The primary mission of Rock N Roll Sushi, according to CEO Chris Kramolis, is to bring sushi to blue-collar America, or just regular folks who haven’t tried the cuisine.
A former Tropical Smoothie Cafe franchisee of 15 years, he was initially drawn to the concept because of its approachable twist.
Founded in 2010 by Gerri Mach and Lance Hallmark, the brand forges a new space for those who are—in Kramolis’s words—“sushi-curious.” The menu is palatable, consisting of baked and fried sushi, hibachi, traditional nigiri, and sashimi. Another allure is the idea of customers “dining out loud” with foot-thumping and familiar rock ‘n’ roll music.
Since its first Alabama locations in 2010, Rock N Roll Sushi has expanded to over 60 locations in the Southeast, with goals to hit 75 locations in 2023.
The concept brings sushi to areas where awareness may be lacking. This includes towns like Little Rock, Arkansas, where Kramolis operates two of his own units. The concept has a knack for making sushi less intimidating, and for Kramolis, it all begins with marketing.
“It starts with our digital marketing assets and everything that ties into a rock ‘n’ roll vibe,” Kramolis says. “It is already approachable. It sets people’s curiosity on fire because it is not what they expect sushi to look like.”
For those who may not understand a traditional sushi menu, or for those who feel the need to fit into a “high-end” atmosphere, Kramolis says Rock N Roll Sushi is flipping the norm on its head. He believes the guest experience needs to be fun, amplified, and a bit nonconformist.
Although the sales mix is about 65 percent sushi, the other 15-20 percent includes hibachi, which Kramolis describes as the brand’s “secret weapon.”
“We’re redefining what people think of hibachi,” Kramolis says. “We are doing it backstage [in the kitchen]. If you do not want to try the sushi, you can still come in for the hibachi. But I guarantee you will go in there and eventually want to try the VIP Roll that is either fully baked or fried … People just need a gateway to make them feel comfortable.”
Because 30-40 percent of sales are off-premises, Kramolis is constantly looking for ways to enhance packaging, quality, and hold of products. For instance, throughout the pandemic, he implemented initiatives to improve the operations of third-party traffic, like creating a system allowing delivery drivers to walk up and easily grab food.
In terms of supply chain, Kramolis is proud of Rock N Roll Sushi’s efficiency. He explains that in the sushi industry, products are more vital than usual. The absence of tuna can wipe out an entire menu. Kramolis credits the brand’s tight rein on supply chain to his team.
“We have a complete badass in the position of our procurement and supply chain, and we also have a great partner in RPP that helps with it as well,” Kramolis says. “We have stayed in product the entire time, which is something to say. Our team was able to hustle and find backup vendors and substitution products.”
For Kramolis, finding the right real estate and battling labor shortages are the biggest hurdles to growth. Speaking about real estate specifically, he says “Everybody is scrambling for the same stuff. The only thing that differentiates us is most people are angling for those stand-alones and endcaps, and we are not.”
Despite these challenges, Rock N Roll Sushi has inked multiple deals to expand into new markets out West, including Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Colorado Springs. The Colorado deal includes an area representative agreement for 25 units with Kyle Gerstner, CEO of KMG and operator of quick-serve Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers.
Another notable area representative agreement was recently penned to add 35 units across Florida in cities like Orlando, Tampa, and Naples. The timeline for this is between the next five and seven years, and Kramolis is confident he has the right team of franchisees behind him for this venture.
“This isn’t our typical strategy,” the CEO explains. “The area representative agreements are extremely selective. These agreements [Colorado and Florida] make sense for us because we have worked with this group for over 20 years. We trust them, and we have watched what they can do.”
The goal for the rest of this year is innovation and building upon the guest experience. Kramolis is looking forward to a “menu engineering project” coming this fall. Additionally, a partnership is in the works with a sake brewery.
“The fact is, they’re going to change the way America thinks about sake, and we feel like we were already trying to do that with sushi,” Kramolis shares. “So, when we got together it was like peanut butter and jelly. The way we are going to present sake to people is going to be incredibly cool.”