The brand owes much of its growth to an often-overlooked consumer group.
After 15 years as a Tropical Smoothie Cafe franchisee, Chris Kramolis was looking for the next big thing in the restaurant industry, and Rock N Roll Sushi just wasn’t it—at least, not initially.
Long before becoming CEO of the chain, Kramolis remembers a friend telling him about the concept, and then learning it was based out of Alabama—a market that typically doesn’t share sentences with the raw seafood cuisine.
“I said that makes no sense,” Kramolis says. “If I’m not mistaken, you just said ‘sushi in Alabama.’ So we laughed about that, but really I was like no, I come from quick service anyway. I’m not interested. That sounds like full-service sushi; it sounds hard.”
But Kramolis’ partner was perseverant and kept bringing Rock N Roll Sushi to his attention. Eventually, the two were stuck in the Nashville, Tennessee, airport, and Kramolis relented on his skepticism. The food cost and topline revenue figures intrigued him. As his curiosity grew, he began driving by locations in smaller Alabama markets, and his head scratching slowly switched to an illuminated light bulb.
Kramolis now understood the foundation of Rock N Roll Sushi’s success.
The concept is the brainchild of Gerri Mach and Lance Hallmark, the latter of whom didn’t eat sushi at first. Gerri Mach, of Asian descent, introduced it to him, and he promptly fell in love. Rock N Roll Sushi officially opened in Mobile, Alabama, in 2010 and started franchising five years later.
To lure potentially reluctant guests, the couple added rock ‘n’ roll music and memorabilia and built a crowd-pleaser of a menu, by “Americanizing” the sushi experience, as Kramolis puts it. The rolls are either baked or fried and named in an approachable manner, like the VIP Roll, British Invasion Roll, or Punk Rock Roll—no chopsticks required. But at the same time, there is a section for the traditionalists, with nigiri and sashimi. Sushi mixes 65 percent and hibachi accounts for 15–20 percent of sales.
“These guys started marketing sushi to people nobody was marketing sushi to,” Kramolis says. “It was either a high-end sushi place where that’s the customer you’re going after, or it was very traditional and it wasn’t really approachable to regular Americans. They were sushi-curious, but they really weren’t invited to the game. That’s what I really picked up on.”
Kramolis opened two franchise units in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he used to operate his Tropical Smoothie locations. He figured if the concept worked in Alabama, it had to work there, as well. His assumption was correct, and both units thrived during Covid’s early pressures. Within 75 days of opening the first restaurant, he took advantage of an available second-generation space in Little Rock’s downtown entertainment district to open another store.
Kramolis relayed his triumphs to Tropical Smoothie cofounder Eric Jenrich, who became so interested that he bought a controlling interest in the brand. Kramolis was named CEO in October 2020 following the transaction. However, he remains a franchisee of three units in Arkansas and two in Tallahassee, Florida.
“I do feel like it was a great fit. I live it and breathe it every day. I’m as committed as you can get as far as Rock N Roll Sushi goes,” Kramolis says. “[My stores] try to lead the pack in sales and all the metrics that everybody tracks. When you can do that, it adds a lot of validity to anything I do from a CEO perspective because I’m doing it with the franchisees’ best interests at heart.”
Rock N Roll Sushi has 60 locations in the Southeast. Units average about 2,000 square feet and come in two primary prototypes. The first is the suburbia outlet, which is more family-oriented and comes with a smaller bar area. The second is based in urban markets, with an accentuated bar presence that caters to younger demographics, especially near college campuses.
The goal now is to move out West. Rock N Roll Sushi plans to open stores in Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Colorado Springs by early next year. The Colorado deal in particular is a 25-unit area development agreement with Kyle Gerstner, CEO of KMG, which also operates quick-serve Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers. His first Rock N Roll Sushi will feature a pickup window and a staging area for takeout/delivery.
“I know almost all restaurants experience this, and Covid was the driving factor, [but] all of a sudden, we have all these delivery drivers in our waiting rooms, and some of us don’t really have waiting rooms and build the restaurants that way. So your [third-party delivery] folks are just a little bit displaced in your restaurant,” Kramolis says. “That’s why we wanted to have the opportunity for them to walk up and a system to push it out the door.”
Once Kramolis entered the leadership role, Rock N Roll Sushi implemented a number of initiatives to improve operations. This included platforms that assist with customer satisfaction and engagement, operational checklists and training, local marketing, and menu ordering. The casual brand also added a swag shop to build loyalty and engagement—an area Kramolis wants to explore more next year.
Additionally, the brand decided to open one corporate store in Destin, Florida, for training purposes and Discovery Days.
“I think it helps the corporate team in general,” Kramolis says. “You have to have that store where your own corporate employees can come in and do what they need to do and test things and work in the store and understand exactly what’s going on—everything from the guest experience to operations to marketing.”
As Rock N Roll Sushi expands, it will continue to target the “regular folks” demographic that fueled its early rise, Kramolis says. The CEO will never forget a time when he stopped into a truck accessory store in Little Rock and was warmly greeted by employees who recognized his company T-shirt because they had dined at Rock N Roll Sushi. He’s almost positive they had never eaten sushi prior to the concept entering Arkansas.
Kramolis calls it a revolution—and even likens it to the peak of the rock ‘n’ roll movement.
“It’s nonconformist. It’s rebellious,” he says. “You come in and we can crank up AC/DC and Metallica and fry your rolls and have a really good time. And then I’ll see the same person come in that would tell me, ‘Man, Chris, I don’t eat my bait. I fish with my bait.’ And then he’ll get a VIP Roll that’s fried, nothing wrong with that. And I’ll see him three months later, and he’s eating nigiri.”