Sushi chef Lou Valente is finally opening the restaurant that he's dreamed about for the last three years, taking over the spot once occupied by Una Mas Mexican Grill at 2801 P St. in Sacramento.
He took the keys to the place on Jan. 1 and has spent eight months on design, renovation and government paperwork. If you pass by Lou's Sushi, check out the logo on the windows. Inside the bold red lines, you'll see Valente's face beaming back at you.
That trademark grin will be in full force if the 44-year-old Valente can get his restaurant open by Sept. 14. "It's going to be a close call," he told me.
Valente has a loyal following of fans who have stuck with him as he moved from Sushi on the River to Taka's in Fair Oaks and Sacramento and then to Zen Sushi over 13 years.
Valente, who was born and reared near Philadelphia, worked in banquet halls from the time he was a teenager. When he moved out to Los Angeles at age 22, he said, he didn't even know what sushi was.
"Then I got a job with a nice restaurant in Malibu that also had a sushi bar," he said. "I became friends with the head chef, and he kind of took me under his wing. I worked a few years for him, and then I moved to San Francisco and went to culinary school at the California Culinary Academy and did a six-year apprenticeship with a really well-known sushi chef in San Francisco. His name's Kiyoshi Hayakawa, and he now owns a restaurant called Koo."
If you want to know the benefit of picking up and moving a business just three doors down, then listen to boutique owner Aida Makarevic's story.
The Bosnian immigrant has operated her Mea Vita boutique in Old Sacramento for about six years, most of them at 121 K St. But in April, she moved to a similar-size space at 125 K St. where she continues to sell her handcrafted jewelry, along with clothing and imported baubles.
"The first month we moved, April, we did about 40 percent more (sales) than last year," Makarevic said, "and then May was about 30-40 percent more, and last month was only 20 percent up, but this month, I think we're going to be 30-35 percent up. So, we're definitely seeing a benefit."
The difference, Makarevic said, is that this storefront has three windows, meaning she has three chances to lure customers inside. The other location had only one.
In the past, Makarevic's sales had grown by about 10 percent a year, but the economic downturn hurt.
"About three years into the business, it was really bad," she recalled. "That year, in January, eight days passed and no one walked into the store. I think it was '09. I would go out, and there would be no one on the streets."
Here's what's cookin'
Like the Sellands, Paragarys and Mulvaneys, Magpie Café's Ed Roehr and Janel Inouye are running creative kitchens where new food and restaurant concepts are always being cooked up.
First came Doughbot Donuts, which was launched by two former Magpie employees. Dannah O'Donnell used to help customers there, and her husband, Bryan Widener, worked as a line cook in the kitchen. At home, Widener was experimenting with fresh approaches to doughnut recipes, then asking co-workers to sample them. Roehr told Widener that they were so good he could sell them. Widener and O'Donnell have been doing just that at 2226 10th St. in Sacramento since 2011.
Now Roehr and Inouye are giving a gentle push to Bobby Mull, the man who developed Magpie's chai tea recipe. Mull still works for Magpie's catering business, but on the side, he's brewing up kombucha tea the bubbly, fermented beverage that proponents laud as a digestive aid. It's gaining a small following at Bows & Arrows, 1815 19th St., and at The Plum Cafe & Bakery, 2315 K St.
"It's just myself and my partner Zac Nelson," Mull said. "We're brewing it up in Placerville. Kombucha is a lightly fermented drink, a probiotic drink. Oftentimes, it's flavored with fruit juices. We're focusing more on teas and tisanes, like different herbs."
Although some kombuchas have come under scrutiny for their alcohol content, Mull said, he and Nelson's tea has less than the legal limit of 0.05 percent alcohol. Their kombucha is marketed under the brand name Zeal.