When he started out on his own a couple of years ago, sushi chef Randy Mustererwould invite a few dozen of his friends over to his house for what he only half-jokingly called "underground" sushi feasts. Price of admission: About $40.
"I told them, Don't ‘check in,' don't tell anyone you're here, don't take photos," he said.
Fast forward, and the secret is most definitely out. Three years after opening his first restaurant - called Sushi [Confidential] - in downtown Campbell, Musterer is bringing his operation to downtown San Jose, no secret passwords required. The new store is slated for 31 N. Market St., the former Sonoma Chicken Coop at San Pedro Square. And it comes about a year after Musterer, who is known to customers and friends as Sushi Randy, first started to hunt for a second location, buoyed by the phenomenal response to his first spot on East Campbell Avenue.
"We looked in Santa Clara, a little in Los Gatos," Musterer said. "We wanted to stay within 10 square miles of our current location." Downtown San Jose worked, he said, because "a lot of our customers currently live there, work there, go there for Sharks games. We don't think it will steal much - we think it will complement."
The restaurant will revive a prime spot in the district's restaurant row that went dark unexpectedly back in September. Kris Blais, a Kidder Mathews associate who represented Musterer with Chad Leiker, said the concept is perfect for the space, which is about 3,300 square feet of interior rom and 5,000 square feet of patio. Nick Goddard of Colliers International represented the landlord.
"Most of the downtown sushi spots you can think of don't offer a large patio and or full bar," he said. "That was something he brought to the table."
The restaurant business is quite a change from Musterer's first career as a cancer researcher for Bay Area biotech companies. But it came after years of moonlighting on nights and weekends at well-respected sushi restaurants around town. The side gig, Musterer said, was a way to make some extra cash in ultra-expensive Silicon Valley while indulging a life-long interest in Japanese food.
"Biotech jobs can be very introverted," he said. "There's no instant gratification," he added, citing years of work on a product that may end up being shelved with little notice. "So I followed my limited experience and love for sushi."
That love goes far back. He grew up in San Diego, caught his first fish at 2-years-old and as a teenager was working on sport fishing boats on weekends and during summer breaks. He learned about sushi from Japanese fishermen, and as a college student, he would prepare the dish for his friends.
A science career took Musterer to the Bay Area, but he still felt called to food. A local sushi restaurant gave him an opportunity to learn from experienced masters, and Musterer took to it like, well, a fish to water. He worked his day job from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., then would work as a sushi chef from 6 p.m. till the wee hours of the morning a couple of nights a week.
"It was pretty brutal, but when you're following your passion it's something else," he said.
The sushi house parties at his private residence gave way in 2009 to Sushi Randy Catering, specializing in corporate events. His reputation grew, and he started to look for a brick-and-mortar outpost. That opportunity came in 2012 in downtown Campbell. The name, he said, plays off both his semi-clandestine early events and his past work in the ultra-secretive biotech world. Signature rolls include "undercover unagi," "spy vs. spy" and "Cabo conspiracy."
Today the restaurant is an anchor on red-hot East Campbell Avenue, which has so many restaurants that the city council has been studying putting restrictions on new ones.
"When we moved into Downtown Campbell, I didn't realize what it would become," he said. "There was some activity with local restaurants but I didn't realize my timing was perfect."
Musterer, who retired from biotech about a year-and-a-half ago, sees the San Pedro Square area as analogous to downtown Campbell a couple of years ago - a once sleepy district that is now bustling with shops and eateries. "I feel it's rebounding right now with San Pedro Market coming back alive. There's a lot of night life there, especially on weekend nights."
Blais agreed, saying that the Sushi [Confidential] concept plays well with the young urban professionals that are moving into new housing downtown. An uptick in commercial leasing will also help during the weekdays. And events at SAP Center will be a home run.
Musterer hopes to be open early next year. A goal - and he concedes it might be too aggressive - is to open for Super Bowl 50, which is Feb. 7 in Santa Clara.
For the full story, go to Silicon Valley Business Journal.
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