Chef Jeff Osaka Explains Why He Shut Down All His Restaurants Instead of Doing Take-Out and Delivery

As of the morning of March 18, venerated chef and restaurateur Jeff Osaka closed his culinary concepts — including Sushi Rama (and its four locations), Osaka Ramen, 12@Madison and The Empire Lounge & Restaurant — until May 11. This reopening date could shift as local governments adjust their mandated restrictions related to the coronavirus in the coming weeks.

“This is one of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to face in my 30 years in the industry, and as a proud member of Colorado’s hospitality community, I know we will persevere. It is this belief that will set us up to best serve everyone – our staff and the public – in the future,” expressed Osaka in a press release.

According to Colorado Governor Jared Polis and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s mandates on March 16, restaurants must cease their dine-in service in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, yet they can still serve food and beverages to the public in the form of delivery, take-out and drive-thru. Though Osaka’s conveyor belt sushi establishment, Sushi Rama, normally allows guests to order sushi to-go, none of the chef’s concepts will stay open to provide dine-out service during this time.

303 Magazine, 303 Food and Booze, 12 at Madision 12@Madison, Lucy Beaugard, Chef Jeff Osaka

12@Madison. Photo by Lucy Beaugard

An increasingly large number of food and beverage joints across the Front Range are adapting to these near-debilitating constraints, and are doubling down on their takeaway service (or preparing takeaway meals for the first time) to keep the hospitality economy moving. But it’s difficult for some restaurants to enact this transition, especially when those restaurants’ central culinary ingredient is ready-to-eat seafood, which isn’t made to sit out long. (Osaka and his team typically remove plates from Sushi Rama’s conveyor belt after 90 minutes, which exemplifies how highly they value freshness.)

When asked why he decided not to keep Sushi Rama open for to-go service, Osaka explained:

“The focus was on my staff. As people have ‘panic shopped’ in the past week, although hopeful, there would be a limited amount of people dining out, let alone doing take out. I had to make the quick decision knowing employees would never make near the potential income that could sustain themselves, getting them to apply for unemployment benefits as quickly as possible is what I thought would be in their best interest.”

Osaka and his managerial team are also negotiating with their insurance providers to keep health care benefits active for their recently unemployed staff, and are writing references for past workers who wish to request loans through banks and rent adjustments for landlords. All perishable food in the restaurants’ walk-in closets was also doled out to the affected staff.

On March 17, more than 6,800 attempts were made to file for unemployment in Colorado, after which the online portal crashed. Luckily, Polis introduced the Colorado COVID-19 Relief Fund on March 18, which goes toward medical supplies, nursing home and homeless shelter staffing, as well as helping struggling workers, families and small businesses. Visit the relief fund’s website to learn about how to help.

Jeff Osaka. Photo by Lucy Beaugard.