Talking to Nay Hla, owner of the ever-growing Sushi Avenue empire, you get the sense he has one constant eye on what’s next.
The growth and expansion of his company is one sign—since opening in 2004, Sushi Avenue has established a pair of dining concepts (Masu and OneTwoThree Sushi) with nine restaurants, and a wholesale sushi arm that distributes to the likes of Target and Whole Foods with a presence in over 400 stores and 33 states.
But it’s also evident in the way Hla describes his journey: listing an exacting account of each milestone, good and bad, and how each one has pushed forward the company’s success.
His relationship to sushi—which remains the bedrock of the company, even as it forays into new products and services—had both serendipitous beginnings and went on to follow somewhat of a roller-coaster road. He fell into the sushi world by happenstance, but quickly recognized his career potential in the industry.
“If I ended up working in a different industry, like burgers or whatever it may be, I might be over there,” he said. “The thing is, to start a business, we need expertise […] Once I got the opportunity, I kept doing step after step.”
Hla studied at the University of Rangoon (now Yangon) in 1996 and was seeking a place with more opportunity for opening and operating a business than Myanmar could offer. He immigrated to California and secured a job washing dishes at a sushi restaurant to make ends meet while he studied at Pasadena City College. Soon he was rolling sushi and quickly moved through a series of sushi chef positions (including a stint in North Carolina where he met his future wife), before securing an independent contractor position at a Columbus, Ohio grocery store in 1999.
”I worked for someone else for about one-and-a-half years, and then I think: I’m a sushi chef, how do I upgrade to the next level? So I decided to do independent contracting.” Hla said.
The move is a prime example of Hla’s approach to entrepreneurship: finding—and landing—the position he wanted, even if all the means weren’t exactly in place at the time. In this case: working with minimal knowledge of English, securing an apartment without any credit, and managing the store entirely on his own.
“I worked 15 to 16 hours a day,” Hla said. “I could not afford […] to hire an employee, so I had to work on my own.”
Hla’s perseverance was bolstered by support from friends and colleagues. He was in a car accident the day before he was set to leave for Ohio, so he borrowed money from a friend to pay for a new car. Once there, the apartment lease Hla had found fell through because he had no credit history. He slept in his car for a week before his manager offered him a place to stay until he found housing.
After one year managing the Columbus store, Hla made another bold move by assuming management of two additional stores in Indianapolis and Texas. Faced with two unfamiliar markets, the investment drained Hla’s savings within the year and he returned to the original Columbus store. He worked there for two more years, where he was joined by his older brother Lin, who had been working in Singapore but was inspired by Hla to pursue better opportunities in the U.S. Their next break came in 2002 when Hla’s brother-in-law Philip Maung, who Hla had previously worked for in North Carolina, invited them to Minnesota to operate stores for his company Hissho Sushi.
Two years into the job, Hla realized that, while his income covered his family’s basic needs, it would not support the type of private school education they wanted for their son. So he decided to start his own business, in the industry he had grown to know from end-to-end: wholesale sushi. But with ownership came a new host of complications.
Hla was not yet a U.S. citizen when he started Sushi Avenue (he gained citizenship in 2009). To secure capital, Hla refinanced their home and took out substantial, and at times risky, credit—he recalled applying for one $300,000 loan that was granted on the condition he achieve green card status, which he didn’t have at the time. It arrived one week before the loan was set to process.
Despite the financial challenges, Sushi Avenue earned four contracts in its first three years, grossing $10 million. Since then it has continued to surge thanks to the brothers’ hyperfocus on opportunity and efficiency (as an example, Hla recalled spending the night before their third store opening in the store itself, rather than pay for a hotel, since he had to be up to prep at 4am).
A key element to Sushi Avenue’s success, Hla’s brother Lin suggests, is the perspective he and Hla gained from working in nearly every type position in the industry, from sushi chef to independent operator to general manager. As a result, when they hire, they can afford to bring on less experienced sushi chefs and provide in-house training and guidance. At the same time, they identified experts to build the company’s profile—including engaging restaurateur Tim McKee and David Shea of Shea Designs to concept Masu and hiring renowned sushi chef Katsuyuki ‘Asan’ Yamamoto to oversee sushi in the kitchen. OneTwoThree Sushi also reflects this eye for quality—each roll is handmade to order.
“We believe that we’re successful because of our experience, because we started from the bottom to [become] company owners,” Lin said. “We have experience with sushi: how we can make it, how we can manage it. That is the key to starting a business.”
In 2019, The Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal listed Sushi Avenue the largest ethnic minority-owned food business in the Twin Cities, and the fifth-largest ethnic minority-owned business overall. When asked about the title, Hla was quick to acknowledge the recognition, but also place it in the context of his larger goals for the company.
“It’s great to have our name out there, but we still have a long ways to go,” Hla said. “We’d like to go bigger […] step by step we are working to keep growing.”
Sushi Avenue’s next business opportunity is grounded in establishing a more affordable packaging source and helping lead the sushi industry toward more sustainable practices. To reach this goal, they are currently in the midst of building a second plastic packaging manufacturing facility in Myanmar. Hla acknowledged that Sushi Avenue’s mindset about sustainability puts them ahead of the curve, with several states on the forefront of passing laws that will make sustainable packaging a requirement. As such, they are poised to emerge as a ready supplier to meet increased demand.
While Hla’s trips to Myanmar are usually driven by business—he has been spending about half his time in Myanmar to oversee the factory production—he visits family there two to three times a year. With three children under 10 years old, Lin has less time to leave the States. Both brothers are focused on the lives they can provide for their children and families: their sister currently operates a grocery store in Columbus, and their brother and father still work in Myanmar.
Their mother passed away in 2017, but she attended the opening of Masu in 2010, and Hla said both parents have expressed pride in what their sons have achieved. Hla has two sons of his own now, and his eldest is now 19—the same age as Hla when he first moved to America. When asked about what advice he would give to his son, Hla said he doesn’t expect him to carry on the business, but he does have a hope for his future.
“I tell my son: you need to upgrade. That’s what he needs to do. Whatever I have gone through—he doesn’t need to. I got us to right here, he needs to get to the next level.”