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Bamboo Sushi tries to fix the restaurant seafood supply

How a bad investment led to the creation of Sustainable Restaurant Group.

Kristofor Lofgren’s bad investment could ultimately help the world’s seafood supply.

Lofgren is the founder of Sustainable Restaurant Group, the Portland, Ore.-based owner of Bamboo Sushi and QuickFish. But he calls the act an “accident.”

Lofgren made some money in real estate development in his early 20s. In 2006, he took some of those earnings and invested in a restaurant.

“I had too big of an ego,” he said. “The investment went bad.”

But that bad investment also led Lofgren to spend some time in the restaurant, to learn about what he put his money into. He worked as a host, a bartender and a dishwasher.

He didn’t like what he saw, and that led to the ideas that would provide the foundation for Bamboo Sushi.,

“I learned so much about the restaurant industry,” Lofgren said. “I was unhappy with how the employees were treated and how the food was sourced.”

“Chefs had to lie about the quality of the fish,” he added. “The chefs were not proud of their work. They didn’t like working there and were not treated well. The managers were not high-quality people. The more I learned, the more I wanted to be part of something that would impact a large industry. The restaurant industry would be a good avenue to do that.”

Lofgren was determined to do something different. He asked his business partners to buy them out. He closed the restaurant and took what he learned working in the restaurant to create his own concept.

He also had to learn about sourcing. Lofgren called distributors to learn where he could get sustainably sourced seafood for his sushi concept.  

“It was definitely a challenge,” he said, noting that suppliers “didn’t want to sell us a sustainable product because it was hard to do.”

But Lofgren got his product, and in November 2008 he opened Bamboo Sushi in Portland.

The restaurant was profitable by the following January.

“People connected with our food and our mission,” he said. “We had great employees who wanted to work for the company. This was a very different restaurant by the time I opened it, and it resonated with the city of Portland.”

Eight years later, the chain’s fourth location in Portland was so busy the company needed more space for its chefs.

The restaurant a few doors down was not doing well and Bamboo Sushi bought its lease. The problem, however, is that the landlord didn’t want just an empty storefront.

At the time, poke concepts were popping up all around California, and someone mentioned that Bamboo should bring its sustainability message to that concept.

The problem in that business, Lofgren said, is that many poke concepts getting their start don’t have the revenue or the credit history to get distributors to sell sustainably sourced fish. But by that time, Bamboo Sushi was already a large buyer of seafood.

“We were the largest buyer of seafood in Oregon, selling 1 million pounds of seafood a year,” he said. “It was a competitive advantage, being able to do that.”

Lofgren opened QuickFish in that location in 2016. He created a model that keeps labor costs low, which offsets the higher-than-average food costs so the company could keep price points low enough that people would eat the poke bowls for lunch and still earn a profit.

The company expanded to six units and had designs for many more: Sustainable Restaurant Group plans to open 10 more locations over the next two years, adding locations in Seattle and San Francisco in addition to its Portland and Denver locations.

Lofgren fell back on his investing background and ran a process to get investors to buy into the concept. He met with a number of private equity firms and ultimately reached a deal with Bain Capital’s Double Impact fund—which invests in socially responsible upstart companies.

Lofgren says that Bain will help him realize his goal of “taking sustainable seafood around the world.”

“It’s a tall order and a long road, and a company like Bain has a track record of being able to pull that off,” he said.

Lofgren also said that Kitchen Fund, which also invested in the company, can be a good “bridge” between Sustainable Restaurant Group and Bain. He called Managing Partner Greg Golkin a “very smart entrepreneur.”

“He gets growth concepts,” Lofgren said.

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