Restaurateurs Nicholas Eckerman and Lee Maen Reel In Sushi Lovers with ‘Yakumi’

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Better than ‘good enough to eat’: A Yakumi bento box. This and all food photos by Mona Shah

Restaurateurs in Los Angeles, a city known worldwide for innovative restaurants and the people who love them, spent much of 2020 enduring a culinary maelstrom in the face of the pandemic. While many local institutions at every price point shut their doors, others found a way to not only stay afloat but come out the other side stronger thanks to their pivoting to delivery, take-away, food trucks and outdoor dining.

Nicholas Eckerman
Nicholas Eckerman
Lee Maen
Lee Maen

This hallowed restaurant scene, however, has always endured the rigors of constantly changing tastes, evolving dietary concerns, recessions and the loss of some of its greatest home-grown culinary champions (including legendary food critic Jonathan Gold) whose reach extended far beyond the city. Although restaurateurs Nicholas Eckerman and Lee Maen came from different sides of this complex and fascinating universe, both had a front-row seat to nearly 20 years of seismic changes shaking up the way millions of people eat around the U.S. and the world.

With Los Angeles recognized as an epicenter for America’s sushi boom in the 80s, Lee Maen was part of a power trio that brought modern Hollywood showmanship to time-honored Japanese culinary traditions around the world. While their Innovative Dining Group (IDG) may not be a household name, its high-end, award winning and trend-setting Sushi Roku, Katana and BOA Steakhouse restaurants are synonymous with what’s right in L.A. dining. The venues have proliferated worldwide without sacrificing quality or craftsmanship, allowing them to be as relevant now as they were when they opened over two decades ago. 

Eckerman, meanwhile, got a hands-on education in the restaurant industry as the co-founder, president and CEO of PizzaRev, not only inventing something fresh in the then-new space of “fast casual,” but also doing it alongside father Rodney Eckerman and Irv Zuckerman, former veteran rock promoters who knew a few things about drawing crowds. PizzaRev, which launched in 2012, upgraded the pizza parlor/to-go experience by making it interactive–customers could pick and choose fresh ingredients and see their creation come together in seven minutes. By then, he applied his bachelors’ degree in Economics and Arts from The University of Texas at Austin and University of Hawaii at Manoa, and early gigs as a food and beverage manager with Ritz-Carlton and the Malibu Beach Inn Hotel and Spa’s director of food, beverage and operations. 

Their combined experience has converged with the opening of Yakumi, which brings together something Japanese food lovers never thought possible: the artistry and flavor profiles of fine sushi and affordable prices…and not cheap sushi. The dining environment, meanwhile, exceeds “fast casual” expectations with the care put into the décor. “We designed an unusually beautiful atmosphere for a fast-casual restaurant,” affirms Maen, whose Los Angeles Japanese food venues earned critical mass across the country. “We hired LIVIT, a well-known design firm out of Spain and Sweden, and made it feel like the kind of Japanese shop you would come across perusing some of Tokyo’s trendier neighborhood.”  

Over time the public’s knowledge and demand for high-quality sushi has grown tremendously and usually, high quality sushi is very expensive,” explains Lee Maen. “At Yakumi, we are able to offer high-quality sushi at a reasonable price through our labor efficiencies and our purchasing power as one of the biggest buyers of sushi grade fish in Southern California. (This taps into the success of) Innovative Dining Group, with our 20 years of perfecting certain sushi menu items, and with that we have a lot of data on what are the hits and the most popular. We really began our Yakumi menu with that laser focus” 

Deluxe bento box | Photo by Mona Shah
Deluxe bento box | Photo by Mona Shah
Vegan bento box | Photo by Mona Shah
Vegan bento box | Photo by Mona Shah

 After PizzaRev was sold to another company, Maen and Eckerman joined forces to pull together a new Japanese dining concept that could unite elements of stylish décor, ultra-premium sushi and care-free convenience. Burbank’s media district (home to major studios including Warner Brothers) was the launch-pad and its occupants the model customers. But the countdown stopped mid-planning when the world shut down in March 2020. However, the fallout and the changes that followed made the resulting collaboration a genuinely innovative move into the future of dining, solidified through a successful affordability-quality-luxury equation. 

I am really drawn towards foods and items I cannot make at my house, and I believe this leads to embracing many food cultures, and I think people in our age group, younger people and Gen-Xers are all on the same wavelength,” says Eckerman. “When developing Yakumi, the entire focus was on the equation of the highest quality sushi in the most accessible, simplest form. Having a product that was as good in the restaurant as it was to-go or for delivery.  The learning and the evolution from a fast-casual format like PizzaRev to a blend of fine dining and fast casual – was that restaurant customers are continually looking for more limited selection of items, but a higher level of quality. We want to be really, really, really good at a limited number of things, rather than ‘just OK. at a lot of things.” 

Yakumi's patio and entrance | photo by Wonho Frank Lee
Yakumi’s patio and entrance | photo by Wonho Frank Lee
Upscale ambiance + family-friendly vibe | photo by Wonho Frank Lee
Upscale ambiance + family-friendly vibe | photo by Wonho Frank Lee

What is it about Japanese food, and sushi in particular, which has allowed it to stand the test of time?  How is Yakumi emblematic of this? 

MAEN: People find Japanese culture trendy and exciting, very forward-thinking. Furthermore, you special when you’re eating sushi because it’s something you know has been crafted by very talented chefs. Even with the price and convenience, when you come to a place like ours, you know it’s going to be a very high-quality product, especially as we have solid credibility through Katana and Sushi Roku. Regardless of the restaurant’s format, when a high-quality product is paired with the craftsmanship, you have something beautiful that people love.  

ECKERMAN: I think at its core, sushi is so popular because it’s such a unique dining experience compared to nearly all others, especially western style cooking. Yakumi wanted to embrace that unique aspect and experience, and present what we believe to be some of the best sushi combinations we could imagine. 

What did you do to elevate Yakumi to feel closer to a higher-end dining experience above and beyond the quality of the food? 

ECKERMAN: Beyond opening up a beautiful and elevated restaurant atmosphere, we put an incredible amount of thought into the to-go packaging and boxes that our sushi combos come in to make them beautiful and as enjoyable as the sushi itself.   

With ramen being all the rage right now, especially with younger customers, why is now the right time to originate an affordable sushi “izakaya” style fast casual place? 

MAEN: I think fast-casual fits in with a lot of the younger generation’s mode of life, being able to create their own moments and make it what they want. Meaning you can come here and be in and out quick, take it to-go or for delivery, but also dine-in and hang out for a first date, a celebration with friends or just eat on your own with your laptop and get out of there. We think it’s right on with the times.  

ECKERMANThat said, we absolutely love ramen, and have our favorites, of course. While we are thrilled ramen is all the rage, especially as ramen and sushi are both Japanese in origin, they are such different dining experiences. We wanted to offer something as crave-able and unique for sushi as many ramen restaurants are. 

What were some of the biggest challenges in creating a small menu that allowed you to bring premium sushi to customers at a more affordable price? What was the “whittling down” process like when finalizing the menu? 

MAEN: We love to offer an exotic variety at our other restaurants, but when it comes down to it, people have their favorites and most common selections. Therefore, from tons of data we’ve gathered over 20 years, we were able to determine what people eat most often and put together a combination based on the most popular items. Another challenge was being efficient with labor and purchasing so we can get the price down to an affordable value.  

What were the most important lessons on being entrepreneurial that you took away from working with your father, Rodney?   

ECKERMAN: My father really taught me the importance of rolling with the punches as an entrepreneur. Not everything is going to go exactly as planned, that’s for sure. He understands how to look at every fork in the road like the next challenge.

As we go into the post-pandemic era, what advice would you offer somebody looking into a restaurant, especially with the risks that have been historically involved in making it profitable without compromising quality?  

ECKERMAN: I would offer the advice to recognize that people are dining in new ways. The traditional way of doing things in the restaurant business has forever evolved. We permanently have to have a focus now on the outdoor dining experience i.e. patios. and a focus on to-go and delivery product and all the tech surrounding these functions. 

MAEN: I would definitely have future pandemic type language in your lease, because honestly, this could happen again -we now know what’s possible. We’ve also seen that outdoors is king when there’s an issue, so having an outdoor patio or potential area to expand outdoors is a huge plus. Being on the cutting edge of sanitization and being clean and safe will make you stand out in the future.

 

For more information, please visit: www.yakumi.com and follow @yakumilife on social media


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