Darren Lee Norris learned a valuable lesson about scale at his first restaurant, Kushi Izakaya and Sushi, that Euro Disney of fish and robata-grilled meats in Mount Vernon Triangle: Bigger is not always better.
“I learned a lot of lessons, and one of those was, ‘square footage,’" Norris says, punctuating the thought with a small snort. "You know, trying to support major square footage like that through the different seasons that D.C. has. . . I worked in New York for years, and New York is busy every day of the year. Here, there’s a slow season. There’s a busy season."
Norris and his partners —including Todd Ciuba, who's also involved with Black Whiskey, another Norris project on the 14th Street NW strip — have lowered their labor costs at Maki Shop, too. They've purchased equipment that will reduce not only human error but also the number of human beings necessary for the operation.
One such tool is the Suzumo shari rice mixer, which perfectly blends vinegar into cooked rice, while simultaneously cooling the seasoned grains. "It takes a guy, like, 20 minutes to keep paddling [the rice] and pouring in the vinegar and paddling it and cooling it down. This does the same process in six minutes," Norris says.
The other tool is a Suzumo rolling machine, which takes that perfectly seasoned sushi rice and presses the grains into pre-determined sheet sizes. An employee will proceed to top the sheets with the appropriate fillings and then press a button. Bam! Just like that the machine will swallow the ingredients and cough up a beautifully formed maki roll. It's creepy and cool, and it probably makes sushi masters cuddle their rice paddles for comfort.
Regardless, it's good for business, particularly one that can divert its cost savings into quality ingredients.
"By removing the high payroll for the staff, I can spend good money on the right product and get it from the right farm," Norris says. "I can adjust my budget so that my food costs are healthy, but [they reflect] the fact that I can cut costs in other areas where technology has helped me out.”
When his place opens in late March or early April, Norris plans to roll out a concise menu (see below) of more than 10 maki rolls divided into meat, seafood and vegetable categories. Team Maki Shop didn't want to force raw fish on all customers, so Norris has developed rolls such as the veggie futomaki (brown rice, red bell peppers, carrots, daikon, kale and kanpyo) and the beef short rib (brown rice, marinated short ribs, romaine lettuce, carrots, kimchi). The shop will also offer miso soup and sides such as edamame, seaweed and burdock root salads.
Maki Shop hopes to carve out a new niche in the fast-casual market, something for people who have grown weary of choosing between salads at one end and burgers and burritos at the other. Norris thinks his new enterprise will also fit in with those restaurants providing mid-afternoon meals.
“I think we’ll do well at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, that hump between lunch and dinner, where you want to get just something," Norris says. "Instead of a Snickers bar, you could just grab one roll, and it will get you through till dinner.”
Be forewarned: An order of maki rolls, priced between $4.50 to $6, will provide you with only four pieces of nori-wrapped rice and fish (or whatever ingredients you select), half of the standard eight-piece order. At the same time, you might find something unusual about your maki: The nori may be crisper. Credit Maki Shop's sheets of nori, which will come wrapped in cellophane, to be removed only after you place an order.
"The nori is crunchy when you eat it," Norris says of the seaweed sheets released from their cellophane straightjacket. "The problem is that when you go to Whole Foods and buy that sushi, it’s gummy. The nori is all gummy.”
Maki Shop is set to open in late March or early April at 1522 14th St. NW.