For more than 30 years, Sushi Den has been a culinary landmark in Denver, winning national praise for its sushi — a feat for a restaurant in a landlocked city that was not known for exceptional cuisine until recently.
Brothers Yasu and Toshi Kizaki operate Sushi Den and two other restaurants in the city — Izakaya Den and Ototo — with a total staff of 225 people. The Kizakis have taken extraordinary measures to bring fresh fish to a city 1,000 miles from the nearest seaport.
The Kizakis grew up in a small farming village in Kumamoto prefecture, on Japan’s southern island of Kyushu.
“People there are known to be very independent and adventurous and stubborn and rebellious,” said Yasu Kizaki, left, who had already hatched plans to get out of town by the time he turned 15.
He and his brothers learned to cook at home from a young age.
“By the time we hit high school, we could cook pretty well,” he said.
Yasu and Toshi eventually got jobs cooking in Tokyo. Yasu parlayed his job to a position at Hana, a Japanese restaurant in London. Toshi went to Los Angeles, first as a student and then as an employee at sushi bars.
Toshi, left, felt homesick and considered returning to Japan, but he found that he couldn’t save money in Los Angeles because he was eating out at sushi bars, according to Yasu.
Toshi soon moved to Denver, where the cost of living was lower and, in the early 1980s, opportunities to spend money on sushi were virtually nonexistent.
There was one sushi bar in the city at the time, Yasu Kizaki said, and Toshi got a job there. Yasu soon joined him, and on Christmas Eve in 1984 they opened Sushi Den.
“I remember the day,” Yasu Kizaki said. “Health department is always the last one to give you a permit. [The health inspector] was so kind and nice to us. He was basically guiding us, what we need to change here and there, which we did.”
After passing inspection the morning of Christmas Eve, the Kizaki brothers rushed to Pacific Mercantile, a seafood shop in Denver’s Sakura Square, and bought not-so-great tuna, salmon and yellowtail.
“The Denver people didn’t know what fresh fish was,” Yasu Kizaki said.
Then they called their friends to say the restaurant was open.
“And our first night, I think we took in $400, and we smiled and drank beer, just five of us at the end of the night,” he said.
They were closed for Christmas Day and panic soon set in over how to attract business. The Kizakis managed to get guests from the independent movie theater next door and developed a customer base through word of mouth.
“These customers brought their friends. It’s called viral marketing,” Yasu Kizaki joked.
But the brothers were dissatisfied with the quality of fish they found.
“Yellowtail color was yellow,” he said. “Can you imagine?”
In 1990, they enlisted their youngest brother, Koichi, who was still in Japan, to buy fish from the Nagahama fish market on Kyushu, which drew from the island’s fish farming communities of Nagasaki and Kumamoto, among others.
“Tsukiji [the famed fish market in Tokyo] was out of the question — too expensive,” Yasu Kizaki said.
But they needed a license to buy fish from Nagahama. To get one, they opened a restaurant nearby, a four-minute walk from the back entrance of the market.
There, Koichi Kizaki could buy, clean and pack fish in ice and air-ship it to the United States, but the cost would be exorbitant unless they could buy in large quantities. So they set up a fish import business in Los Angeles that could distribute to top-end sushi bars there, and air-freighted the rest to Denver.
Eventually, with the supply chain established, the Kizakis sold the Los Angeles business to its manager, began shipping through San Francisco and teamed up with supplier True World, which warehouses fish in Denver, where Toshi picks it up every morning around 7 a.m.
“Every week from Japan we get about 800 pounds [of fish],” Kizaki said.
Those items go on the rotating sushi menus of Sushi Den, Izakaya Den, which opened about 10 years ago, and Ototo, which opened in spring 2016.
But even by buying in volume and minimizing waste, profit margins on the Japanese fish are tiny, Kizaki said.
“We make profit on California rolls,” and other low-cost items, he said. “It’s the mixture of the menu that creates different profit margin.”
He has also expanded sourcing beyond Japan, using True World to buy farmed bluefin tuna from Spain and Croatia, for example. Sushi Den has recently offered black seabass from the East Coast, amberjack from Hawaii and farm-raised King salmon from New Zealand, in addition to scallops from Hokkaido and saltwater eel from Nagasaki.
The Kizakis learned about the challenges of market research when they opened Izakaya Den.
“In Denver 10 years ago, people weren’t quite ready for squid guts and different types of chicken,” such as skin and heart, Yasu Kizaki said. “They said they wanted to have it, but when you offered it, they wouldn’t order it. We did the market research. People said they were ready, but they weren’t.”
So he kept serving sushi there, distinguishing it from Sushi Den by offering creative options like seared amberjack with truffle sauce.
“That’s what we called fusion. It’s started to become very popular,” Yasu Kizaki said.
Last year, the Kizakis opened Ototo, featuring a robata grill fired by binchotang, a type of Japanese charcoal that maintains high, consistent heat. Customers are ordering items like grilled whole squid marinated in sake and mirin, sprinkled with seaweed flakes, sesame seeds and lemon juice; and grilled chicken hearts, gizzards and liver with yuzu-kosho. Four different versions of ramen are also on the menu.
Yasu Kizaki said that in the relatively small market of Denver, he had to be creative to draw a crowd.
“We are not in New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco. If we don’t do something different, we don’t stand a chance of surviving for a long time,” he said. “We had no choice but to bring fish from Japan.”
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