Arts Paper | Arts Council of Greater New Haven

Otaru Reopens Its Doors

Written by Tyler Mitchell | Jun 11, 2020 12:54:14 PM


Chef Sunny Cheng, back behind the counter. Otaru Photos. 

Sunny and Kathy Cheng had gotten a routine down at the corner of Temple and George streets. Five days a week, the two would open the doors to their cozy restaurant, check the tables and chairs, and begin preparing for a night of cooking for a mix of regulars and newbies.

That was before everything they thought they knew about running a restaurant in New Haven was upended almost overnight.

The Chengs are the owners of Otaru Sushi Bar in downtown New Haven. Since COVID-19 forced a wave of closures across the state, the two have been figuring out how to change their business model to keep the restaurant—and their dedication to omakase-style sushi—afloat.

Before COVID-19, Otaru had been building up its customer base. The restaurant opened in late 2018, with a trickle of foot traffic that turned into a steady stream by the end of last year. With their other kids grown, Kathy referred to the spot as “our baby.” The couple poured their energy into running the place, which they started after selling a sushi restaurant in New York a few years ago.

Here in New Haven, and often with an audience, Sunny Cheng practiced the art of omakase—a kind of chef’s choice (the Japanese word literally means “I’ll leave it up to you”), based on a conversation with the customer. Word spread: Otaru became popular for its menu, often filled with the scents of fresh fish and the sound of multiple conversations all happening at once.

Then COVID-19 hit. As businesses closed their doors around the city, Otaru was forced to lay off multiple staff members, including sushi chefs who had been working with Sunny in the tight, behind-the-bar kitchen. In March, the Chengs announced that they would close from March 15 to the end of the month. Then at the end of the month, they announced that they were staying closed through April for the health and safety of patrons.

In May, with a plan finalized for curbside pickup, they announced the restaurant would be open in a limited capacity. Otaru reopened its doors on May 7, for Thursday through Saturday contactless pickup. After those first three days, the Chengs thanked faithful patrons for their support. They added that they knew their first weekend back wasn’t without growing pains: some customers waited 30 minutes after ordering food.

“As we try to stay on float for the business, we are here to thank you so much for all your amazing support,” the restaurant wrote on social media May 11. “It really helps us to define who we are and what we are doing. We honestly believe that your support has resulted with a positive impact on us. Indeed, we sincerely appreciate everyone for all your patience and cooperation.”

A month after starting that model, Kathy Cheng said that customers are coming back slowly, although business is not close to what it was before COVID-19. In part, that difficulty comes from the building itself: while Gov. Ned Lamont has started to reopen the state’s economy in phases, the restaurant has no outdoor seating. Indoors, the space is intimate: it seats only 20 people at max capacity, and far fewer when physical distancing is enforced.

Still, the business has tried to stay upbeat. On Otaru’s social media accounts, the Chengs share secret ingredients, messages of thanks, and pictures of Sunny hard at work in the kitchen, where he whips up sushi behind a blue surgical mask. Even as Lamont moves toward the next phase of reopening, they have stuck with the model of curbside pickup for the safety of customers.

Michael Piscitelli, economic development administrator for the City of New Haven, praised the business for working to keep its doors open despite new financial and public health obstacles that the pandemic has posed. He noted that downtown businesses are still missing a large part of their customer base—Yale University, which sent students home in March.

“You’re seeing the ingenuity of small business owners really shine across the city,” he said. “There’s a need to be creative and safe to shore up your existing market, so you’re seeing that play out across the city.”

“The way people promote that and build their customer base is really important,” he added. “It’s a very challenging time for the city. Small business owners -- we can all learn a lot from the way they are managing.”

Find out more about Otaru Sushi Bar on Facebook or its website. This piece comes to the Arts Paper through the third annual Youth Arts Journalism Initiative (YAJI), a program of theArts Council of Greater New Haven. This year, YAJI has gone virtual. Read more about the program here or by checking out the"YAJI" tag.