This is One Year In, in which Eater Austin interviews chefs and owners on the occasion of their restaurant's first anniversary. This week, we speak with Chad and Chip Reed of Roll On Sushi Diner.
The Roll On Sushi Diner's Reed brothers. [Photo: Tod Wolfson/Roll On Sushi Diner]
Meet Chad and Chip Reed – brothers, entrepreneurs, and cofounders of Austin's diner/sushi joint combo, Roll On Sushi Diner. But wait, what? A diner? Sushi? Have y'all completely lost your nuggets? Nope: the design laid out by the brothers Reed has even caught the eye of Travel & Leisure magazine, which named the Burnet Road restaurant to its list of America's best new diners. Roll On's is a business model that includes the marriage of chicken-fried steak with sushi rice and nori, egg whites and cheese atop traditional California rolls, and the Beefy Texan Roll, a daring creation that just has to be seen to be believed. (Or tasted.)
One year in, and already their experiment is bringing together sushi lovers and skeptics alike. Checking in with Eater Austin, Chip and Chad talk diner dreams, how their passions for sushi evolved, and why Austin is now eager to "Roll On" with its homies.
The concept of Roll On Sushi, where price is determined by the color of each plate picked, is something I have encountered in other cities. What made you think it would be right for Austin?
Chad: I'll take a stab at that one first. So, a lot of people refer to it as 'Roll On Sushi' on Twitter, but it is "Roll On Sushi Diner." And the reason why we [named it] that is that 'diner' is pretty important to our concept. I was living in LA – I lived in Los Angeles for years and years – and there was a sushi place there that I fell in love with. It was kind of a counter service, cool sushi bar/restaurant, and they had this really cool concept of price-per-plate. I would come out to Texas all the time, and my friends wouldn't want to go out and eat sushi. They'd be like, well, I don't like raw fish, I don't want to have sushi; too bad, we're just going to have to go somewhere else. The concept is centered around trying to create a really cool atmosphere with a diner setting, but at the same time really being unique and trying to do something different with the types of rolls that we do.
So the whole thing went from our Beefy Texan Roll to our Cholesta Roll, which is essentially chicken-fried steak, and I thought that if we had something like this, I could take my friends to a sushi restaurant that they would really love. We have great, traditional sushi with raw fish in it, but we also have amazing fusion rolls. We essentially have something for everybody. Not only is it a diner atmosphere when you walk in – it's really sociable, that's why we made it this way – people interact with the chefs, and 95% of the kitchen is there with the crowd. The employees are interacting with the customers, the customers are interacting with each other, so it has that old school diner feel, and we really have the heart of a diner. We have diner shrimp, we have the Beefy Texan Roll, we have the Cholesta Roll, so we wanted to do some diner type foods, along with traditional sushi that makes it a good all around place, where we have something for everybody.
Chip: You'd asked specifically about, why Austin? Going back to the history of the name, Roll On being a very forward-thinking, on-the-move type place, Austin is a very active lifestyle city. We figured that if any place was going to accept something different, Austin was the place to do it. So far, we've been very happy with the way the restaurant has been received by the Austinites. It's very encouraging when we get old couples who will come in together, and more often than not at the end we'll get a big thank you, thank you so much, because now I can go eat sushi with my wife, my girlfriend or boyfriend. There's something there for the other person to eat! We kind of solved that, and what's great about it is that traditional sushi lovers love our place, and the people who have never tried sushi also love our place. And so that's very encouraging, because it was kind of the idea behind it. We [aimed] to be a place that offered something for everybody, and we feel like we've done that.
How do you come up with some of these unique fusion rolls? Are there any more in the works that perhaps aren't on the menu yet you'd care to share about?
Chip: With a lot of this stuff, Chad and I definitely concepted [sic] it. Some of the chefs who work with us will help us execute an idea and put the rolls together. The Cholesta Roll has been a big hit: it's not really sushi, but it looks like it. [Laughs]. We essentially take mashed potatoes, and heat a piece of soy paper with the mashed potatoes, stuff it with chicken-fried steak, green beans, and hash browns, and then jumbo fry it, and throw it on a bed of green gravy. It's chicken-fried steak in five bites; we just make it easy on you. We get people who will come in and order three Cholesta Rolls, and that's it. Then their boyfriend or whoever will get a couple of spicy tuna rolls, and everybody's happy.
We do have some menu items coming up. One new thing we just introduced is the Austin Club Roll. It is fried chicken, roma tomatoes, romaine lettuce, spicy mayonnaise, topped with guacamole, bacon, and Roll On Crunch, with wasabi and mayonnaise on top, and that's our version of a club sandwich. It's fantastic. We actually are creating a roll next week for our one year anniversary: it's ham, and it's a pulled-pork roll. It's pulled-pork, pepper-jack cheese, chipotle coleslaw, avocado, sushi rice, soy paper, and this Roll On barbeque sauce that we created, which is a sweet, savory, spicy barbeque sauce. It's quite fantastic.
Chad: Needless to say, when we're coming up with this stuff, we might occasionally hit a few obstacles. Just throwing that out there. It's been really fun, it was a cool process. There aren't too many restaurants where you can sit back and just go "man, what can we do next?" We've created 15 new rolls, and we will highlight them on our specialty menu for our anniversary. That ranges from traditional, with things like raw fish, to fusion rolls like the Austin Club and the pulled-pork ham, and so forth. What some people might not realize is that sushi lovers are always going to be the foundation of our business, and it's funny how it's worked out. To date, we've also kind of built our business by the non-sushi lover, so it's kind of interesting. We hired a new chef, with 12 years experience doing the traditional stuff, and he's also super excited about doing some of our Austin-inspired rolls, but we're really geared toward that sushi lover, always attracting more of those guys there as well.
What would you say is the most daring sushi roll you've invented? How do you go about rationalizing combinations and pairings?
Chip: The difference is: taste test, taste test, taste test. Chad and I have both benefitted from the fact that we're not classically trained in the culinary arts. We love food, we love to entertain. And especially when it comes to something as traditional as sushi: we want to respect that tradition. But we also benefit from the fact that we're not tied by tradition, so it's easy for us to cross some boundaries. Essentially sushi is seaweed and rice, and we're pretty much limitless as to what we can do with that. We're without boundaries, and that's kind of the approach we've taken. We're a blank slate. We can pretty much create anything in a roll, as long as it tastes good. We've been very fortunate with the people we've brought in, and we're very proud and very happy with what we've created and how it turned out.
Chad: One of the ones that we did get lucky on is the Beefy Texan Roll. It's something that Chip actually came up with, and that roll is a barbecued brisket with wasabi coleslaw and avocado, that's rolled with nori and sushi rice, and has spicy barbecue at its base. And that's probably, one year to date, one of our top sellers, isn't it?
Chip: It's our number two selling roll, actually, and we actually added it to the menu without it even being tried. It's the perfect combination.
So if that's number two, what's number one?
Chip: Our number one selling roll is actually the Dy-No-Mite. Dy-no-mite, as in JJ from Good Times? It's essentially a four piece California Roll, but what makes it special is what we've topped the four piece California Roll with: we take tempura shrimp, cheese, spicy mayonnaise, crab, and we fold egg whites in that, and then we bake it so that we have a soufflé, and then we top the California Roll with it. It's fantastic. People love it. It's great.
Do you each have a favorite roll?
Chad: We have an egg roll coming up that I'm very fond of, and it is called the Dream Roll. And I can't even go into beginning what's all in it. It's just happiness in your mouth, to be honest. That's one of the new ones on our specialty menu. I am more of a traditionalist, and this roll coming up is pretty yummy.
Chip: Probably my favorite, from the Austin-inspired side, is the Grouch. If you have insider information, you can come in and order something called the Super Grouch, and the Super Grouch is essentially roasted chicken, roasted poblano peppers, pepper jack cheese, Roll On guacamole, and bacon. This roll is served in soy paper with sushi rice, along with chipotle, and it's ridiculously good.
On the more traditional side, we have a roll called the Guaca Rolly, which was actually named by one of our Facebook fans. It is jumbo shrimp, avocado, and cucumbers, and then we topped it with Roll On guacamole and spicy tuna, with jalapenos and cilantro.
What kind of insider information would I need to order that one? Is there a password?
Chip: The Super Grouch is not on the menu. The Grouch is on the menu, also a fantastic roll, but it does not include the guacamole or the bacon. So you have to be kind of an insider or know someone who works here to order the Super Grouch. There are a couple of secret menu items. The more you come to the restaurant, the more information you get.
Given that the concept of Roll On Sushi Diner involves a lot of mixing and matching, I'm curious to know about the strangest combination you've ever seen a customer put together. Does any particularly bizarre pairing stand out to you?
Chip: The customers don't often modify the rolls too much, to be honest with you. Probably, thinking of the most out there combination, we had a girl come in who wanted a Philly Roll topped with strawberry jam. It actually turned out really good, so what we did was we took the Philly Roll, and we had this strawberry sauce that we used for our fried ice cream, and we just topped it with that. It actually turned out really well.
How long have you two been interested in the restaurant business, and more specifically, the sushi sub-sect of that realm?
Chad: After I graduated from college I went and managed bars and restaurants for about three years. I fell in love with food there, at this place called Big Dog's Hospitality Group. It was a restaurant that did more diner style food, but in Los Angeles I really fell in love with sushi, being there for nine years. We probably had the idea for 10 years, before we even decided to be crazy enough to go with it. Going in, we didn't have ownership experience, and we had a little bit of restaurant experience, but we got with the right people from a consultancy standpoint, to help with kitchen design and food costs and menu prep; all these things that you need to go into the restaurant [business], from an operational standpoint, are so important. We weren't dumb enough to say, okay, we're going to go open a restaurant now. It takes a ton of effort; not only from an operational standpoint, but also from a marketing aspect.
From the day we started talking about it, it's been about 12 years, and we've been open for one year now.
What are some of the successes from the past year that you've been the most proud of?
Chad: When we were open for about four months, we were named "Best Sushi" by City Search, which was really cool, because we had our fans and people like that voting for us. We've been in the Chronicle, we've been highlighted by Eater a couple of times, and were recently named by Travel and Leisure Magazine as one of America's coolest new diners. It was a really proud moment for us – not even being open a year yet and being highlighted by such great media outlets like yourself but also international outlets. It's been great.
If you had to do anything differently from the past year, what would you change?
Chip: You know, the way we built Roll On Sushi Diner, we could just do more with the idea, to just do more. The way we have it set up, it's just one long dining counter; no booths, no tables, no chairs. Everything is right at the bar. The only negative thing about that is that we can't really accommodate really large groups. That might be something to do different, but that's really it. The aesthetics, and the way everything turned out, the look of the diner, the feel of the diner, the comments we get when people walk in, it was everything that we're going for. People sense such a community when they come in, everybody really kind of interacts with everybody.
We're very happy with how the food turned out, very happy with our staff, [the space] is probably the only thing.
What does the next year hold for you? How do you plan to grow and develop as an integral part of the community?
Chad: Keep an eye out for us. What we've been doing is launching a catering aspect for the last two months. We are basically branding ourselves in three different ways: our brick-and-mortar location, the Roll On Sushi Diner; our catering business is going to be Roll On Catering – we have salads, bowls, and rolls; and also, we'd like to open up multiple locations. We are also looking very seriously at, maybe in the first quarter of next year, doing a sushi truck. We're thinking of calling that Roll On Mobile.
Ideally, what we'd like to do, is something that Chip and I have been working the past year on, which is really understanding what it takes operationally, what the kitchen needs to do and how employees need to interact. So this year, we want to really work to grow our business: how do we develop the Roll On Sushi name and brand in Austin, and it all comes back to certain aspects of that.
Chip: I just want to add to that, which is something that we kind of addressed earlier, has to do with why we got into the sushi business. I've always been passionate about hospitality, but I was a financial services guy, with no experience in the restaurant business except waiting tables in college, but I've always liked the idea of creating a place where people can enjoy themselves and have a memorable experience.
So, why sushi? Sushi, to me, is very shareable. It kind of breathes community. People enjoy that. That kind of jumps us into the whole community aspect, with wanting to be ingrained in Austin, and to help a city out that supports us, which is why we do a lot of events that benefit local charities. We're supporting a community garden called Grow Together. As far as spreading to other areas, people down south of the river are already screaming for Roll On Sushi down south. As Chad mentioned, Roll On Mobile Diner is definitely in the works. As of right now, we're not actively looking for another brick-and-mortar. We're checking out different locations for development.
Chad: If I had to add one last thing, it would be that we're a sushi diner that caters to everyone, but we do the traditional stuff very well. It's funny; a lot of people don't realize that. They think, oh, Roll On Sushi Diner, that crazy, novelty sushi rolls place, but for the traditional rolls, people try us out and they love it.
—Emma Kat Richardson