried chili peppers.
“It’s our Big Mac,” Scholla says.
The California roll, which is filled with cooked crab, avocado, and cucumbers is also popular. Soft spring rolls, made with vermicelli noodles and julienned vegetables, are served with the homemade peanut sauce. Customers can ask the counter workers to warm the dumplings, which are pan-fried in advance. Vegetarians appreciate the veggie deluxe roll, which is filled with seaweed salad.
Inside, Bumblefish has a sleek, upscale look highlighted by stainless steel. Stacks of packaged sushi rolls are displayed on shelves and replenished throughout the day. Comfortable maple or pine seats flank butcher-block, hand-finished tables. Walls are wrapped in bamboo, and the company’s orange-and-green logo is displayed in several places. At the Philadelphia and Alexandria, Virginia, stores, the dining rooms seat 20 to 25 people. The Virginia store, in the historic Old Town section of Alexandria, also provides outdoor seating for up to 20 people. The stores, ranging in size from 1,000 to 1,100 square feet, entice customers inside with sand or rock gardens displayed in the windows.
“It’s not what you would typically see in a quick-serve,” Scholla says. “It’s a nice place to linger.”
Each restaurant serves about 200 customers a day, with the average check hovering at $9. All the restaurants are in central business districts filled with lots of office workers on weekdays. Lunch, the busiest daypart, generates up to 70 percent of all sales, Scholla says.
The Schollas are not interested in franchising. They hope to have two new stores under development in the Washington, D.C., area and Chicago by the end of the year.
“We’re on a mission to get as many people introduced to this wonderful cuisine as possible,” Scholla says.