Blue has been pacing itself in the mid-America sushi race for 16 years now, and so far, so good.


FSR 50

See the ChartSee the FSR 50Read more about these emerging chains:bartacoBlue Sushi Sake GrillLazy Dog

Over 16 years Blue Sushi Sake Grill has gradually grown to 13 locations across the U.S. The brand is owned by Flagship Restaurant Group, which was founded by a group of investors including CEO Nick Hogan. Blue, the group’s first concept, began in Omaha, Nebraska. Hogan had spent time enjoying the sushi scene in Tucson, Arizona and San Diego, and then moved to Omaha and noticed a hole in the market. So, he and his partners—all in their late 20s and having never opened a restaurant before—opened the first Blue in 2002.

“We didn’t know what we didn’t know,” Hogan says in hindsight. But, by learning and evolving the brand on the go, they have managed to develop a successful sushi brand, among others.

In the beginning, Hogan says, Blue was more of a specialty restaurant, but, as the brand has grown, Blue has changed to be more approachable. “Now, I think we operate in that space between maybe the mom-and-pop sushi restaurant and fine dining,” he says. “You get very close to the fine dining experience but with a more affordable ticket.”

One of the things that Hogan believes has been a significant component of Blue’s growth and brand revolution has been evolving the menu and decor of the locations continuously. “When we started 16 years ago, the vast majority of people were California-roll-eating people. As time has gone on, their palates have matured and they look for stuff that’s a little more out there. People are eating uni, or things that would have scared them away years ago. They’re eating more sashimi, climbing that sushi sophistication ladder,” Hogan says. “I think we’ve done a great job over the years of evolving our menu to keep pace with that.”

Favorite menu item right now: Poke, nigri, and the Spanish Fly roll. —Nick Hogan, Blue Sushi Sake Grill

On the menu, one can still find the ever-comforting Cali Roll, but also a light and refreshing sockeye salmon Poke bowl, a range of thoughtfully developed vegetarian and vegan sushi options like the Cowgirl roll with pickled vegan tempura, Sriracha-fried onion rings, and vegan mayo, and more exotic and sophisticated options like sashimi as well.

The look and feel of the locations, which are typically around 5,000 square feet, have gone through a similar evolution. In the early 2000s when the brand began, the decor included glowing acrylic and fish tanks. Now, the look involves more natural materials, traditional sake kegs, and Japanese beer ads.

The future for the brand includes more evolution, Hogan foresees, and steady growth in urban entertainment and midtown development settings. “Our growth has been very organic, fueled by cash flow and some community bank financing,” Hogan says.

The team has discussed private equity, but Hogan believes what has worked for the brand has been its easeful pace. “If you’re gearing up and taking a bunch of private money to grow faster, then maybe you don’t have quite as much time [to evolve the menu and decor as thoughtfully],” he says. With the plan of opening three to four stores a year for the next couple of years, Hogan says the brand’s intention is to grow indefinitely.

Casual Dining, Chain Restaurants, Feature, NextGen Casual, Research