Pioneering Sushi mid-country
Selling sushi in landlocked Omaha, Neb. wasn’t the easiest restaurant business model to follow.
But Charlie Yin and his family embraced the challenge of bringing raw fish to diners in the middle of the nation, converting many patrons to the sublime fine-dining experience at Hiro 88. And for those not yet ready to partake, a broad menu offering Korean, Japanese, Chinese and fusion cuisine paired with a sampling from the most extensive and finest sake selection in Omaha.
“When my family opened their first restaurant 12 years ago, before we opened Hiro 88, Omaha wasn’t really ready for sushi,” Yin tells Boxerbrand Blog Recipe for Success. “Our main challenge, as it is anytime you try something new, is that it’s difficult to convert people, even the early adopters. Even in a group of four or five people, there’s always one person who doesn’t want sushi.”
But the former finance professional, who returned to the family business after a successful career in NYC, found the formula that has added up for Hiro 88 and it’s three locations!
Q: What’s a fine-dining sushi restaurant doing in Omaha?
My family owned a restaurant in Omaha prior to Hiro 88, which I own with my uncle Milton and aunt Norma Yin. My parents actually came to Nebraska from Colorado Springs, where they had run a Chinese restaurant. One day some tourists from Omaha came in and the loved the food and told them Omaha had no Chinese restaurants. So they picked up, packed their station wagon and moved.
They opened Imperial Palace and ran it for 12 years. When they decided to close, I decided to get into the restaurant business. I personally took a less direct route to the restaurant business. I studied economics at the University of Pennsylvania and worked in finance in New York first. Then, five years ago, I decided to come home and help with the family restaurant business. This is when we opened Hiro 88.
Q: What was your main challenge?
The main challenge was that as with so many things that you do that’s different, it was difficult at first to convert people, even early adopters, to the sushi product. We first opened the restaurant under the name Hiro Sushi in about the most landlocked part of the country you can get. At the time Omaha wasn’t ready for sushi.
Even though we had customers returning to us who were loyal to my parents’ restaurant, we realized early on that we needed to expand the cuisine.
So we re-opened with an expanded menu that includes Chinese, Japanese, Korean and some fusions, and we changed the name to Hiro 88. That was five years ago and it’s been great. We were able to capture the groups who didn’t want raw fish, but also keep the tradition of raw fish that my parents first brought to Omaha. Since then, we’ve opened two other Hiro 88 locations!
Q: Your décor is forever changing, offering a refined but unique experience in each location.
We are not a franchise or corporate restaurant, so we felt each venue should match the area of the city we’re in, rather than each other. Our downtown location and is darker and more urban, while the one in Lincoln is more modern and vibrant. We believe in high design and spending a large portion of our budget on making sure the décor is first rate. We believe that to have a really successful restaurant you need three critical elements: food, service and ambience. If you have two of the three you can make it. But if you have al three, you create a place where patrons want to keep returning.
We believe in blending traditional and modern Japanese design in a clean and open space, and use Japanese architect Nakamura-san. Our investment was substantial in the design of our 5,000 square foot restaurants. But we felt customers need to have a full picture when they sit down and dine with us.
Q: Another important ingredient to the Hiro 88 experience is the sake. Please tell me about that.
Sake is actually a very important part of Japanese cuisine. If you look at foods from different parts of the world, the wines served in places like France and Italy, for example, have evolved with the food. Cuisine evolves hand in hand with spirit. In Japan, our spirit is Sake, which is made from rice. And because we feel it is so important, we have one of the largest Sake selections in Omaha.
We have also received awards for our wine selection. We carry about 100 different bottles, and cater to the Nebraska pallet, which prefers domestic wines from Oregon and Napa. Our list is not predominantly French, Spanish or Italian. Instead we work with our distributors to choose wines that appeal to our clientele.
Q: What is your most popular dish?
We do an amazing salmon plank. All our salmon is Sashimi grade, and we cook this dish on a cedar smoking plank with a raspberry vinaigrette. From our sushi menu, our most popular items include salmon, yellowtail, and the tuna, which is line caught from Hawaii.
Q: Please tell me about the meaning of the name Hiro 88.
Hiro is a very common Japanese name and the number 88 is considered to be very lucky in the Chinese culture; it means fortune, wealth and success.
Q: What advise do you have for someone wishing to open a restaurant?
The first good advice I can offer is to go work in a restaurant for about a year. A lot of times a passion for cooking, though it is a component for success, does not prepare a person to run his or her own business. A lot of times people think that because they enjoy serving food or drinks at parties that it will prepare them for owning their own restaurant, and they don’t understand that being a restaurant owner involves paying bills, obtaining permits, hiring and firing.
Hiro 88 uses Boxerbrand’s Ostrich Baby! menu covers.