Inside Sushi Avenue’s Growing Restaurant Empire
Wanting to own and control his own restaurant brands, Nay Hla, president and CEO of Sushi Avenue, launched Masu Sushi & Robata and One Two Three Sushi.
Based here in landlocked Minnesota, Sushi Avenue has built a sprawling $36-million-dollar business covering 16 states and supplying sushi to 270 retail locations nationwide, from the shelves of Target to Whole Foods.
Rather than solely focusing on his successful business or drawing up plans to retire on one of the oceans from which his company supplies fish, Sushi Avenue President and CEO Nay Hla leveraged his supply-side connections to start two unique sushi concepts in the Twin Cities.
Now, almost five years into the restaurant game—with critical acclaim and loyal followings at both hometown chains—Hla is thinking bigger and plotting the expansion of his Masu Sushi & Robata and One Two Three Sushi, both in Minnesota and beyond.
Big, soon to be bigger
After starting as a sushi chef and, later, an independent contractor, Hla founded Sushi Avenue in 2004 by stretching himself razor thin and pulling every possible financial lever available to get the company off the ground. While he had fears about his ability to be successful and support his family, his company soon found traction as significantly more Americans added sushi rolls and sashimi to their regular diets.
The first Masu Sushi in the greater St. Anthony Main neighborhood of northeast Minneapolis.
More than a decade later, Eagan-based Sushi Avenue is a global network committed to sustainable fishing practices, for the good of the environment and the future of the fish business.
Working behind the scenes to keep grocery stores supplied, but seeing a future in which grocery stores eventually muscled out Sushi Avenue to source their own fish, Hla wanted to diversify the company by getting into the restaurant game. A shrewd move for his supply business, it was also meant to satisfy his lifelong goal of controlling a customer-facing brand, rather than a behind-the-scenes supplier.
“It doesn’t feel like that is my own business, I don’t control it,” Hla said of Sushi Avenue. “With Sushi Avenue we have a very good business model, but we are working under Target and Whole Foods—with the restaurants, I own and control the brand 100 percent.”
His first restaurant, Masu Sushi & Robata, opened in the greater St. Anthony Main neighborhood of northeast Minneapolis in 2011. At the intersection of East Hennepin and 4th Street, Masu is a casual restaurant and bar with a dramatic look by Shea Design. Hla is particularly fond of the bold eyes on the wall—a close-up shot of a local model who is also featured on the wall behind the bartender.
Local restaurant legend Tim McKee assisted in creating the Masu concept with Hla, and the pair traveled to Japan to check out the local food scene in search of unique ideas to pair with sustainable sushi.
“It seems that a lot of the sushi restaurants in town and even outside of the Twin Cities have a lot of similarities,” McKee said of the concepts behind Masu. “I wanted to give a different expression of Japanese cuisine and culture.”
The end result at Masu—now up to three locations, with the newest in Apple Valley—includes miso eggplant, hibachi-grilled robata, pork belly and beef short rib ramens, and a nigiri and sashimi menu that includes sustainable fish breeds with uncommon names.
Red sea bream, for example, is a light fish with a silvery complexion that’s just as tasty as the popular but endangered bluefin tuna. It’s a popular fish in Japan that’s often served on celebratory occasions, but hasn’t taken off in the United States.
“Sustainable thinking is pretty important to me, and I think as time goes on it’s going to become more and more important to everyone,” McKee said. “I don’t think people really understand what kind of dire situation our oceans are becoming.”
The next year, in 2012, Hla opened his first One Two Three Sushi, which is a smaller, fast-casual brand that has quickly spread to five locations—three in downtown Minneapolis, one in Dinkytown near the Loring Pasta Bar, and one in downtown St. Paul.
Nay Hla’s smaller, fast-casual One Two Three Sushi brand has quickly spread to five locations.
Offering customers the ability to create their own sushi rolls for less than $10, One Two Three is meant to be accessible to a wide audience, fitting with Hla’s long-term hopes to see sushi become a much more mainstream and frequent dining choice.
“My kids and all their friends are sushi crazy,” he said. “The next generations will eat sushi more and more, so we’re going to grow and I don’t think we’re on the plateau or peak yet.”
Nearly five years into the restaurant game, Masu brings in approximately $11 million in revenue, while One Two Three contributes $2.5 to $3 million—combined, nearly 40 percent of Sushi Avenue’s total annual revenue of $36 million.
While he has plans to add additional restaurants in the Twin Cities, Hla said his restaurant brands could easily have a future in Midwestern states such as Wisconsin, Missouri and Nebraska—areas, he said, that currently lack a mature sushi scene.
Covering the inevitable topic of whether there’s anything gross about grocery store sushi, Hla said pre-packaged rolls only stay on the shelves for a few hours and, in some cases, you can ask the store’s sushi chef to make you a fresh one.
“The trick if you want to get good sushi in a supermarket is asking the chef, ‘Can you make me a fresh California roll?’” he said. “Then you’ve got something with ingredients that are 80 percent similar to restaurant sushi.”
ROLL WITH IT
Sushi Avenue at a glance
- Founded in 2004, Sushi Avenue provides sushi to more than 270 retail locations in 16 states nationwide.
- Masu Sushi & Robata: Full service restaurant with three Twin Cities locations bringing in approximately $11 million in revenue.
- One Two Three Sushi: Fast-casual brand with five stores in Minneapolis and St. Paul and $2.5 to $3 million in revenue.