What do you get when the CEO of Lutheran Health Network and Lutheran Hospital (Brian Bauer), the CEO of Dupont Hospital (Aaron Garofola) and an Oncologist at Fort Wayne Medical Oncology and Hematology (Dr. Ryan Gonzales) join forces? A new sushi restaurant! Sushi is my favorite food group so I was quite happy to sit and chat with Ryan about the newest sushi and seafood restaurant in Fort Wayne – Umi.
If you are from Terre Haute, you would have heard of Umi Grill, which opened in 2001 as the first Japanese restaurant in Terre Haute. The first question I posed to Ryan, was how they came up with the concept of bringing Umi to Fort Wayne. “Brian, Aaron, and I are long time friends from Terre Haute……it’s a pretty small town. It wasn’t a traditional destination for great sushi. The typical options were Texas Roadhouse or hamburger joints.” When Umi Grill came to town it quickly became their favorite spot. In fact, “it was the number one restaurant in Terre Haute and people would come from larger cities like Indy,” just to get their sushi fix. “A lot of doctors like me did their residency on coastal cities, so they became accustomed to sushi and seafood that was fresh. I did mine at Louisiana State University. Have you had food in the south? Amazing. But then when you have sushi with less than fresh ingredients it’s just subpar. You know there is something better out there.”
When Brian moved to Fort Wayne in 2011, Ryan moved shortly thereafter and, along with Aaron, they started brainstorming on how to bring an Umi-like concept to Fort Wayne. “People have been begging Qi [owner of Umi Grill] to expand, to franchise. He always said no, but he entertained the idea with us, because we were great customers and had a passion for his food and brand.” This began over two and a half years of detailed and methodical planning to convince Qi to allow them to bring Umi to the Fort. “He wanted someone who had his vision. It was his name, and he wanted control of the quality and the brand. He wanted a single stand-alone restaurant and didn’t want the restaurant to be cheapened by a strip mall setting.”
Aaron, Brian, and Ryan all set to work putting together a well-executed business plan, including use of the same distributors that Umi used in order to maintain the same quality and high standards of the original. After multiple revisions, they were able to create a concept that surpassed the original owner’s vision. “We made his dream come true!” Ryan laughed. “He helped plan the restaurant set up. All the mistakes that he learned from his restaurant were fixed in ours so it’s an even grander version.”
“Besides the quality of food, we want to be known for our service.” They know what they want and like and that’s what they want to provide. They have seen the excitement and growth in Fort Wayne and want to contribute and invest in it. “I was going to be the silent partner, but Brian and I are so detail oriented and wanted to have input in everything. As an oncologist, I am used to people come to me because they have received some devastating news. This is different. People are happy when you approach them about sushi! I had a doctor call me yesterday, and I assumed it was about admitting a patient. Instead he was calling to make a reservation at 7 PM for 4 people. Have I become a reservation specialist!?”
Umi will definitely stand apart from its counterparts in the city. Their miso is made new each day from scratch unlike most places where you receive pre-packaged fare. The sushi is made with fresh fish that is delivered whole and the chef cuts to his specification. Umi will be known not only for its amazing sushi, but also its seafood. Their spicy Chilean sea bass is one of the most popular items on the Terre Haute menu and has already proven popular at their soft openings. They will also serve handcrafted cocktails, including the most amazing Japanese Chili Fizz that I had to sample twice.
The rolls themselves are handcrafted and often named for special patrons. An iPad has pictures of the various specialty rolls and cocktails with the ingredients, which is most helpful when it comes to sushi. “The Dr. Singh is the number one roll in Terre Haute for the last five years. The doctor wanted something with mango that was spicy, so the chef created a specialty roll that was met with his approval.” When I asked what was most popular roll was so far at their soft openings, he was quick to point out it was the Doc G roll (imitation crab and cream cheese, spicy mayo, unagi sauce), which is named after him. “I mean that’s always the one I recommend to people,” he admitted. “But they love it!”
One unique twist that will be at Umi Fort Wayne is the ability to have membership access to the whiskey lounge and a downstairs lounge. There are 48 whiskey lockers in the whiskey lounge that are stocked with Japanese whiskey and three membership levels. The most basic level (for $1,500) gives you access to the whiskey lounge and locker as well as private events. The mid-level ($2,000) gives you access to the downstairs lounge which will be fitted with 72” plasma TVs and leather couches as well as a private secret entrance. The highest level ($5,000) gives you a handcrafted sushi roll named after you. The first unique private event will be a whiskey ceremony in February performed by an expert in the Japanese whiskey ceremony from celebrity chef Michael Mina of StripSteak’s restaurant. Due to high demand, prior to even opening, the lockers are already rented out for the year!
For those that weren’t able to get a whiskey locker, they will still be able to rent out a downstairs space that would fit 84. Upstairs the restaurant comfortably fits 155. The menu can be found online at umifortwayne.com, but don’t be afraid to tell the staff what you want and have them craft it for you. Since the three owners have rather important day jobs (saving lives and such), they brought General Manager Aaron Azar from the original Umi Grill to lead and oversee the Fort Wayne restaurant. Azar, coupled with a head cook and two servers from the original Terre Haute restaurant, have over eight years of expertise and culture that they are bringing with them to ensure Umi will be a success.
Umi’s grand opening will be this coming Wednesday, January 4th from 4-10PM. Call to make your reservation and check out their website or follow them on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter for more details!