Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: A Ukrainian businessman, a Japanese sushi chef, and a Burmese immigrant walk into a sushi bar.
That sounds a joke setup, right? But for Greer-based Sushi with Gusto, it’s just business as usual.
Sushi with Gusto has quite the international background for a business built on a traditional Japanese culinary heritage.
It began in 1997 with two businessmen of Ukrainian descent, Nick Spiak III and his father, Nick Spiak Jr., who discovered sushi in Hawaii in 1983. A Japanese sushi chef from Tokyo, Hisamichi “Fuji” Fujimura partnered with them in 1997 as executive chef and company president. Soon after, the company began contracting sushi chefs, most of whom are immigrants from Myanmar (formerly Burma) who’ve come to the U.S. on political asylum.
The company trains the Burmese, as they are still commonly referred to, in the Sushi with Gusto model once a month in the corporate kitchen in Greer on Pennsylvania Avenue. Only about one-third of the chefs make the cut after learning the proprietary recipes, philosophy of business, and customer service model. It’s also imperative the chefs learn to speak English.
Those chefs are then offered available positions at sushi counters the company contracts with in large businesses and grocery stores around the U.S.
The chefs are then set up as independent sushi contractors, and Sushi with Gusto contracts them to maintain the corporate recipes and customer service in those off-site locations.
While the name Sushi with Gusto might not sound familiar, if you’ve purchased sushi from the counter at a Fresh Market in the last 16 years, you’ve likely tasted their handiwork.
Gusto currently has 312 sushi bars contracted around the country, including most of the Fresh Markets except for a group in the Midwest and more than 50 universities. Additionally, they deliver their sushi made in the corporate kitchen to hospitals, businesses, and universities in 35 states and Washington, D.C.
A singular point of pride is that Sushi with Gusto is served in the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Md., where roughly 25,000 health inspectors work.
“If we can do it for these guys, we can do it for anyone,” says Nick Spiak III, vice president of Sushi with Gusto. “They’re a bunch of germaphobes.”
He says they’re actively looking to add locations, especially in universities.
“We’re still small potatoes in this field,” Spiak says. “There are a couple other companies that are much larger, but being a small company we treat our chefs very well, so we have a great reputation.”
That reputation is the reason they were able to make what the management refers to as “the Burmese connection,” a word-of-mouth source for their chefs. The Burmese in the U.S. have established a niche market as sushi chefs, so when they come to Sushi with Gusto, they have already learned sushi-rolling technique.
Spiak, who admits he eats more of his competitors’ sushi than any other, says, aside from the corporate reputation, what sets Sushi with Gusto apart from other companies is the quality of ingredients.
“It’s all about the taste for us,” Spiak says. “All sushi is not created equal.”
The a main difference and taste contributor for the sushi, which literally means “seasoned rice,” is the use of hikari rice, a medium, whole-grain, rice, combined with rice vinegar, Spiak says. The use of rice vinegar as opposed to a wheat-based vinegar eliminates the gluten and alcohol content. The nori (seaweed) is sourced from a company that supplies many top Japanese sushi restaurants, Spiak says.
“We make restaurant-grade sushi for grab-and-go,” he says.
All of the recipes are chef Fujimura’s, many from his days as sushi chef at the former Nippon Center Yagoto behind Haywood Mall.
Because of the grab-and-go nature of the business, Fujimura says he can’t produce sushi at the same caliber as the highest-end Japanese restaurants because of the number of steps required, but he stands behind the 75 menu items as the best grab-and-go sushi on the market.
“We are adamant about keeping the quality of our sushi the best in the industry,” Spiak says.
Sushi with Gusto officially began in 1997, but it owes its start to G.U.S.T.O Seafood, which began with Nick Spiak Jr. in 1978.
The elder Spiak always loved fresh seafood and the outdoors. But in land-locked Greenville in the 1970s, restaurants weren’t sourcing fresh fish from the coast.
Nick Spiak Jr. saw a market opening and soon began hauling fresh fish on ice and selling to Upstate restaurants.
He needed a name for his new business, so he came up with “Great Ukrainian Seafood Trucking Outfit — G.U.S.T.O.,” because his father emigrated from Ukraine.
In the beginning, he made deliveries to 12 customers. Today, nine boxy, refrigerated seafood trucks with “G.U.S.T.O.” on the side deliver seafood to 165 restaurants.
On that fateful trip to Hawaii in 1983 to visit Nick Spiak III on a final Navy cruise, Nick Spiak Jr. ate at his first sushi restaurant and filed that memory away to be revisited another time.
“It was love at first bite,” the elder Spiak says.
In 1997, Fujimura and Nick Spiak Jr. decided to work together, providing quality sushi to local restaurants to which they were already providing seafood. The idea eventually morphed into the current model.
“It all started because of Dad’s love of food,” Nick Spiak III says. “He seized the moment.”