When Guy Vaknin, creator and head chef of vegan sushi chain Beyond Sushi, appeared on the reality investment show “Shark Tank,” he was seeking nothing less than a $1.5 million investment to use in expanding his restaurants to the West Coast.
And he got it.
Shark Lori Greiner and Guest Shark Matt Higgins both agreed that the plant-based and kosher-certified casual style restaurant had the potential to be even more popular on the West Coast than it’s been in the East, due to the culture and high demand for vegan food options in the area. Greiner and Higgins agreed to Vaknin’s $1.5 million request in return for a 15% partnership in the chain’s East Coast operations and a 30% partnership in future West Coast operations, countering his original offer of 5% and 25%, respectively.
Vaknin, originally from Israel, founded Beyond Sushi in July of 2012 with his wife and business partner, Tali. It was Tali, Vaknin states, who’d been pushing for a Shark Tank appearance. Vaknin tells Forward, “I said no. But this year, I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ She did all the paperwork, and it didn’t happen. Then someone connected to the show said, ‘Hey, I heard about you, and I want you to get on.’”
Beyond Sushi’s mission is offering high-quality and accessible plant-based foods that make healthy eating choices effortless and compassionate. The restaurants offer a variety of all-vegan menu items including sushi, dumplings, wraps, soups, and noodle salads. The chain has six locations in Manhattan, with another opening by the end of the year and three more slated to open in 2019. Beyond Sushi is expected to reach $5.6 million in sales by the end of the year.
I recently sat down with Chef Vaknin to learn more about him and the vegan mission that drives his restaurant entrepreneurship:
Tyler: Good afternoon Chef, thank you for meeting with me. What inspired you to create Beyond Sushi?
Chef Guy: So it’s a long story, but it didn't start immediately, as I was in a different world. I was in the catering world doing high-end catering events in New York City. We tried to play around with the sushi a little bit and then created an item on the sushi station, which was the basic rolls with black rice, and saw the reaction of people. Then, out of pure ignorance in the vegetarian/vegan world, I didn't know anything about it. I just wanted to create an item based on the health aspect and saw the reaction in the catering events. Then we tested it out in the newer vegetarian food festival for two years. Saw the reaction there and we sold out those two years and then saw that we were onto something and decided to go all out on it.
I had nothing to do with veganism at first. But then my customers came in and educated me really quick about why and what-for. It totally changed my whole family and our lives. It was one of the best decisions that I personally made and the best decision for the business. It took it to another level. I then became vegan 2-3 weeks into the business. We only had a few egg products that we had to switch out, and that is history. Since then, we’ve just pushed on.
Tyler: Was it difficult to completely eliminate the animal products?
Chef Guy: Not at all. I look at sushi as more of a vessel to carry a perfect package and perfect bite, because it's very hard, as a Chef, to get an item that is consistently perfect 100% of the time. Sushi is the perfect vessel for that. I didn't look at it as sushi, and I still don't look at it as sushi as everybody views it. It is a great vessel to carry all those flavors in one bite consistently without you actually [personally] making it every single time. So I can have somebody else make it and make a bigger impact on the largest scale and keep it consistent every time.
It wasn't hard at all. I believe that veganism, and cooking in general, is mainly creativity as long as you are creative enough to think outside the box. As long as you look at every obstacle as a challenge and how to overcome that challenge, you will be able to pursue something really good 90% of the time.
Tyler: I agree. Through challenge, I find that I excel and have a stronger product as a result.
Chef Guy: And that really goes for everything. In business, cooking, interactions with people, you just have to dive into it and you will learn how to swim. That's what I did with this thing, and every part of this just challenged me to do something else. I was a crazy chef when I first started. I was the one that screams everywhere. But over time, you know, you learn what parts you have to take to challenge yourself to grow. That’s why I’m doing this, more than anything.
Tyler: So how long have you been vegan yourself?
Chef Guy: Uh, over five years now? Yeah. Five years. Six to eight months after we started. It was like a wiggle moment in the beginning. It just didn't make sense for me, first with the business and second with myself. So I educated myself about that. One, it streamlines with my beliefs now, and the other thing is that it made me a better chef in this world. I usually put out on the plate what I would eat. I wouldn’t put out something that I won’t. It elevated the recipes 10-fold because I could actually create for myself. That’s how it works in my mind.
Tyler: A lot of the vegan restaurants around these days have faux meats. Did you attempt anything like that in your concept initially?
Chef Guy: I have a very strong belief about veganism and cooking vegan. Really cooking in general. I mean, I know that it helps some people make the transition, but in my belief it's just wrong to imitate a cow if you're trying not to eat a cow. It’s wrong to imitate a burger; I mean, you can have a nice patty without imitating the animal.
But that just really asks of you to think outside the box, right? Think about what can still taste good, look good, and be interesting to the consumer. There are a lot of levels to it. Also, the health part and clean plate is very important to me. It's very easy to slap a ton of fat on something and make it taste good. I started a concept as a healthy concept and I wanted to stay true to what I've done.
Tyler: Did you have a lot of feedback from restaurant goers or your clientele on that possibility?
Chef Guy: Overall we've been maintaining a very high review level, probably one of the highest in the city. For the longest time, people that just search for sushi came to us, and then we converted them in a lot of situations. The feedback usually is that they appreciate the food and the clean presentation. They appreciate the combinations behind it.
We also have something that is very different from other vegan restaurants. We have a very high clientele that is not vegetarian or vegan, and I think that the fact that we don't try to imitate animal protein contributes to that. Even if—I don't judge a person, so they can be whatever he or she wants to be—they eat here one, two, or three times a week, it’s great for us. Maybe with time and enough options, people will change and not see veganism or plant-based eating as only trying to substitute for the real thing. There are so many options. If I could tell you all the concepts that are in my head that I just haven’t executed on yet! They are just endless.
Tyler: Yeah, I like to look at it the same way. If someone were to eat at a plant-based restaurant just once, if not more, then that's an animal that is saved. I don't judge someone that can't quite make the transition, but if they're trying and eat these healthier options without the meat, I love it.
Chef Guy: That's what it's about at the end of the day. I mean, I have people that are trying to lower cholesterol that come here every lunch, every day of the week. I meet them personally, and I know them. It's been great for them. And okay, so they're not 100% vegan, so what? If I can convert some of their eating habits in a way, that'd be great. I don't think that their cholesterol will go down if they're only eating a fried piece of seitan.
Tyler: Why New York? Was it just easier to get established in a place like New York?
Chef Guy: So I'm an immigrant, so I came to the states about 13 years ago from Israel. My family has lived in New York and my father had restaurants in New York, so I knew the city. For the first, I think, like five years of my time in America, I didn't go off Manhattan. That's how it was. So that's all I knew from the beginning. I didn't venture out too much. And why not start in the capital of the world, right? So it just happened. A lot of things just happen in life. You've just got to make it work.
Tyler: Once you got your first restaurant established, did it just build up from there? Did you face any adversity?
Chef Guy: Establishing the first restaurant was really hard to begin with, and now we have a company with close to 100 employees. But when we first started, basically nobody really believed that this could work. They said, “You’re crazy, you’re out of your mind, and you’re going to fail. It’s New York and you’re going to close the restaurant,” whatever. So I had to take all my money and invest it. I took a loan for the same amount as my money just to open the first place, a 12-seat counter.
I had one employee for about two months. I did everything else but make the sushi and then, when he had a day off, I had to learn how to make the sushi. It was very hard in the beginning, and then we got great support from the vegan and vegetarian community, which helped me a lot, but it was a lot of sacrifices. Working 18-hour days, sometimes even more.
Then, three months in, we had storm Sandy that destroyed my whole place! It almost took me out of business, but I really believed in the concept. I really believed in the people that came in and what they said about the food, and I really knew that I was going to make it work even though I was not making money, practically losing money.
Ten months in, I knew that the best solution was to grow even more and not just be that one place. So I took another loan and opened in Chelsea Market and then, from there on, it wasn't smooth sailing whatsoever, and it never is. Even now it's very hard, with 100 employees and managers and whatnot. It was easier as you grow in size: It sounds like it's the opposite, but it gets easier once you establish systems and everything else. I really took a leap of faith in the beginning of 2016, deciding that I was going to take it from three locations to a more-established and larger company. I set the grounds for it, and today we're set up to do a lot more and that's the plan, but it wasn't easy.
Tyler: I see that you have plans to open at least three more locations in NYC and then expand to Los Angeles.
Chef Guy: Yeah, in 2019. So next year we are planning three altogether in NYC and after 2019 we're going to continue in New York, hopefully with two to three opening every year in Brooklyn, Queens, or wherever we decide. And then, in 18 months or so, have the first one open in Los Angeles. We’re very excited.
Tyler: Have you been looking at other markets after opening in LA, or are you trying to focus on one at a time?
Chef Guy: So I got a lot of requests from all over, and the idea, in my mind, is to grow as much as possible personally and as a company. You can “make it” at any scale, but for me, to really make an impact is to do it at the largest scale possible. Today, we have already fed over 2 million people, which is something I'm very proud of. But for me, it's just the beginning. I think that we can do a lot more, and it doesn't only have to be Beyond Sushi, it can be several other things that we're going to do. I have a lot of plans for it, to grow and touch as many people as possible. That's the idea.
Other markets we have requests from are overseas; it's insane how many people want to do it. There are a lot of copies all over the world now. My friend just saw one in Barcelona, one in London, and one in Australia. But that’s okay. It's just putting your effort where it really matters, one thing at a time.
Tyler: What kind of advice would you give other vegan entrepreneurs trying to start a new business venture?
Chef Guy: I think that the biggest thing for me when I started was to eliminate the fear factor, as long as you think through what it will take. You have to know that no matter what, you're going to be there: tired, cold, hot, no friends, no family. I made a ton of sacrifices.
I had a giant group of friends before I started this business, and now I have maybe three friends. I barely saw my first kid grow up. My wife—I've barely had any time with her in the past five years (and my family), but I knew from the get-go that I would have to make that sacrifice. As long as you know that you will have to make sacrifices and mistakes, as long as you learn from them, you should be fine. You have to really settle into any position that you take. And learn how to hire—this is key—know how to hire great people around you and build a team that can help you elevate to the next level.
Tyler: I know your time is valuable, but I have one last question. What's your favorite item on your menu?
Chef Guy: So I've been doing this for six years, and I think that the one that is always underrated out of my rolls is my Pickle Me roll. Pickle Me is my favorite out of all of them. I like textures, crunch, and balance, so that's my roll. But there are so many! Our bestsellers are Spicy Mang and Nutty Buddy. But we now have an extended menu and so much stuff going on. We’re going to have a lot more coming up, so it's hard to say something is my favorite.
Tyler: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me, today, Chef Guy, and best of luck as you grow Beyond Sushi into the future.