Zach Weprin is disrupting the sushi game from the last place on Earth you would expect...
Thirty years ago, the concept of a successful fast casual Midwestern sushi chain might have served as the premise of an SNL skit, or perhaps as an illustration of the word “oxymoron” in a dictionary. Today, it is a reality. Zach Weprin’s burgeoning concept FUSIAN applies Chipotle's choose-your-own-ingredients model to sushi. Since opening six years ago, Fusian has exploded throughout Ohio. It currently operates nine stores and is on the precipice of national domination.
If you just had one of those “why didn’t I think of that!?!” moments, don’t beat yourself up too much. Fusian would have been an impossible to pull off until recently, as technology has opened the doors to fresh, well-made sushi served anywhere. But that’s only half of FUSIAN's value proposition. Globalization has most restaurants—low-end to high-end, East Coast to West Coast—ordering fish from the same suppliers. Thus not only does FUSIAN serve great sushi for a reasonable price, it does it in Ohio with the exact same ingredients you would find at a fancy sushi spot in Manhattan.
Weprin, who started the chain with his brother Josh and his best friend from childhood Stephan Harman, brings a millennial mentality to an antiquated industry. We spoke to him about what it’s like to disrupt the sushi game from the absolute last places you would expect: the small, landlocked cities of Ohio.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever had?
I think the best meal I can remember is having sukiyaki in Japan. It’s a very traditional Japanese dish; meat dipped in raw eggs. Between the hospitality of the very nice lady helping us cook it and the flavors—it just blew my mind. Everything I ate in Japan was incredible. The laws there are quite different, so it’s pretty wild what you can eat. Omakase at the fish market at 3 a.m. was also a very cool experience.
What is omakase?
Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo is probably the world’s largest tuna market, and they have this crazy tuna auction every morning at three am. If you’ve seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi you know that’s where all the best restaurants buy their fish for the day. Omakase; it’s pretty much sitting at a sushi bar and the chef serves you nigiri one piece at a time. It’s like a 15-minute experience. It’s crazy. You’re in and you’re out.
Is that what Jiro does?
Yeah, he does omakase.
And are you eating at 3 a.m. because the tuna just came in?
I think we ended up eating around 6 a.m., that’s when the tuna auction ends. You can do it later but eating sushi for breakfast is the best.
That’s really cool. What did it taste like—top-end, super fresh fish?
It tastes as fresh as you can get it: perfect. The tuna just melts in your mouth. The toro! They also have a big uni auction which is great. I have never seen so much uni in my life.
I was at a nice seafood place the other day in San Clemente. It was right out on the water, on stilts over the waves. I asked the waiter which fish on the menu came from the nearby Pacific, the ocean that was right beneath me. I was surprised to learn that only one fish out of an entire menu was local, and that was swordfish caught way out at sea. What’s the deal with that? Why can't you get local fish even when you're eating on the water?
It’s a good question. People will look at something and think that since they’re by the ocean they’re getting something fresher. If you’re in New York buying sushi, you’re getting better fish than in Ohio because you’re closer to the ocean, but that’s just not true. There’s no tuna coming from the Hudson River or even right there in the Atlantic. Fish migrate and breed in different parts of the world, in different oceans, and you can’t find the same kinds of fish in every part of the ocean.
Where do you get your fish in Ohio?
We catch it fresh every day in the Ohio River!
No, just kidding. We’re buying our fish from the exact same people that the restaurants in New York are buying their fish from; and the same goes for restaurants in Nashville, LA., Miami. Right now our tuna is caught in Southeast Asia. Most of the fish that supplies the entire country is flash frozen to kill the parasites, to make it through FDA regulations and be a safe product to eat. People hear stories like, “We heard this one sushi restaurant flies in fresh tuna every single night from Hawaii and it’s better than anyone else.” Some people tell me that the sushi is better at this one place on a Friday as opposed to Monday because they get their fresh catch in on Thursday. It’s just pure ignorance. It’s crazy. Understanding the supply chain and how it works is something that we are trying to continually tell as part of our story.
Where did the idea for FUSIAN come from?
At the time, there was no sushi in downtown Cincinnati, so that’s how the idea sparked. We didn’t fully develop this fast casual experience until shortly before we opened. The first year we were open for business, we were operating in this dying shopping mall in downtown Cincinnati and within the first two months, we started seeing repeat customers. And then they were coming in multiple times a week. Then people started saying, “Holy shit! This is best place ever! You need to bring it to my city!”
Why do you think we have this cultural idea that the Midwest has bad seafood?
It’s probably a reflection on the demographics. In Ohio, there’s a lot of cornfields, farming. Even the urban markets of Ohio have been real “meat and potatoes” kind of towns for a long time. There’s still tons of people in the Midwest who have never tried sushi and who think they won't like because it's raw fish. “There’s no way I could eat raw fish.” People have been telling me that since we opened and it drives me nuts, but it also gives me inspiration to change peoples’ perspectives, and that’s what we do. We’re creating an experience that’s accessible, less pretentious, affordable, casual.
How do you keep costs down without sacrificing quality, or putting people at risk like Chipotle did?
You know, food safety is food safety. Whether you’re dealing with veggies, chicken, tuna, or with steak, the safety rules apply across the board. Technology has allowed us to make our line and concept possible and helped simplify and streamline some of the traditional processes.
What does a roll cost at a FUSIAN restaurant?
Right now you can get a full size 10-piece roll for lunch or dinner and it will be less than $10.
Is there a dark side to the fact that so many restaurants bring in so much fish essentially from the same provider?
Is there a dark side? You mean like over-fishing in the ocean?
Sure, that’s one risk. Is there a concern there?
No. You can actually sustainably raise tuna now and the technology continues improving. We buy yellowfin, not bluefin. Our tuna is from the ocean and our salmon is in farms. We know the source of where we are buying our product from and we study up on the sellers and learn to trust them.
Do you ever have anybody who talks shit like “You’re undermining the art! This isn’t sushi!”?
We're not trying to be a traditional sushi experience. Most people have a very low expectation when they come in. They’re probably thinking, “How can the sushi really be that good if it’s served in this fast casual way at this price?” And they always leave completely blown away by how good it is.
If making great sushi were that simple though, then why would somebody like Jiro have the reputation that he has?
Making great sushi isn't that simple. It’s no different than any other restaurant industry. You can buy a burger at a fast food restaurant or a full service restaurant; what’s the difference?
Well, I guess it’s quality of the ingredients that comes to mind...
Are you assuming the quality is better at a full service restuarant than at the other?
Maybe. Or at least between a full service burger and a fast food burger? Am I wrong?
There’s a lot more expenses involved when running a full service restaurant. The labor models are different. What makes the fast casual labor model work is that there’s limited service. We operate with less people working when the line is out the door and still create an incredible experience and products for our guest. That has never been done with sushi.
I get that, but there has to be some difference in the price of ingredients as well right? Or is there really no difference?
We buy the best nori, the best tuna. You can go to a full service sushi restaurant, order a spicy tuna roll, and you get the ground tuna that’s mixed with the mayo that’s squirted out of a bag. It’s a 6-piece roll—yet you’re charged two to three times as much as what we charge. Why? Because you’re willing to pay for it.
So what you’re saying is that most full service places are ordering fish from the same place you guys are?
One-hundred percent! We use AAA Saku, Sashimi Grade Tuna, and we roll it up. We just serve it in a different style.
That's a pretty great thing to know. They dress it up to be this better-than-average product, and we’re dumb enough to believe it! That makes me happy that you guys are doing what you’re doing, serving it at a decent price, but at the same time it is sort of depressing that the supposedly super-fine, super-fresh stuff isn’t actually real. Why can’t I get fresh local fish? Is it a low cost thing? Are the people in Southeast Asia are doing it for a quarter of the price?
I don’t think so. It’s just the fact that that’s where all the tuna are. The rules and regulations are pretty similar across the board in terms of the FDA regs, parasites, etc. There’s just not that many tuna swimming in the ocean right there in Venice Beach.
I love Chipotle as much as the next guy, and I’m sure I would love FUSIAN, and I’m excited to give it a try. But I am concerned about preserving the authentic-local stuff. What I mean is, if you guys can do something that everybody else is doing cheaper and better, is there still room for those really good mom and pop spots? Like the Jiro’s?
One-hundred percent! There’s non-chain restaurants everywhere. You can’t eat at the same place every single day. If you make great food and you have great hospitality, everyone survives.
But it’s the Walmart question, right? If Walmart can sell slightly less quality stuff for a much lower price, then you do lose a lot of the local businesses...
There’s definitely room for both. You have to always be willing to adjust to keep up with the market demands, so when you see these mom and pop places that haven’t kept up with what millennials are looking for, then it’s not FUSIAN that's putting them out of business, it’s the purely an adaption for survival.
With so many millennials seeking angel funding for tech startups, being in the food industry must have been a totally different pitch. How did you get started? Who was the first "money-in"?
Good question. We operate this old school model with a millennial mindset. We do everything, including telling our story, through this millennial voice. We had one angel investor, who happened to be my father. We opened our first store in May of 2010 for $140,000 in Downtown Cincinnati. There was no design element to it, there was no purpose behind it, all used equipment, we had no idea what we were doing, and we were doing it at as cheaply as we could.
We still own one-hundred percent of this business and we have bootstrapped the entire thing to get where we are today, which will soon be 10 locations, through cash-flow and debt. We’ve been taking this slowly and organically to get to the point of proving ourselves, developing more leverage in the FUSIAN brand and creating the experience we want to deliver to our customers. Our goal was to position ourselves in a place where we can choose who we want to partner with, and we're there now.