At Okinawa's Kami Sushi, customers come first
After taking one step inside this pop-colored sushi bar, I was greeted by countless photos of past customers posted on boards. Smiling, happy people flashing a thumbs-up or a peace sign litter the walls at Kami Sushi. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this was a place that has made many people – and their stomachs – very pleased during its seven years in business.
The sushi bar in American Village near Kadena Air Base and Camp Foster, best known for its American-style or L.A. -style sushi, recently celebrated its 7th anniversary with a celebration and discounts for its many customers.
During the downtime between lunch and dinner, owner and Chef Isamu Kamiya reflected on his seven years of serving the community. Even though it was quiet during the intermission, it was not hard to tell that this place is usually full of life - quite different than when it started, according to Kamiya.
“I often saw no customers show up for a whole day,” Kamiya said. “In fact, our roll sushi, which is one the most popular menu items today, was not well received. It was like that through the first year.”
Running a business in American Village didn’t come easy for Kamiya. During the startup period, Kamiya faced uphill battles, dealing with high costs and low name recognition. But things picked up when Americans became his main customers.
“At first, I was thinking about targeting tourists, but we gradually came to have more and more foreign (American) customers showing up. So we decided to focus on them,” said Kamiya.
Since then, Kamiya have been adapting to what Americans want. He listened, and has changed menu items, some of which are now named after customers.
His white Japanese cooking coat became a colorful t-shirt and cap, and the authentic American/L.A.-style sushi, which he proudly serves with fresh seafood from Okinawa, attracted many Americans.
While doing so, Kamiya came to nurture friendships, with many customers returning to his sushi bar years later to see him and enjoy his sushi.
“A lot of them stop by this place to let me know that they are going back to the U.S., so I like to give them gifts – a t-shirt, chop sticks - to express appreciation for the time they spent at my restaurant,” said Kamiya.
“They often come back again sometime after, although I tend to forget their names. American names are hard to remember,” said the chef jokingly.
According to Kamiya, the 50% discount he offered on the anniversary is part of a tradition he started during the early days.
“I’m happy that I’ve kept this place running for seven years. 10 years is the goal I am looking at now,” Kamiya said. “I have no idea what the future of this place will look like after that. But for now, that’s my goal.”