Home-grown eatery Ra Sushi debuted in downtown Scottsdale in October 1997. The 15th version of the brand is scheduled to start serving up its signature sushi next month at the upscale Dana Park shopping center on the Mesa-Gilbert border.
Eight more locations are planned within the next year.
“When we opened that store in ’97, we never imagined it would get this big,” said Scott Kilpatrick, who co-founded the chain with college buddy Rich Howland a decade ago. “Rich and I worked 80, 100 hours a week. Now our chef has a team of five just to make sure all the stores follow the recipes. We have a marketing department of two, a training team of two and an architect and design team in house.”
The concept, started by the two University of Arizona grads, is still based in Scottsdale, but Florida-based Benihana bought the company for $11 million in 2002 when it was four East Valley stores and cooking up annual sales of $9 million.
The 38-year-old teppanyaki restaurant company infused enough cash to fuel Ra’s meteoric expansion, but left the partners, which by then also included original chef Tai Obata, to run Ra as they saw fit.
“We feel with the talent and energy Ra brings to the deal, we can give them the ability to expand,” said Benihana president Joel Schwartz at the time. In fact, Schwartz said he was in Scottsdale scoping out sites for a new Benihana when he discovered Ra and was so impressed he came back to buy it.
Schwartz has kept his money in and his hands out of Ra as promised, but that doesn’t mean the chain hasn’t changed in the five years since Benihana bought it, Kilpatrick said.
“The whole theory behind Ra is high-energy music and hip atmosphere, but the design is an evolution,” Kilpatrick said. “It’s a combination of being serious about food and providing a young, hip scene.”
The Las Vegas restaurant even has a DJ booth, and so will additional Ra locations, he said.
In discussing Ra’s future potential, Kilpatrick doesn’t like comparisons to another Scottsdale-born Asian restaurant chain, PF Chang’s, which spawned a sibling brand and grew the two into a 300-store empire.
“If you asked Joel Schwartz, he’d probably say we could do 100 Ra Sushis, but we’d just like to open a handful a year for the foreseeable future,” he said.
While Ra continues to evolve and expand, Kilpatrick said he tries to maintain the hip-but-home-grown feeling he and Howland envisioned 10 years earlier.
“We like to feel local, a neighborhood sushi bar that people will visit one, two, maybe four times a week,” he said.
That’s a lot of sushi per person per week, you may think. But not for Tim Schantz of Troon Golf. Schantz said he eats lunch at the Ra Sushi in Kierland Commons nearly every day and has been doing that for years. It’s a short walk from his office to the restaurant, but he passes plenty of other dining options en route.
“The food is really good, the service is great. It’s consistent. I’ve never had a bad meal there,” Schantz said.
Ken Newell, who likes the original Old Town Ra restaurant, said it’s the servers as much as the sushi that makes him a regular.
“It’s my home away from home,” he said. “The food is very good, but its strongest point is the people that work there.”