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From the time Robert Ly could hold something in his hands, he was washing dishes at his family’s restaurant. Born to parents who had escaped communist Vietnam, he started his training in the restaurant world early, helping out at his parents’ side from the age of seven. By the time he was 14, he was opening the shop by himself and running through ideas for his own future restaurant—searching for something that would represent his own personality and creativity. One day, this drive would turn Ly into Grand Master Fun Ly, co-founder and -owner of the ninja-themed, fast-casual sushi concept, Sus Hi Eatstation.
When Ly first moved to Florida, he says he was faced with two choices: he could either go to school to earn a degree in business, or he could work at every major restaurant concept that would hire him to learn the essentials of branding, management, and daily operations. “I chose the fun route,” Ly says.
Ly worked tirelessly for brands such as Disney and Darden, along with one 5-star hotel and as many top sushi establishments as he could find. All in all, he managed to get experience from nearly 30 restaurants under his belt before deciding he was prepared to open his own concept.
Ly soon met his match in Teresa Chan, an equally fun-loving, creatively driven foodie with an eye for business. Chan was also the child of Vietnamese refugees, whose involvement in foodservice came in the form of Orlando, Florida’s, Saigon Market. Their early relationship consisted of going out to eat, critiquing food, and bouncing ideas off of each other. “When (Chan) and I got together, it was a natural thing for us to think about starting a business together,” Ly says. “A lot of her weaknesses and strengths are opposite to mine, so we were able to put our business minds and also our creative minds together to see what’s in the market right now, what’s missing, and what we could do differently.”
As a sector experiencing rapid growth, the first thing that popped into their heads was a fast-casual concept. Specifically, they wanted to fill the void with a cuisine they hadn’t yet encountered in that market: fresh, build-your-own sushi. The next decision—the theme—came just as easily to them. “We wanted to build something that’s a reflection of our personalities, and for us, when we thought of something fun associated with Japanese culture, it was a no-brainer: Ninjas,” Ly says.
The two are now husband-and-wife, as well as co-owners and -founders of Sus Hi Eatstation—or “the dojo”—in Orlando, Florida. All customers and employees are referred to as “ninjas,” (each manager is a “sensei”), and moving along the line, customers can hear the banging of a gong as appetizers are prepared and employee-ninjas yelling “FIRE!” as they torch cheese on customers sushi rolls, bowls, or wraps—all with the intent of creating a fun, engaging environment that encourages guests to get creative with their food.
“What’s great about our concept is that it’s the perfect place for people to get an introduction to sushi, because they can come in and get familiar ingredients—like chicken, cheese, and bacon—before branching out to more traditional, raw fish sushi,” Ly adds. While Ly and Chan first thought the concept’s rolls would be its biggest seller, they soon came to find that the majority of customers opted for their never-before-tried sushi bowls—which offer more food, easier eating, and unique toppings like mango, sweet potato, and tempura flakes. As the market continues to shape and grow the Sus Hi Eatstation brand, its ninja culture is building a cult following in Orlando, prompting Ly and Chan to plan for five new openings in the next year and to launch a retail endeavor selling their popular white, eel, and spicy mayo sauces. Beyond just customer loyalty, the concept was recently awarded first-place in the Brighthouse Business Awards in the Medium-Sized Business category.
“It’s evolved a lot, and we love that people are reacting well to our twist on sushi and having fun with it,” Ly says. The brand hopes to have 200 to 300 dojos open in the next decade to bring its creative culture—and Ly and Chan’s fun vision—to new ninja markets.
By Emily Byrd