Yelp changed how it chooses its annual list of the top 100 U.S. eateries, enabling restaurant newcomers – in Sacramento and nationwide – to unseat more mature dining spots.
Last year’s list, a first for Yelp, featured Sacramento’s The Kitchen and Cafe Rollé, the former with roughly 24 years of experience and the latter with about 13. Neither made the Yelp list of the top 100 places to eat for 2015, though. That distinction goes to Ninja Sushi & Teriyaki in Roseville and Starbread Bakery in North Natomas.
Yelp mined 10 years of online consumer reviews for its inaugural list released in February 2014, but for this year’s class, its data researchers placed greater weight upon Yelpers’ most recent reviews. Yelp spokeswoman Rachel Walker explained that the intention was to give up-and-coming restaurants a better shot at getting recognition.
“Since businesses open and close all the time and trends come and go,” she told me, “our list helps consumers keep their finger on the pulse of the restaurant and food industry.”
At Ninja Sushi, Steve Kwon had no idea his restaurant had made the list until a week after its Jan. 22 release. That’s when a string of customers came in and congratulated him, so he finally asked one of them: “What do you mean by that?”
He was nonplussed, he said, when they showed him the list on their smartphones.
“Since I opened the restaurant, I really have had to concentrate on the operation,” the Korean-born Kwon said. “I’m not a computer-literate guy. I don’t know what’s going on out there sometimes.”
Kwon said he’s had customers come in from Orange County, Texas and Seattle who have mentioned the list to him.
The restaurant was so busy at lunchtime on Tuesday that this columnist waited almost 20 minutes for sushi to be served. The scene is a complete reversal from when Kwon opened the restaurant in August 2013.
“For over two weeks, we were struggling,” said Kwon, a sushi chef for roughly 28 years, including a stint at Mikuni. “Actually, my wife, she asked me, ‘Are we going to declare bankruptcy?’
“I told her ... ‘I’m going to put all the seeds out there and water the soil.’ We didn’t do any advertising, not a penny even now. We started with the two customers we had first, and it grew. In a month, we started making a profit.”
Kwon said the Yelp distinction comes from having the best customers. One of them also nominated Ninja Sushi for the Channel 3 (KCRA) A-List of top restaurants last year, and it won best sushi restaurant.
Kwon owns the restaurant with his wife Michelle Kwon and silent partners Todd and Diane Deluca.
The Delucas originally opened Ninja Sushi in Lincoln. They were about to close it when Kwon, a sushi chef at the restaurant, offered to buy it. He moved it to 963 Pleasant Grove Blvd. in Roseville, a shopping center that is home to a range of food choices including The Habit Burger Grill, the Flame & Fire Brazilian steakhouse and soon a Chando’s Tacos.
While Ninja Sushi ranked at No. 63 on the Yelp list, Starbread Bakery came in at No. 47. That’s why you’ll hear Katelyn Kline, who co-owns the bakery with her fiancé Vincent Tiuseco, say: “We’re in the top 50 on Yelp for places to eat in the United States for 2015.”
The couple, both recent college graduates, see the Yelp recognition as an affirmation of their decision to forgo the occupations for which they trained. Kline got a speech pathology degree from Sacramento State; Tiuseco, a nursing degree from American River College.
For Tiuseco, a bakery is the family business. His grandfather owns a bakery in the Philippines, and his aunt, Nelly Maranan, opened one in Vallejo in the 1990s. She originally called it Quinley’s Filipino Bakery, but she later changed the name to Starbread.
Soon there will be eight Starbread Bakery locations in the Bay Area – including Vallejo, Newark, Pittsburg, San Pablo – and there are now two in Sacramento. Maranan’s son and daughter-in-law, Romar and Gina Maranan, opened the first local location at 6127 Mack Road.
Tiuseco worked two years for his cousin at the Mack Road location while going to school. He and Kline got their start at the 2101 Natomas Crossing location in January 2014.
“Most of the other Starbread locations are in predominantly Filipino neighborhoods or predominantly Asian markets,” Tiuseco said. “Katelyn and I wanted to see how it would do with a mainstream demographic.”
On a recent Saturday, the line was 12-people deep. Nearly every customer left with a box of buttery señorita bread, but the pork-filled empanadas also were popular.
Tiuseco said he and Katelyn are experimenting with other recipes, but right now, their staff of 14 has its hands full keeping señorita bread in stock. On Fridays, the bakery’s busiest day, the line starts forming before the door opens at 7 a.m.
“We were supposed to get married last year, but we actually put all that money toward Starbread,” Kline said. “We had like six credit cards open, and we took all our wedding money and got started. We’re finally going to get married this October.”
Call The Bee’s Cathie Anderson, (916) 321-1193. Follow her on Twitter @CathieA_SacBee.