The first thing to notice about Umi Sushi is the retro pink box the food comes in. The flat, wide container shows up, via delivery driver, and immediately stands out — especially when presented against the more muted tones of some of the other takeout sushi boxes. It used to be that Sugarfish owned the to-go sushi business in LA, pushing out its clean, detailed white rectangular boxes at such frequency as to become basically ubiquitous. Then the pandemic landed, turning places like Ma’am Sir in Silver Lake into new Japanese restaurants intent on turning out premium boxes of fish on every delivery app. Michelin-starred restaurants like n/naka and Shibumi have found limited stability in bento boxes and other takeout Japanese fare but, as the bright pink box makes clear, Umi Sushi is a little different from all that.
Much like the corporate-backed Krispy Rice owned by SBE, Umi Sushi is unattached to a traditional sit-down restaurant, and doesn’t sell out of a commissary-style ghost kitchen setup. So who makes this stuff, and what’s with all the ’80s video game branding? Well, again, Umi is unique.
The four-month-old Umi Sushi is the work of three unlikely friends — Alex Alereza, Brett Powell, and Travis Richter. Musicians by trade and nightclub owners by occupation, they partnered together in Downtown all-ages venue 1720. In the past three years, the venue has hosted everyone from Pussy Riot to a recent private video shoot for the Jonas brothers. But just like every other music venue in Southern California, from the Silverlake Lounge to the Troubadour, ownership and workers haven’t seen a dime of traditional income in over a year, owing to restrictions on in-person live events and bar drinking.
Restaurants have been hit hard by the ongoing pandemic; nightclubs and bars have been all but knocked out. There’s hope for a brighter post-pandemic future and money from the Save our Stages campaign, but for now most LA venues remain entirely closed, holding in a kind of suspended darkness until officials allow them to reopen.
Except here, at 1720, where a little kitchen light glows bright during dinner service. Because the club was built as an all-ages venue, 1720 must have a kitchen. Before the pandemic it served tacos, fries, and small sliders to go along with the cocktails and non-alcoholic drinks, making for a concise bar food menu that Kitchen DTLA chef Felix Barron originally wrote. Now the kitchen is Umi Sushi.
“We’ve definitely all seen our fair share of ups and downs,” says Travis Richter, co-owner and musician for bands like From First to Last. “We’ve all been there when the rug’s been pulled out from under our feet, maybe even somewhere that’s thousands of miles away from home. We’re conditioned for that.”
By turning the kitchen of this otherwise closed venue into a takeout-only sushi restaurant, Alereza, Powell, and Richter were able to accomplish several things at once. There’s money coming in for the business, however little it is compared to a night of live music. The guys were able to hire back their kitchen staff, working with Little Tokyo legend Don Tahara (Far Bar, Sake Dojo) on executing an opening menu. And they’ve been able to keep their physical space (and themselves) in action, showing up to oversee Postmates orders, work out payroll, and discuss the possible future of Umi and 1720, together. Umi’s graphics, all those retro looks and logo, is even handled-in house by their friend Andre who used to design the group’s band posters. But it didn’t happen overnight.
“You want to instantly pivot and build sushi on day one,” says Richter, “but the truth is there was all this time wondering what the government was going to tell us, or what the rules were. The truth is, nobody knew.”
Co-owner Alex Alereza of melodic death metal band Nekrogoblikon agrees. “By the time it set in that, for the foreseeable future, this is what life will be like,” he says, “we said ‘We’ve got to do something.’” With sushi a longtime staple of the group’s diet, while touring and in LA, Umi didn’t come together until December.
Brett Powell of the band the Human Abstract and co-owner says that before closing the venue, 1720 employed almost four dozen people; now it’s a small crew of kitchen staff. But it’s something. “It’s nice just being able to work again,” says Powell, “and being able to give some of them some work, that’s really huge.” Powell now believes that Umi is here to stay as part of the food menu once 1720 is allowed to reopen, and as a ghost kitchen option for those in delivery range. “We wanted to create something that could be a lasting brand for when the venue does return,” he says, though Richter thinks there might be a few kinks to still work out.
“It’s definitely going to have a home here in the future,” Richter assures, before adding a final caveat: “We’ll see how it plays with the hardcore and EDM scene.”
Umi Sushi is available for pickup or delivery at 1720 E. 16th Street in Downtown, serving from 4:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.