Sustainable Sushi: Kristofor Lofgren

Kristofor LofgrenNext up in our interviews with sustainable sushi thought leaders is Kristofor Lofgren, owner of Bamboo Sushi in Portland Oregon.

Bamboo Sushi was the first sustainable sushi restaurant in the world, certified by the Marine Stewardship Council. Kristofor has a lot to say on the subject, and it’s all worthwhile, so let’s get right to it!

SushiPro Kristofor, your restaurant, Bamboo Sushi in Portland, Oregon was recently named “Most Sustainable Seafood Restaurant in the US” by website. Isn’t it nice to be getting national recognition now after working so hard to create your unique restaurant based on doing the right thing?

Kristofor Absolutely! For me personally that was as good of an award as I could possibly expect. Equal to winning a culinary award, like being nominated in January by GQ for having one of the five best new dishes in America. That was fantastic, but I think the feeling of knowing that what we’re doing is having a positive impact and is being recognized is really good.

SushiPro So, what did you eat for dinner last night?

Kristofor Organic Mexican tortilla soup with french bread and butter and a salad.

SushiPro Can you talk a little about the difference between “chef-driven” sustainable restaurants versus “business-driven” sustainability?

Kristofor Most restaurants are chef-driven. That means that the chef, or perhaps the owner, is the authority on all things food-related. That includes issues around environmental impact, sustainability, etc. The customer is supposed to believe everything they say.

But that can be detrimental to the sustainability movement. There are scientists who actually know about these things, and have done the research. It’s important for the chefs, who make food choices on behalf of their customers, to be able to have the best information available. Instead of the chefs putting forth their opinions on sustainability, we want to let the science speak. When it comes to culinary techniques, say, for preparing sushi rice, the chef is the expert.

SushiPro Any restaurant can take some small steps toward making responsible menu choices and claim to be “sustainable”. How are consumers supposed to know what the term means?

Kristofor Unfortunately it has become overused, and for many environmentalists it does mean nothing. The easiest way to know whether or not something is authentic is to ask questions. We’ve learned to think that we should not ask questions about what we consume.

We’ve come to believe that the federal government is going to protect us; that they’re standing at the port inspecting everything, but they’re not. We train everyone on our staff so if a customer walks in and asks anyone about sustainability they can answer. We don’t expect people to believe us just because we claim to be sustainable.

SushiPro As a consumer, I usually don’t find sourcing information on seafood I see in stores and restaurants. So I often wonder what can be done to further empower consumers who want to enjoy sushi, but don’t really have the ability to distinguish between between better and worse alternatives?

Kristofor For consumers I think the most important thing you can do is to research online. You can go to the Monterrey Bay Aquarium website and get all kinds of information. You can see the foods that are sustainable, then when you visit a restaurant you can buy the best items that are local and sustainable. And you can ask, “Do you guys know how this fish is caught?” You’re letting them know as a customer that you’d like them to know about it.

SushiPro How much time do you guys spend working on your menu?

Kristofor Our menu is constantly evolving. It stays static for 5 or 6 months at a time. We have fish that stay on the menu all year round. I don’t believe that telling people they should only eat salmon when it’s in season a few months a year is realistic. When people go out to eat sushi, they want to eat salmon all year round. So we needed to figure out a way to get sustainable, certified, wild Alaskan salmon year round and keep our quality up. So we are sustainable, but we try to meet the consumer halfway.

Most people have budgets, and know what they want to eat, and want to be able to go out to eat and have their favorites available to them. Now we can’t have unagi and octopus available, but we have great alternatives that are wonderful and fresh. We also have our specialty items that come in throughout the year, like when silverfish are in season, or crab or uni. But we also try to keep our main staples like albacore tuna, salmon, and shrimp available all year round for our customers. They know they can always come in and get those basic sushi items. That’s a huge challenge: source high quality products, sustainably, and offer them all year round.

SushiPro Serving locally sourced seafood has to be an important part of being sustainable. What advice would you offer to sushibars elsewhere regarding overcoming the challenges of sourcing? For example, on the east coast, many sushi items like rice and salmon currently are shipped from the west coast.

Kristofor If you’re buying salmon from the west coast, make sure you’re buying wild salmon from Alaska instead of farmed salmon. You’re already paying the freight. So be thoughtful about what you’re buying. And as a sushi chef you should be thinking about what you can do to attract people of quality, both customers and employees. That means using quality ingredients, quality equipment, quality people. You spend a little more on quality, you’re going to get a lot more back.

SushiPro Restaurants serving sushi in landlocked markets like Denver or Minneapolis don’t seem to have a lot of choices aside from buying product from the major distributors. What can be done by restauranteurs in those markets?

Kristofor The first thing I would suggest is to establish partnerships with other restaurants. We rarely see a lot of good restaurants teaming up to achieve better results for themselves and their customers. We had to find other restaurants that wanted to buy some of the same seafood products, so we could get them at affordable prices. We’re not big enough to create the demand by all by ourselves.

SushiPro Any plans to open more restaurants?

Kristofor We’d like to be in every major metropolitan market in the country. I feel like we’re doing it better than anyone else. I don’t mean to disparage Tataki or Miyas, but we have a completely different package.

I went to Berkley, and so I guess that makes me a hippie of sorts. But I don’t really buy this idea that if I run my one little place this way it’s going to drive change in the market. What drives change is making money, and showing other people they can make money at it. We make money because we’re very good at what we do, and we would like to capitalize on being the brand leaders so we can set the standard.

Our menu is superior in terms of our food quality and diversity, and appeals to a really wide audience.We’ve won best hamburger in the city two years in a row. That means we affect more environmental change by interacting with more customers. So if we’re doing this in accordance with the strictest standards of environmental sustainability, based on science, then we’re able to "cast the widest net", and we’ll have the greatest opportunity to grow as a business. That means we’ll have the greatest opportunity to drive environmental change.

Being aware of your food choices doesn’t have to be limiting and prohibitive. And it doesn’t have to be boring, it can be exciting and sexy. It can be everything you like about Nobu, without contributing to wiping out species on our planet.

SushiPro Bun Lai (from Miyas Sushi) talks a lot about sourcing food from invasive species, and I was curious to get your take on that because it’s a creative idea.

Kristofor I don’t think there’s a mass appeal there. As a businessman I would never discourage anyone from trying, but I think he’s ahead of his time. People want salmon. In my opinion you have to get them hooked on sustainable salmon, shrimp, tuna, and have them understand why it’s important. Then after you have their respect you can get them to eat these invasive species. They’ll understand that these species are threatening the ecosystem that the things they love are living in.

SushiPro Seems like you are really trying to build something that will scale. Presumably if you scale up you can reward the good suppliers, and take market share away from the bad players.

Kristofor Yeah, look at Whole Foods. They’ve gotten so much bad press lately since they’ve grown so big, and they rely on these gigantic mono-crop farms and they’re really not as sustainable as people say they are. The world is a better place because Whole Foods exists. Twenty years ago it was just Safeway and Kroger, and your average stores. Now with Whole Foods’ success, people understand that sustainability is mainstream.

Does Whole Foods have a lot of things that they could do better? Yes. Are they better than your local organic, hippie grocery store? Probably not. But can you be thankful that there are more organic farms, more resources available for organic farms because they’re driving the demand for it? Yes.

And that’s kind of what I want to do. Ten years from now, as we scale, we may no longer be the most sustainable company that exists. But I believe that this needs to happen now, and make people aware of it right away. Because if we don’t we’re not going to have any fish left. So if I have to not be the most sustainable person to accomplish that, then it’s worthwhile. I think it’s about saving the whole as opposed to just going after a small niche.

SushiPro I’m always at a loss for what tack to take when talking to restauranteurs who buy into the idea, and want to take baby steps toward greening their menus, but they’re afraid of losing their customer base when they eliminate unagi, toro, tako, etc. What advice would you give them?

Kristofor The advice I would give anyone is don’t do it half-assed. That’s part of the reason we’re so successful; if we were only kind of sustainable, we wouldn’t be very popular. You and I probably wouldn’t even be talking right now. You wouldn’t have found my restaurant that interesting if we were only kind of sustainable.

Sushi Samba recently made that commitment to not serve bluefin, and I think that’s great. They even say on their website, we’re trying to figure out, with our consultants, how to be more environmentally conscientious with our menu. But they’re not popular because of that. They’re popular because they’re hip and trendy, with loud music and all. I don’t think they would lose customers by going sustainable, but they can’t change who they are.

A lot of restaurants don’t have any brand identity, they’re just selling food. But if your restaurant doesn’t have a brand identity, then going sustainable is scary. What is your restaurant, who are you guys, why are you unique? Why are you busy in the first place? Is it because of the service? Is it because people love Martha at the front door? Well don’t change that. People will still love Martha even if your restaurant is doing things that are good for the environment.

Nobody’s really that excited about crappy farmed salmon; wild salmon just tastes better. Crappy farmed shrimp doesn’t taste better than wild shrimp, but they’re cheaper and easier to get and the margins are bigger. But if people are willing to put in the time and effort to do it right, people will stand up and take note, and people absolutely will patronize their restaurant.

But if they just go halfway, and remove bluefin tuna and unagi, then yeah they’re gonna make some people mad. But if they do all that and then add a bunch of sustainable things, then for every idiot you lose who doesn’t know bluefin is endangered, or worse doesn’t care, you’re going to gain a new environmental customer. Because the movement’s big enough now.

So I would rather swap five un-environmental customers for five environmental customers. Because my five new customers are going to tell a lot more people about my restaurant, as opposed to those old five who just care about eating bluefin tuna because it’s cool and trendy and it costs a lot. Those aren’t people who are loyal, and who are going to fight for you in your town and your neighborhood when your restaurant is going through hard times. If you want to build a lasting restaurant you should be a part of the community you’re in. Be a part of your guests’ live, be a place where they have great memories and experiences. If you go sustainable, you’re going to have more repeat customers. People are really going to care that you care.

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  • Being a sushi chef in a landlocked market (Memphis,Tn) I agree with the idea of teaming up with other restaurants to create a more formidable demand for products. But I wouldn’t say that that is our only option. When we use what’s locally available to us – even if it doesn’t include seafood – I think we not only educate a seafood demanding audience, but we also honor the art of sushi.

  • mdw says:

    Great comment Marissa! You make a good point that gets to the heart of what sushi really is. It never used to be big business, it used to be all about the classically trained guys (yes I meant to use that word) serving you what is local and in season.

    I think that it’s up to the new generations of sushi chefs like you to interpret sushi in a current context. Personally I love to eat local (to me) ingredients like mango in sushi rolls, but wherever you live there are interesting ingredients that can be creatively used.

    By the way I’m a fan of yours, well at least a FB friend, and enjoy your videos too. Keep up the good work, and next time I go to Memphis I’ll be sure to stop in and say hi!


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