Emerging Concepts | February 2012 | By Judy Kneiszel

One to Watch: How Do You Roll?

This Texas-based concept plans to Americanize sushi once and for all.

Sushi concept How Do You Roll? is hitting its stride, growing to seven locations since opening in late 2008, with plans for 20 more stores in 2012.

“The first seven are all in Texas,” says cofounder and CEO Yuen Yung. “And we will soon be in California, Florida, and Arizona. We have six in the build-out stage, four in lease negotiations, and hopefully 10 more opening in 2012. From there our goal is to get to 100 by the end of 2016 in those markets and beyond.”

Before getting into the restaurant business, Yung was a financial planner with a hunger for sushi. His brother, Peter, had been a sushi chef for eight years.

“Peter and I would talk about what we loved and hated about sushi,” Yung says. “I hated that I had to dress up and listen to techno music to eat sushi, or get it from the grocery store.”

So the brothers created what Yung calls “nonpretentious, quality, fast-casual sushi to have fun and explore with.”

“We experimented with the equation and how to speed up the process,” Yung says. “What we changed is that now you can get high-quality sushi the way you want it in a reasonable time frame.”

While the 10-piece maki-style rolls at How Do You Roll? are custom-made in front of customers, some of the more time-consuming aspects of the process, like pressing the rice, have been mechanized to save time. The time it takes to make each roll is about three minutes.

Yung says How Do You Roll? has modernized and Americanized sushi, offering guests a variety of menu choices.

How Do You Roll?

Founder/CEO: Yuen Yung

HQ: Austin, Texas

Year Started: 2010

Annual Sales: $3 million

Total Units: 7

Franchise Units: 7

www.howdoyouroll.com

How Do You Roll? customers make ingredient choices and watch their rolls get assembled, much like sandwiches at Subway or burritos at Chipotle. They begin by choosing a traditional seaweed wrap or the more neutral-flavored soy wrap, and then white or brown rice. From there, guests can choose from a long list of fruits and vegetables including asparagus, cucumber, avocado, green onions, and strawberries.

The list of proteins includes raw ingredients like salmon and tuna or cooked ingredients like shrimp, crawfish tails, chicken, and beef. Peter Yung also created seven proprietary sauces for How Do You Roll?, including Spicy Mayo, sweet and tangy Creamy Miso, and hot Sweet Chili.

“We are sushi rebels,” Yung says. “We have turned the sushi world upside down by offering strawberries, beef, chicken—all kinds of ingredients that are against tradition.”

He says he and Peter have critics who call their concept “blasphemous.” But they are winning over many hard-core sushi fans, as well those new to sushi, with their speed and the quality of their ingredients.

“Our guests are very big on custom creations—that’s our No. 1 seller,” Yung says. “People say, ‘I love sushi, but I hate when the chef puts cucumber in it, or I hate avocado.’ But here, we’re all about individualism and freedom of choice.”

There are some Featured Rolls on the menu, like the Cali Roll, made with seaweed wrap, crabstick, cucumber, avocado, and sesame seeds; and the Unagi Roll, made with seaweed wrap, freshwater eel, cucumber, avocado, and sesame seeds.

The ticket average at How Do You Roll? is about $10. Most locations serve wine, beer, and Saki; all serve traditional fountain drinks and hot Japanese green tea. The chain serves two hot sides, edamame and miso soup, and three cold sides: seaweed salad, cucumber salad, and calamari salad. But Yung says a single roll is usually plenty to satisfy a person’s hunger.

“People are surprised at how filling they are,” Yung says. “First timers will order two rolls because they are used to what they get at traditional sushi places where they have to order three to get filled up.”

New customers are treated with care at How Do You Roll?. “You can tell a first-timer because they have that deer-in-the-headlights look,” Yung says. “So we tell them how it works, show them how to create a roll, and suggest what combinations might be good. Regulars go right to the front ready to fire their order at you.”

Yung says How Do You Roll? is a popular option for vegetarians, those on gluten-free diets, and people who are generally health conscious.

“A 10-piece roll has fewer calories than a six-inch sub,” he says. “When you eat a roll you feel like you are not hungry, but there’s not a heavy feeling.”

Yung says it is exciting to see kids enjoying How Do You Roll?.

“Kids have fun here and have grasped the concept really quickly,” he says. “The kids’ meal comes with a cute cup, toy, and five-piece Junior Roll they can create for $3.99. Parents are thrilled because it is healthy and they are spending about a third of what it costs to feed a family at a traditional sushi restaurant.”

Yung says the concept has grown primarily through word of mouth but is “finally at the point where we’re going to do more marketing to build the next ring of customers.”