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Sakura Japanese Steakhouse will bring traditional sushi to Elkhart

Earlier this year when Leo Lin and his wife Teresa Li were visiting Lin’s uncle in Elkhart, they wanted sushi for dinner and were surprised they had to drive to South Bend for a restaurant that served the kind of sushi they were craving.

Actually, Chubby Trout and Jade Garden serve sushi in Elkhart, but apparently the young couple from New York City weren’t interested in those options.

Li said they saw an opportunity for a new eatery in Elkhart, and in November or December they plan to open Sakura Japanese Steakhouse at 151 C.R. 6, in front of the Walmart.

By then they plan to have turned an empty space into a restaurant with a sushi bar and hibachi tables — the kind where diners sit and watch knife-wielding chefs slice, dice and stir-fry entrées with a lot of sizzle and high flames at the table, as they do at Hana Yori of Japan in Mishawaka.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Li said. “The restaurant I used to work, people had a lot of parties. If you have two grills together, you can have like 20, in a big party.”

Lin and Li are Chinese, not Japanese, but Lin, 30, has been a sushi and hibachi chef for the past seven years in New York City, Buffalo, N.Y. and most recently Minot, S.D.

The space, formerly housing an AT&T store, isn’t overly large and will seat 67, but that’s fine for the atmosphere they’re envisioning, Li said.

“We didn’t want it to be a huge restaurant but kind of like family style,” said Li, who spoke more during a recent interview with the couple because her English is better than Lin’s. “I want customers to come and feel the family warmth.”

Lin was asked for his thoughts on the new venture.

“He will do this job well,” his wife said, translating for him. “He said he wants local people to see real traditional sushi at a lower price.”

Li said the couple thinks they can charge less for their sushi than other Elkhart restaurants because they already have contacts with Japanese seafood suppliers from the restaurants where Lin has worked, and they will buy in larger quantities because they will specialize in the dish.

She also is optimistic about their location, so close to Walmart and the coming Shoppes on Six development. And she thinks Americans are embracing Japanese food because it’s relatively healthy.

“Of course for owning the business we want good profit, that’s for sure, but also we want the city to see real Japanese sushi and hibachi,” she said. “That’s the goal. Every city should have Japanese food. It doesn’t have much oil. It’s really fresh. The sauce we use is really healthy. It won’t have that much mayonnaise. It’s different.”

They plan to serve a wide range of seafood along with chicken and steak. They plan to serve beer and wine, and be open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week. 

The couple just received their building permit to begin renovation work and plan to start remodeling next week. Initially, they plan to hire five or six employees, with Li waiting tables.

If they want to succeed, they better be prepared to work long hours, said their aunt, Amy Chen, who owns China Star restaurant on C.R. 17 with her husband Jianping Wu.

“You have to put in a lot of time and effort,” Chen said. “Getting it open is easy but keeping it is hard. The food industry is very hard these days. There are way too many food places now.”

Indeed, the building housing Sakura also contains a Jimmy John’s and a Jet’s Pizza that will open soon.

“English is a very big thing,” Chen said. “You’ve got to know English because we’re in America. People don’t always go there just to eat food. You’ve got to be social with customers, treat them like family and friends. Sometimes no matter how good the food is or your prices are, if you don’t treat them right you’re not going to keep the customers. I wish them luck.”

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