Behind-the-Scenes with the Sushi Line

It’s 12:07 p.m. Your second class of the day ended early. You know what this means – you’ll be at the front of the sushi line, beating out the rest of your RC classmates. Sometimes while you’re waiting in line, you make TOM-related jokes about throughput time and work-in-process. You re-imagine an optimized sushi line because you’re an MBA-in-training, and you think you know things. But wait, George, Chuck, and Pablo have already been working on optimizing your sushi experience.

At 8:00 a.m. on a Monday morning, in a secret kitchen behind the Meredith Room, George, Chuck and Pablo have already been preparing sushi for the past two hours and have offered to let us interview them about the operations and history of the sushi line.

George lives the farthest away and wakes up at 4:30 a.m. every day to make it to the school at 6:00 a.m. After cooking the rice, preparing the tuna, eel, shrimp, and vegetables, Chuck and Pablo start rolling the premade rolls — the spicy tuna, California and veggie rolls sold in Teele, Batten, Aldrich, Morgan, the Grille, and the upstairs Dining Hall. They make 125 of these premade rolls every morning. Meanwhile, George starts filleting the fish for the specialty rolls.

George Sabatino started working at HBS 33 years ago. He came to HBS as a waiter and worked his way up to chef. In the 2000s, Restaurant Associates noted the rising popularity of sushi in New York City and started offering sushi at some of its NYC locations. In 2005, one of Restaurant Associates’s NYC sushi chefs temporarily relocated to Boston. This visiting sushi chef trained George in Japanese technique, and George brought other HBS chefs on-board to help continue HBS’s Japanese offerings. Chuck Mark joined HBS Restaurant Associates six years ago and has spent all of his time working on the sushi team, and Pablo Pemberthy has been on the sushi team for the past three years.

When asking Pablo “what made you move to the sushi line”, Chuck interjects “Me!” Pablo adds, “They recruited me. They were fun to work with, and I wanted to learn something new.” Apparently being a huge sushi fan is not a prerequisite to joining the team. When asked if being a sushi chef decreases his desire to eat at sushi restaurants, Pablo commented, “I’m vegetarian. I never ate much sushi.”

Over the past eight years, the menu has also changed. George explains, “We used to rotate a special each week. We used to sell hot bento box, rice bowl, chirashi, hot noodle bowl, kimchi… it was a lot of work. We were doing a full Japanese menu, but the sushi took off, so we decided to focus on that.” A couple of years ago, George went to New York to study what new sushi rolls were trending, and the sushi team started offering an assortment of specialty rolls. After seeing which rolls students ordered the most, they started pulling the less popular rolls to arrive at the 5-6 that they currently offer.

In addition to the team and the menu items changing, the location of the sushi line has changed as well. Originally, the sushi line was located in the Spangler Dining Hall on the first floor, between the pasta station and the registers. George recalls, “It created a lot of confusion. The line would go past the salad bar and out the door. Students didn’t know if they were in the pasta line or the sushi line.”

Though the lines may feel long now, the team actively thinks of ways to make it shorter by coming in at 6:00 a.m. to start preparing, by simplifying the menu, and by relocating the line to the Grille. As for optimizing throughput, George adds that they track the average wait times, and to compensate for the long lines, “we do our best to keep the sushi line experience pleasant for everyone. We try to give the students excellent service.”