Business & Real Estate

Rocker Sammy Hagar couldn’t do it. But one Roseville sushi chef did.

Brian Baer/Special to The Bee

Sushi chef and restaurateur Steve Kwon knew it would be risky.

But he decided to take the plunge anyway – and opened Ninja Sushi on Vernon Street in downtown Roseville last year.

Legendary rocker Sammy Hagar couldn’t get the location to work, despite his celebrity status. A Hawaiian-themed restaurant with Hagar’s name closed twice, first under the ownership of restaurateur Steve Pease in 2013 when he suddenly disappeared, and again in 2015 when it was managed by the Hagar family. The Hagar family shut down the run of the restaurant within five months, citing dismal profits.

The closures of Sammy’s Island Bar & Grill epitomized the struggle to revitalize the downtown in a city better known for its landmark Westfield Galleria shopping center than the sleepy corridor on Vernon Street.

“The whole downtown was completely dead. It was pitch dark,” said Kwon, describing the mood when he moved into the 10,000-square-foot location at 238 Vernon St.

Kwon, who worked at other sushi restaurants in the region, founded Ninja Sushi roughly 4 years ago, opening in a strip mall off Pleasant Grove Boulevard in Roseville. That spot was only 1,800 square feet, though it quickly drew a following of local families with wait times of up to 45 minutes.

Despite the initial success at Pleasant Grove, Kwon had real concerns about moving the franchise downtown, due to the sheer size of the restaurant as well as the lack of foot traffic to the area.

“There was a major risk factor – expanding from a mom and pop restaurant to corporate,” he said. “I had major concerns about foot traffic. This was not the Galleria.”

But those fears, in the end, didn’t prevent Kwon from applying to fill the building, which is owned by a city affiliated nonprofit, the Roseville Community Development Corp. The organization was evaluating 10 possible tenants, according to CEO Chris Robles.

“Clearly, he knew how to operate a sushi restaurant … and he was local,” said Robles, who doubles as the city’s economic development director. “Local business owners are committed in the community.”

Kwon had to remove the tropical colors of Hagar’s old joint, substituting the Ninja brand’s signature shades of black and red while trying to salvage many of the fixtures to reduce costs. In total, $500,000 was spent on renovations, including faux cherry blossom trees, a cost that was shared between Kwon and RCDC.

More than a year later, Ninja Sushi is thriving. Kwon said the restaurant broke even for the first year and predicts that profitability is around the corner.

“If you broke even on the first year, it means you won,” he said.

Kwon credits the success to his mantra of “treating all customers like VIPs” and catering especially to families with children. The restaurant serves a full Japanese menu from sushi to ramen and grilled teriyaki. Ninja also offers complimentary fried ice cream, served in strawberry and green tea flavors. The dessert is made in-house.

Even without the status of a rock star, Kwon has managed to cultivate loyal fans who have, well, followed him downtown. The restaurant is often packed on nights and weekends – a tall order considering the establishment seats 450 diners on two floors. Wait times on weekends can top 30 minutes, Kwon said.

It is not unusual for Kwon, 50, to hop on the stage – a holdover from the Sammy Hagar days – and beat drums with the young diners. The restaurant still hosts local bands, and now accommodates birthday parties and piano recitals.

The popularity of Ninja Sushi caps recent developments that have city officials hoping the downtown will one day be free of empty storefronts that still dot a few blocks

Downtown was a thriving district several decades ago when Roseville was a much smaller city. The post office, banks and City Hall were all located in the area. People shopped at the JCPenney department store, where Ninja Sushi now stands. As Roseville grew into tract homes and mega retail developments, downtown was left behind. Strip malls with big box stores and the Westfield Galleria drew shoppers from downtown. Empty storefronts and pawn shops soon followed.

“It’s wonderful to see downtown Roseville really find its legs again,” said Mayor Susan Rohan, who has lived in the city since 1988. “There’s just so much new energy down there.”

Four years ago, the city began hosting events in the square in front of City Hall. Attendance has doubled to 120,000 people annually, according to Dion Louthan, Roseville’s director of parks, recreation and libraries. Wine Down Wednesday, for instance, draws about 350 people every week during the spring where attendees can sample local wines and listen to live music.

“The idea is to make this a place where the people like to gather,” Louthan said, noting that sales tax revenue in downtown has climbed 10 percent annually since 2013.

Krista Bernasconi, who runs a public affairs firm on Vernon Street, said the area is getting busy.

“It’s happening … evidenced by the difficulty of even finding a parking spot,” she said.

A $14 million public parking garage with 420 spaces is under construction.

Richard Chang: 916-321-1018, @RichardYChang