The obituary of a beloved sushi stand

She looked me in the eyes and told me she was leaving.

She was still smiling in an “It’s not you, it’s me” sort of way.

But then again, she was always smiling.

Jenny Yoon is closing her shop, Sushi Dance, in central Auckland and taking it to the North Shore.

“I’ll miss you,” I told her.

“I will miss you too,” she says. “I feel so sorry. So many customers I will miss.”

There are too many sushi shops around, she says, and there’s too much competition.

I can’t argue with her. I can count six sushi places within a five-minute walk of NBR’s office.

Search for sushi on the Menu Mania website and it turns up 117 hits, about 10% of which are the St Pierre’s sushi chain.

But none of them have Jenny, who knows I like extra wasabi and no ginger.

At first I blamed myself. Maybe if I didn’t have a couple of carb-free days last week it would have been enough business to make her stay. Then I blamed my non-invasive liposuction treatments, which is the reason I had to endure a couple of grumpy carb-free days.

Whatever is to blame, my business wasn't enough to keep her here.

Her operating costs are just too high. For the past 15 months, she has commuted every day from the North Shore, so paying for petrol and parking just doesn’t make financial sense either.

There’s no industry data for New Zealand sushi joints, but the story is the same in Western nations across the globe. The rise of health-conscious consumers the past decade spurred an explosion of sushi outlets overnight, resulting in oversaturated markets from San Francisco to London.

Most of the industry is fragmented with small players, like Jenny, who employ fewer than five workers.

Margins for sushi restaurants are thin and volatile to fish prices, according to global market researcher IbisWorld. And here in New Zealand, fresh fish prices rose 19% from 2007 to 2012, according to Statistics NZ’s seafood industry report.

Over in Australia, the Go Sushi franchise estimates cost of goods sold at 30% with labour the second-highest cost at 18% to operate one of its stores.

Jenny’s Sushi Dance isn’t the only casualty on our block in recent months. Other beloved food shops have shut their doors on, ironically, Commerce St. An Original California Burrito Co shop sits empty down stairs.

(Side note: Seriously, as a native Californian, should I be paranoid? No California burritos and no California sushi rolls on my block? Is this some sort of ethnic cleansing? One of my co-workers has already called for my deportation.)

Thursday was Jenny’s last day. I was so distraught I ate sushi twice that afternoon.

She came here seven years ago from Korea. Before she opened Sushi Dance, she was a housewife raising two children.

Sigh.

Goodbye lady-whose-name-I-didn’t-ask-until-I-panicked-when-you-closed-your-shop. I’ll miss you.

The moral of the story: Hug your sushi lady today. She could be gone tomorrow.

P.S. I don’t travel to suburbs, but if you’re traveling up the Auckland-Waiwera Motorway next year, stop in and see Jenny at her new place, 85 Wairau Rd.

sflores@nbr.co.nz

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