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Mikuni celebrates 25 years

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Mikuni Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar will celebrate a quarter century in business May 15, and co-owner Taro Arai said that after the touch-and-go nature of the first five years, the business has come a long way.

“The first five years, the more we worked, the more money we lost,” he said. “I still cannot believe it’s been 25 years. We’re so lucky to have all the support we’ve had.”

Now with nine restaurants in the greater Sacramento area, Arai said the business will be expanding in 2012, and while more brick-and-mortar restaurants are likely in store, the next thing people will see is a food truck.

There is no set timeline for rolling out the food truck yet, but Arai said he and his family have already started shopping for a truck.

“If it takes a year, I’ll be pretty upset,” he said.

“We’re working on the menu,” he added. “That’s the exciting part. I think we’re going to change the menu every week to see what people want and what works out there.”

Fitting the menu to be something the customers want and come back for has been key to staying in business for the past 25 years, he added.

When the first restaurant opened in Fair Oaks in 1987, it was due to a miracle, Arai said.

Working in a family member’s Japanese restaurant, Arai’s father was approached by a man who asked for his bank account information. Trusting the man, Arai’s father gave him the information.

A few days later, $300,000 was deposited into the account, and the man said to pay it back whenever it was possible.

“He gave us a no-contract loan,” Arai said Wednesday. “It was crazy.”

That loan enabled the family to open Mikuni, which translates as “kingdom of God.” The family planned to feature sushi, but there was one problem – Arai didn’t know how to make sushi. To remedy that, his father sent him to the bookstore.

“I needed, like, ‘Making Sushi for Dummies,’ ” he said with a laugh. “I learned how to do it, and we kept making new rolls for the people. My father told us to never stop making new rolls.”

Starting as a family of five who arrived from Japan with little more than a dream and the earnings from Arai’s paper route, there are now 17 family members involved in the restaurant, with Arai’s four children working during the summers and for special events.

“Its nice that it’s still a family business,” he said.

Despite success, the restaurant was not immune to the financial troubles brought about during the recession.

“We did struggle from 2007-2009,” Arai said. “My brother-in-law took over as CEO, and he’s just turned everything around, and we’re coming back strong now. He’s done a great job, and my brother is executive chef, and my sister is working in marketing.”

The Sacramento restaurant, located at 1530 J St., was part of the revitalization of the area when it was developed in 2003, said Downtown Sacramento Partnership spokeswoman Lisa Martinez.

“That was a historic renovation of a building that was not the best site before then,” Martinez said Wednesday. “Mikuni and P.F. Chang’s moved in, and it was kind of a turning point for the district. That year and the following year saw a big transformation in a lot of places downtown, and they were on the cutting edge.”

Martinez added that since the restaurant is on the border of downtown and Midtown, it helped create a bridge between the two districts and aided in making the area become more pedestrian-friendly.

“It’s been nine or 10 years since that development, and now downtown is known as a great location to go out and eat,” Martinez said. “Downtown really is the hub, and I think Mikuni and that development really strengthened the district.”

Arai said that being in business to make money is important for the 650 employees and their families, but it isn’t the end goal for the company.

“We’re committed to give back,” he said. “We’ve just reached $1 million in donations to breast cancer research, and we want to make a difference. We want to continue to help the charities in town. That’s another goal we have, and we keep pushing it.”

As part of the anniversary celebration, Mikuni is having contests and promotions that include a trip for two to Las Vegas, and someone will win a Honda Fit. For more information, click here.

Brandon Darnell is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press. Follow him on Twitter @Brandon_Darnell.

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