Students have found a new fix for their sushi craving and, believe it or not, they're finding it on campus.
Even more surprising is that WasaBee Sushi, a room-sized restaurant, independently cooks and delivers every piece of sushi found in our dining halls.
Individually wrapped rolls from WasaBee have been a tremendous success on campus, according to Ira Simon, Director of Dining Services at Western.
The idea first gained momentum last spring when students began to ask Simon about the possibility of offering sushi on campus. According to Simon, Dining Services had previously considered building a sushi bar on campus, but that idea was quickly scrapped because it was too expensive. They saw an opportunity to fulfill students' wishes in the new renovations being made to the VU.
Simon drafted up a letter of intent in summer 2008 and handed it out to five sushi restaurants in the Whatcom area. In the letter he outlined a plan of operation, including three clauses that each business would need to meet in order to sell sushi in Western's markets.
All sushi needed to be fresh daily, delivered to three separate locations (The VU Market, Miller Market and the Ridgeway Market) by 10 a.m. and the vendor had to have already met all of the health code and insurance requirements.
“I figured a business that already made sushi would be ready to keep up with the volume that would be requested,” Simon said. “I wanted to go somewhere that was already prepared and…experts at making sushi. It had to be a win-win for both us and their side.”
Since taste in sushi is subjective, Simon was more concerned with how students perceived each of the sushi businesses and their products.
“Sushi is very personal,” Simon said. “[The selection process] was more about appearance and value. I was more concerned with what the students and [the] University wanted.”
On July 31, Simon invited 22 students to come for a taste test of the two companies that showed a strong interest in the offer. Based on an anonymous evaluation of presentation and taste, students chose WasaBee sushi.
Starting Sept. 21, WasaBee began delivering 50 units to each location. Within a month they had increased the number to 60 units per day, which quickly jumped to 80 units per day. Before long the dining facilities were stocking 100 sushi units in all three locations each morning.
Simon was surprised by the amount of appeal WasaBee received on campus and credits the small sushi house with meeting the high level of production.
“WasaBee has done a great job delivering their product,” Simon said. “We like to do business with them. They're good people and they're responsive to our requests. They deliver on time. They've been great for us.”
Both Simon and Jake Porter, WasaBee's representative to Western, agree that the low cost of WasaBee was a strong factor in deciding whose sushi to serve on campus.
“One thing that draws people [to WasaBee] is we keep the cost down,” Porter said. “We have top quality ingredients and we charge reasonable prices.”
The idea to sell WasaBee sushi also came partially as a byproduct of the decision to bring Rocket Donuts to
campus, said Simon.
“Rocket Donuts was a success story for all of us,” Simon said. “We used their model for WasaBee, so to speak.”
Simon believes that, given the success of WasaBee, there are definite possibilities to incorporate more local food venues into Western's dining services.
“We're always looking to be more sustainable and we're always looking to buy local,” Simon said. “Right now we're taking a big step forward and we're looking ahead to move farther forward.”
Porter agrees that the sushi exchange has worked out tremendously well.
“Initially we just wanted to expand beyond the restaurant, but it's really gone great,” he said.
In order to meet the stipulation of delivering before 10 a.m., WasaBee chefs arrive at 6 a.m. to prepare the sushi.
According to Porter, the key to WasaBee's delicious taste is a mixture of fresh ingredients and careful attention to the temperature they cook at.
“Every aspect [of the sushi] has to be top quality,” Porter said. “Everything has to be fresh; otherwise it's not
going to taste right.”
WasaBee's low-priced sushi has earned them the best sushi in Bellingham award from the Bellingham Business Journal as well as twice from the Cascadia Weekly. Porter credited his kitchen team with the success and believes that they can carry it forward.
The fish WasaBee uses in their sushi is delivered from local providers and their rice is imported from the same Japanese company that supplies Japanese Iron Chef Masahiro Miyamoto and his restaurant in New York City.
One common misconception about sushi is that all sushi is prepared raw, said Porter. Some dishes, like the popular California Roll and Prawn Roll, among others, actually contain cooked fish.
“Some people are apprehensive to try sushi if they've never eaten raw fish before,” Porter said. “I say, as long as you try something you'll find what you like.”