Shark Tank-Funded Vegan Sushi Will Take Over the World—and L.A. Is Next
One of the luxuries of dining in Los Angeles is the abundance of cuisines available across price points. Still, the city has weaknesses, just like anywhere else. While L.A. has made exponential gains in the pizza department, it could still do better on the bagel front. There aren’t enough great Indian restaurants, either, and there could be a lot more barbecue representing different styles.
Probably the last gap you’d think Los Angeles has, unless you were specifically looking, would be the lack of accessible vegan sushi. It’s surprising that anything vegan or vegetable-forward might be missing from the dining landscape. But it's coming.
Chef Guy Vaknin, at the prompting of his wife and business partner, Tali, appeared on Shark Tank and went on to pitch—and win—a $1.5 million deal with Lori Greiner and Matt Higgins. It is with this money that the chef-entrepreneur aims to satiate that Los Angeles plant-based appetite. Vaknin’s success from opening six Beyond Sushi locations all over Manhattan dating back to 2012 helped convince his reality show financiers that he is ready to take on L.A., which Greiner thinks “will do even better … because the mindset here is even more towards this type of food.” Now, Vaknin is planning (at least) three to five L.A. restaurants, which he estimates will open in the next year or so.
It’s not as if Los Angeles is in shortage of plant-based menus, but it doesn’t have a lot of vegan sushi. There are also a range of beliefs—religious, dietary, and both (Buddhism, raw, raw vegan, and vegetarian)—that cruelty-free diets aim to accommodate. The unifier behind Beyond Sushi is Vaknin’s clear goal of making his vegetable-, fruit-, and whole grain-based menu accessible to as many people as possible.
“Overall, we’ve reached two million people [in New York] so far. I’m very proud of that; but for me, we’re just getting started," he says.
An eight-piece signature vegan sushi roll costs $7.50 at Beyond Sushi, with the average lunch totaling $15 and dinner totaling $22 (as disclosed when pitching to the Sharks). Compare that to the Japanese and Japanese-inspired options currently available in L.A., which include the table-clothed but always delicious Shojin in Little Tokyo, the vegan selections at the Whole Foods sushi bar, and the sushi rolls at the macrobiotic mainstay, M Cafe. They all meet a higher price point in a city with a lower cost of living than New York, revealing the very opportunity that Beyond Sushi is poised to take advantage of with its expansion.
The idea for a dedicated vegan sushi concept started in the trenches of Vaknin’s father’s upscale catering company, which took many requests for kosher meals. What started out as a request for vegetarian rolls evolved into vegan rolls, the first samples of which which he and Tali took to the New York Vegetarian Food Festival. When they sold out right away, they realized that there was a demand to be met, and took it one step further and began to formulate plans to build an entire restaurant business around the idea of vegan sushi.
Vaknin has prioritized using fresh, local ingredients—not all organic, so as to keep the costs down—and the to-go items are assembled at a central commissary. He eschews fake meats, as they often contain a lot of chemicals.
While Vaknin ended up being financed by two sharks, all sharks were unanimously pleased with the samples he provided. “That mushroom one is the truth!” said Daymond John. Efforts to maintain that quality stems from Vaknin’s belief that consistency is an overwhelming factor in Beyond Sushi’s success.
“Over 65% [of my business] is returning customers. It’s what keeps me alive and allows me to expand,” Vaknin says. “Even as a customer, when I have a great meal at a restaurant, I want to come back and have the same meal. If it’s different, then I’m disappointed.”
This is not to say that he hasn’t made adjustments and adapted. In order to counter the unusual pattern of low restaurant sales in Manhattan’s winter months, Vaknin added soups and dumplings to his menu originally comprised of rolls and wraps upon the opening of his third location in Midtown. In late 2016, the Ruby Tuesdays founder Sandy Beall invested in Vaknin’s company for a small stake in the New York venture, making possible a central commissary and the restaurant location of his first sit-down Beyond Sushi.
The sit-down, full-service model at dinner at the newest location also came with a beer and wine license, and plans have already been made to retool a couple currently open locations in the same way. This makes way as a sort of testing grounds for his plans for the first two restaurants in Los Angeles. “Everything [in L.A.] is a destination because you got to drive somewhere. I feel like when you drive somewhere you want to have a different experience—same thing in the evening. I’m going to want to have a conversation with my friends,” Vaknin says.
All of this, of course, is part of Vaknin’s plan for Beyond Sushi to spread his vegan sushi business model to wherever the light reaches. Three more locations are slated to open in New York during 2019, which will likely happen before the Los Angeles expansion even begins; he estimates it will take another year or so.
“Some people will go out and get a burger," he says. "They can spend the same thing at our restaurant, but get a good, healthy lunch. It’s not the end of the world if it’s not organic. [I want to] keep it reachable so people can still come and enjoy it. I don’t want it to be pretentious, at all.”