The New York Times, Sunday, February 18, 2001
In Business

A Sushi Baron Expands

By Marc Ferris

From Start in a Convenience Store, an Ardsley Resident Moves to Supermarket

Jay Kim, below right, owner of Sushi by Jay, opened his first sushi bar in a Dobbs Ferry convenience store, right, where workers prepare customer orders. "You can fake it with sushi, Mr. Kim, an Ardsley resident, says. "I have to make sure everything is fresh; that the most important thing.

Jay Kim admits that supermarket sushi has a bad reputation. But Mr. Kim, who opened his first sushi bar in a Dobbs Ferry convenience store eight years ago, is determined to change people perceptions. "You can fake it with sushi, he said. "I have to make sure everything is fresh; that the most important thing.

Mr. Kim specializes in providing fresh sushi in unexpected places, like the convenience store, private parties, and functions held at catering halls, including the Doral Arrowwood, the Tarrytowm House, and The Castle. Last year, he opened a branch of his Sushi by Jay in a Scarsdale storefront and the real estate agent who brokered the deal suggested that he expand into supermarkets.

Mr. Kim balked at the idea until he met Rick Sciulla, then the seafood manager at the Edwards chain, which was converted to Stop & Shop. The two bonded immediately. "Jay is from the old school, Mr. Sciulla said. "He does a lot of little things that separate himself from the rest. Other companies are very commercial; Jay is the opposite of commercial.

In Stop & Shop, Mr. Kim found a kindred company. "They understand that quality is important, he said. "When you deal with other supermarkets, you know what they ask first? What percent can you give us? Those guys, they asked, how can you make the customers happy? That why I liked them.

So last April, he opened full-service sushi bars in three Stop & Shop stores in New Jersey and one on Long Island. This year, he will expand into another 25 outlets and sell his own brand of soy sauce, wasabi and other sushi supplements.

Mr. Kim attributed his success to avoiding common sushi sins, like leaving the fish out too long or using frozen yellowtail and tuna. At his supermarket counters, raw sushi orders are prepared while customers shop the aisles, and the menu is as extensive as that of most Japanese restaurants, The store provides the equipment and takes a percentage of his gross. He supplies the fish and the employees.

Mr. Kim is frugal and proud of it. He keeps his overhead low, makes deliveries in an economy car and works out of his office in his Ardsley home. His wife, Ellita, fills in behind the counter in his Dobbs Ferry space or in Scarsdale when necessary.

For someone accustomed to keeping close tabs on all aspects of his business, growth presents challenges. Mr. Kim plans to franchise his counters out to experienced sushi chefs who will be responsible for conforming his strict standards. He will also rent warehouse and office space and play more of a supervisory role to ensure that the overall supply is fresh. "They will be my clones, he sad. "When you see the name Sushi by Jay, the customers have to trust the product. I'm not going to expand just for the sake of it. If I can keep the quality up, I'll cut back,

In his native Korea, Mr. Kim worked in a sushi restaurant to put himself through college. He became a salesman after he graduated, but shed the suit and tie in 1986 when he moved to Rockland County and began working in a Manhattan fish store that featured a sushi bar. An advertisement in a Korean newspaper took him to Dobbs Ferry, where the proprietors of Chang Market sought someone to rent and operate their in-house sushi bar. Ownership of the convenience store has since changed hands - it now called Brother Market - and Mr. Kim, 45, outgrew his cramped space. He gained additional space and now seats 10 customers and does a brisk take-out business.

During a typical dinner rush, the head chef, Tom Tran, prepares hand rolls and slices slabs of raw fish with assembly-line efficiency. Mr. Tran and his fellow chefs, Yeesoon Wong and Jacob Choy, move with the economical grace of modern dancers. Mr. Wong balances on his tiptoes to add a dollop of sauce atop a piece of sea urchin, for example, and Mr. Choy reaches around Mr. Tran to fill a take-out tray without knocking him over.

Mr. Kim, whose round face is framed by an arc of gray hair, is a hands-off boss who is quick to laugh, but he is serious about sushi. His efforts have cultivated a loyal customer base, particularly among students at Dobbs Ferry Middle School and High School, just up the road fro, his store. "The upper grades are allowed to go off campus for lunch and I get so jealous when my sister tells me, I had sushi for lunch, and all I had was cafeteria food," said Kate Sterne, 11, a middle school student, as she picked up an order of dumplings and California rolls for dinner with her friends Nicole Bisceglia, 11, and Kristina Dibisceglie, 12. Later, several high school students from the Masters School, a private school nearby, crowded around the sushi bar. "It my third time here this week," said Lindsay Brox.

Sarah Adler-Milstein said, "Everyone at school loves Jay," as her friends Annie Sklaver, David End and Lisa Riordan nodded in agreement.

Mr. Kim takes particular pride in serving the youngsters. For their sake, he has not raised prices in his flagship store, "Maybe this is Asian thinking, but when kids come with a dollar or two and ask me how much for that, I feel they have to eat first before I make money, he said. "Sometimes they come and say Jay, I have $2, can I have a California roll? I say, that the heck. I think about my child. If he wanted to eat something and he had only $2, I want him to eat. One time a student said to me: hey, Jay. You're the best thing that ever happened in this town. It was kind of cute. Maybe he wanted some free sushi, I don know."

Mr. Kim may be a shrewder businessman than he lets on. For now, most students limit themselves to imitation crab, the main ingredient of a California roll, but they just might graduate to more sophisticated fare, like raw yellowtail and fluke. In times, they may even become as adventurous as Craig Ruoff, one of Mr. Kim most devoted customers, who often dines on esoteric items like salmon roe and sea urchin. A picture of Mr. Ruoff and his wife, Jennifer, hangs on the sushi bar wall and the couple hired Mr. Kim to cater their wedding reception at Temple Beth Am-Shalom in White Plains.

"He was the hit of the party," said Mr. Ruff, an Irvington resident. "People still talk about it. My wife and I are sushi addicts and we've picky about where we go. There are a lot of Japanese restaurants in Westchester, but when you meet Jay and talk with him, he so likable you want to give him your business."