Lisa Abraham

MEDINA: Sushi on the Roll is on a roll.

Less than five years since two out-of-work mortgage lenders declared their intent to “bring sushi to the masses,” the company is flourishing, adding new customers each week and settling into a new 7,000-square-foot building in Medina.

Each night, workers descend upon the kitchens at the new headquarters to make between 1,000 and 1,500 rolls of sushi. Between 3 and 4 a.m., the company’s fleet of seven refrigerated trucks load up and head out to deliver to corporate cafeterias, schools, stores and hospitals as far away as Pittsburgh and Columbus, with plenty of stops in Northeast Ohio.

Recently, they began delivering to Cleveland’s Horseshoe Casino, where Sushi on the Roll is the newest offering on the buffet.

President Ken Oppenheimer, 38, of Bath Township, said the company’s sales last year reached $2 million, and the company now employs 35.

Oppenheimer and partner John Roller lost their jobs when Novastar Mortgage in Independence folded in 2007, and the two sushi fans decided that they would go into business together selling what they both loved to eat. With a business plan and a $40,000 investment of their own money, they hit upon a formula that worked, in part because they spent hours educating customers that sushi is much more than raw fish.

They are in the process of dissolving their business partnership. Oppenheimer said the parting is amicable. He and Roller had different visions for the business and Roller wanted to pursue other ventures, so Roller decided to bow out.

Oppenheimer said he never expected the company to move from its small kitchen and lunch counter in Copley Township to such a large facility (on Boardman Alley in front of Target), but the price was right and the move made sense. The new kitchen space has given the company room to grow far into the future.

His biggest hurdle at the moment is deciding what Sushi on the Roll should be.

The company operates on four fronts — as a catering business; as a licensed wholesale provider of pre-made sushi for sale in cafeterias, grocery stores and other venues including Cleveland Indians and Ohio State University stadiums, and Blossom Music Center; as a restaurant in front of its Medina headquarters; and as a provider of chef-on-site services in cafeterias.

He provides sushi for more than 25 high school and middle school cafeterias, including Akron, Canton, Hudson, Copley, Solon and Medina public schools, and there is a Sushi on the Roll kiosk at the University of Akron’s student union, where a chef makes rolls on site and UA students, “eat it like M&Ms,” Oppenheimer said.

When it comes to sushi, it’s all about freshness — a message that has been difficult to get across to some retailers who stock his goods. The business has a contract to supply sushi to Sam’s Club stores in Ohio, but they stopped because the company was leaving it on store shelves for longer than a day.

“From day one, that is the biggest challenge that we have — there is no shelf life to the product,” he said.

Which is why the chef-on-site segment of the business is its fastest growing, he said. If a cafeteria sells 30 to 40 pre-made sushi rolls a day, Oppenheimer said he knows he can sell at least 100 in the same spot if he has a chef there rolling the sushi in person. No one is picking up a container and wondering how old it is.

The company also hasn’t been afraid to buck tradition. Oppenheimer has never been shy about admitting that there are no Japanese on his staff, or any other Asians for that matter.

He’s also not afraid to give customers what they want, no matter how atypical it might be. Their rolls are bigger with the rice on the outside to hide the nori, (seaweed wrap). When they opened the restaurant at their Medina headquarters, chicken and beef rolls debuted on the menu. Both moves acknowledge that they are dealing with a Midwestern clientele.

“People ask, ‘Is the chicken raw?’ ” Oppenheimer said, shaking his head in disbelief. For the record, it’s not. In fact, even with seafood sushi, only about 30 percent of it contains raw fish. Most popular are the crab and shrimp varieties that always are served cooked to avoid bacterial contamination.

For the future, Oppenheimer said he will focus on expanding retail restaurants (as of this Sunday, the Medina restaurant will be open seven days a week) and he is studying what kind of franchising will make the most sense for such a multifaceted company.

“I can’t say I have it all figured out,” he said.

While he is chagrined at the suggestion that he could become the Taco Bell of sushi, Oppenheimer doesn’t deny that his goal is still “to bring sushi to the masses.”

“We’re not selling blow fish. We’re selling the basics that people like,” he said.

Lisa Abraham can be reached at 330-996-3737 or at labraham@thebeaconjournal.com. Find me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter @akronfoodie or visit my blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/lisa.