With the pandemic essentially grounding his sushi boats, Los Altos restaurateur John Chen sailed in another direction.
After Santa Clara Public Health Department officials told Chen he couldn’t run his sushi boats due to COVID-19 restrictions, he took the opportunity to remodel, modernize and rebrand his sushi restaurant.
Sumo Sushi Boat, a downtown Los Altos staple since 2001, is now Tanoshi Sushi, which translates to “Enjoy Sushi.” Chen said his revamped restaurant, which opened in June, offers a streamlined menu of higher-end, San Francisco-inspired gourmet sushi rolls and a selection of appetizers and imported Japanese sake.
For now, the restaurant is only open for dinner, Chen said, because of a staff shortage. However, dishes from the old Sumo Sushi Boat menu can still be ordered as takeout for lunch or dinner from the building’s back door.
“It’s almost like running two restaurants,” he said. “Tanoshi in the front, Sumo in the back.”
Chen added that the lack of staff and wage increases have been hard on the business. Sumo Sushi Boat’s menu had more than 100 items, and with full staffing and pre-made sushi circulating on toy boats for customers to select themselves, he said serving customers for lunch and dinner was not a problem. But by removing the sushi boats and employing only 70% of the staff, the menu proved too expansive and labor-intensive to ensure quality service for dine-in guests.
By streamlining the menu and rebranding as Tanoshi Sushi, Chen hopes guests receive better service considering the staffing shortage.
“I changed the name to Tanoshi so that hopefully people will forget about the big menu, and just enjoy my new food,” he said.
Chen is facing other challenges as well. Importing products has been difficult throughout the pandemic, he noted. Products are out of stock, prices are higher and orders are backlogged. Tanoshi Sushi still has chopstick packages with the name “Sumo Sushi Boat” on them; Chen doesn’t know when the new chopstick packages will arrive. In addition to difficulties ordering products, Chen is no longer catering weekly due to people working from home.
Boatload of memories
Although the boats may be gone, familiar menu items can still be ordered as takeout, and customer feedback has already influenced Tanoshi Sushi’s menu. Chen added the popular walnut prawn roll from Sumo Sushi to the Tanoshi Sushi menu after multiple customers requested it.
Chen said the removal of the sushi boats has impacted his customer base, which before renovating was made up in large part by children with their moms or nannies.
“I didn’t want to take off the boats at all,” he said. “I know everybody loves it, and I’ve been here 20 years, seeing all the kids grow up, go off to college, come back, get married, have kids. A lot of memories with the boats.”
Chen said he didn’t always dream of owning a sushi restaurant. He grew up in the restaurant industry, and when he saw the opportunity to purchase property in downtown Los Altos, he started renovations with the intent of opening a Chinese restaurant. Midway through renovations, he noticed there were multiple popular Chinese restaurants in the area, including Chef Chu’s, so he changed his plan to a sushi restaurant.
“I’m Chinese, but I love Japanese food,” Chen said.
Tanoshi Sushi is located at 355 State St. For more information, call 941-9898.