July/August 2019

Promoted Story: Bento Sushi

The art of preparing sushi is something traditional sushi chefs spend years perfecting. In sushi’s native Japan, becoming an “itamae” – sushi chef – requires decades of training and apprenticeship. When Canadians think of preparing sushi, they invariably envision a highly-skilled itamae working tirelessly behind the sushi bar of their favourite high-end Japanese restaurant. This perception has earned sushi a reputation for being a food that only the highly-skilled and extensively trained can prepare.

Bento Sushi, a Japanese quick-service restaurant concept, however, is smashing this misconception. How? By taking the mysticism out of preparing sushi with a finely-tuned franchise concept that offers diners a wide selection of quality grab-and-go items prepared fresh daily on-site.

“The misconception that people have about making sushi, is that it’s very foreign and that there’s a high level of difficulty involved with creating these products,” explains Michael Wong, Director of Retail Operations at Bento Sushi. “In fact, throughout our years, we’ve developed solid systems and processes to train people with little to no restaurant or food service experience in just a few weeks to be operational.”

The Bento Sushi Concept

Canadians are a busy bunch. Always on the move, they are eager for quick, healthy, and fresh meals designed for their hectic lifestyles. Bento Sushi foots the bill with its extensive offering of ready-made sushi, made-to-order poke bowls, and hot bar items such as rice bowls, bento boxes, ramen, and udon noodles.

Launching in 1996, Bento Sushi got its start when company founder Ken Valvur spent time in Japan, igniting his passion for sushi and Japanese cuisine. When he returned to his hometown of Toronto, he quit his day job in banking and opened a small storefront serving sushi and bento boxes in the city’s Financial District. It was a hit and not long after, Valvur approached a local supermarket about offering his fare within the store. With help from Co-Founder Glenn Brown, one store turned into five, and today, the franchise has more than 750 locations across North America.

Bento Sushi’s journey is living proof of sushi’s franchisability. According to Wong, the brand flies in the face of the common belief that sushi can only be prepared by an itamae who has spent his or her life perfecting the craft.

“Everyone at some point has made a pizza or burger at home. So, it’s not foreign to them,” he explains “Whereas a lot of people, once they hear ‘sushi’, they have these delusions that it’s this mystical thing where you’re dealing with raw fish and need to have a high level of skill. And yes, absolutely, there’s a lot of fantastic sushi restaurants around the world that do things on an extremely high level with a high level of skill. Sushi can be difficult, but what we do, is take the difficulty out of it.”

Adaptable and Scalable

The Bento Sushi concept is highly scalable. Bento Sushi can be found in the form of kiosks, mall and food court locations, and street-front units, ranging in size from 250 to 1,400 square feet. Wong says that the concept’s adaptability is one of its biggest strengths.

“Why the concept is appealing to our franchisees is because they are able to operate their own business, with multiple revenue streams,” he says. “With the sushi, poke, and hot food options, Bento Sushi franchisees can offer more to the customer and not just depend on one revenue stream.”

With the model in place at an ideal location, the franchise’s proven systems and processes keep things running like a well-oiled machine. A dedicated Regional Area Representative ensures the franchise unit’s success, with support from Bento Sushi corporate offices located in key markets across the country. Franchisees need not worry about dealing with multiple suppliers, as Bento Sushi has its own distribution network. This ensures each location receives quality, sushi-grade fish that’s easy to prepare for the dishes developed by an Executive Chef who works on product development on a daily basis.

Joining the Bento Family

Bento Sushi is very selective of who joins what Wong calls “the Bento family.” A prospective franchisee will need $150,000 in liquid capital to invest with the system, followed by $325,000 to $500,000 for equipment and building the concept’s modern design. In return, they’ll benefit from the procedures, policies, and general operations that have been built upon a foundation of 23 years of serving quality Japanese cui-sine to hungry Canadians.

“We have over 2,000 corporate employees who have all been trained by our team. When you have a corporate employee base as great as ours, you better believe our systems and process are super tight,” says Wong. “In the 23 years we’ve been in business, we’ve got it down to a science. All of our recipes, videos, and documentation is pretty tight in terms of our ability to get people up and running quickly.”