Ask any business owner what it takes to succeed and you’ll likely hear that you must have the stomach for taking risks, putting in long hours and learning from mistakes. And if you really want to get the entrepreneurial juices flowing, try founding a restaurant based on sushi, whose rate of skyrocketing popularity means an increasingly taxed world fish population. Now you’ve got yourself a recipe for some of the greatest challenges a fledgling business can face.
Zach and Josh Weprin and their childhood friend, Stephan Harman, are beating the odds. Nearly three years ago, the young trio founded Fusian, a fast casual sushi restaurant with locations in downtown Cincinnati, Dayton and, slated to open in February, the Ohio State University campus in Columbus. They had originally named the restaurant “Soho Sushi,” which led to one of their first lessons: How to best rebrand a business to match their core concept. Fusian merges the words “fusion” and “Asian” to exemplify the restaurant’s marriage of healthy Asian cuisine with an on-the-go American flair.
“We came up with this moniker of ‘Easy. Casual. Sushi,’ and that’s kind of our guiding light,” co-founder Stephan Harman says.
Encouraged and mentored by Josh and Zach’s father, a successful businessman, the three set out on a risky journey, exploring Cincinnati’s culinary landscape to begin their new lives as restaurateurs. What they discovered was a unique opportunity to capitalize on a niche market — the downtown lunch rush.
“At that time there was not a dedicated sushi restaurant for the lunchtime crowd,” Harman says, “and in order to capitalize on the downtown lunchtime crowd, you need to be fast, nutritious and serve a product at a value.
(People) were looking for something quick, affordable and, in our case, healthy. You can’t eat burgers every day of the week. We wanted to create a place where you didn’t have to feel guilty about eating our food.”
Setting out to fulfill a need they’d identified downtown, the three green sushi frontiersmen received extensive training from a sushi chef who’d worked under James Beard Award winner Thomas Keller.
“When we first opened, it was rough. It wasn’t smooth. It didn’t speak from experience, but we were willing to learn, we were willing to make mistakes — we wanted to know what every customer thought of our product. Being in the restaurant, talking to our customers, learning as much about sushi, learning what people wanted, is kind of what helped us evolve the concept into what it is today,” Harman says.
Their perseverance and passion soon paid off, as local food bloggers and sushi enthusiasts quickly began spreading the word. Fusian’s fast casual approach, in which patrons smoothly move down an aisle to choose from a selection of ingredients and build their custom sushi rolls, prompted many fans to coin the restaurant the “Chipotle of sushi.”
“Chipotle does a great job,” Harman says. “As the fast casual arena goes, Chipotle is the poster child for it. If people compare us to Chipotle, we’re flattered.
“When you go through our line, it’s a simple process. Here’s your wrap, here’s your protein, throw as many veggies in as you want and we cut it into ten pieces, top it off with any of our toppings … and you’re on your way. It’s a familiar concept to Western society, it’s a familiar concept to Americans — we’re just doing it with sushi and trying to differentiate ourselves based on experience.”
While Fusian offers a diverse selection of non-traditional sushi proteins, including steak, chicken and roasted tofu, the classic tuna and salmon rolls remain among the most popular. And, Harman says, Fusian aims to provide the best quality, most sustainable fish sources available.
“Our tuna and salmon come straight off the fillet,” he says. “We use sashimi-grade tuna cut off what’s called the Saku Block, which is the prime tenderloin of the tuna steak. We want to ensure the fish we serve is the freshest we can find. We’re pretty picky about our fish, we’re pretty picky about our food in general.”
Since Fusian’s arrival, several competitors have emerged downtown, but Harman waxes philosophical.
“We think that as downtown Cincinnati continues to thrive and continues to go through its renaissance and redevelopment and urbanization, that is something we couldn’t help but be completely excited about. The positive energy that’s happening right now in downtown Cincinnati is amazing and for us to be a part of it is special.”
Go: 600 Vine St.
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday- Saturday