Locally Owned Business Success Learned From Sam the Sushi Nazi

by Joanne Steele on May 6, 2011

Sam's Sushi Bar NashvilleHere’s a fun story that might help you think a little differently about those sacred laws of marketing for your locally owned business. As you read about Sam’s Sushi Bar, (notice that this is a link to Sam’s unclaimed Yelp page) think about these three things:

1. What is Sam the Sushi Nazi doing RIGHT that is leading to his success?

2. How is breaking sacred rules about customer service, word of mouth, and “business growth” actually leading to Sam’s long term satisfaction with his business?

3. What lessons from Sam can you apply to your locally owned business?

The Story of Sam’s Sushi Bar in Nashville, Tennessee

We’re visiting our daughter in Nashville, Tennessee, and are seriously sampling the diverse ethnic dining options. It turns out that Nashville is also an ethnic dining capital as well as a music capital!

A friend of Felice’s suggested that we go for sushi.  And then, with fear in his eyes, he admonished us NOT to tell Sam that he recommended Sam’s Sushi Bar.

It turns out the Sam doesn’t like new customers. If you look at the picture, you’ll see the hand written sign – “regulars only.”Sam's Sushi Bar Nashville, TN

Felice’s friend gave us instructions for eating at Sam’s

1. Creep in and take a seat. If no seats are available – it’s very small – leave and come back later. If you don’t Sam will order you out anyway.

2. When he’s ready to serve you he’ll toss you paper and pencil. Write what you want to order, but be prepared. If he doesn’t like what you order – too much food, or something he doesn’t want to take time to make at the moment – you don’t get it. Don’t make eye contact, and don’t EVER ASK QUESTIONS!

3. Get your own drinks from the cooler – opener on the side of the case.

4. Eat, enjoy, pay, clean up after yourself and leave quietly – don’t disturb Sam.

Following instructions we slunk into Sam’s Sushi Bar and joined a small group of regulars sitting timidly waiting for their turn to fill out their orders, anticipating something probably completely different to appear before them.

The hilarious story of Sam, the Sushi Nazi, as told in the blog, Nashville Confidential, further prepared us for what was to come.

We followed the rules, placed our order and waited, expectantly for our first taste of the famous “crack.” Sorry to say, Sam chose not to grace us with crack – we clearly were not regulars and didn’t deserve it. But the sushi for three was delicious and so plentiful we took half home… and the bill was $17!

Why is Sam the Sushi Nazi so successful?

If you look at the date of the article in the Nashville Confidential, Sam has been at this for years.

Let’s look at our three questions:

1 What is Sam doing right?

He has targeted his Perfect Customer with precision and created a pretty exclusive club feeling for them. We did not exactly fit his Perfect Customer profile, but our daughter did – so we got to stay and be served.

Everyone else in the place was mid 20’s to mid 30’s, casually dressed, probably well educated, interested in good food, but very interested in value. They all were comfortable with the rules and a little curious about us – were we the reason for the longer than usual wait for that sheet of paper and the consequent order? Yes, we heard their conversation.

Tourists stumbling into this place would be either ordered out by Sam or drummed out by the stares of the members of Sam’s exclusive club. Thank goodness we showed up with Felice, or we would clearly be out on the street!

2. How has Sam created a business that is giving him long-term satisfaction?

We read Sam’s story online. He used to work for a typical high-end sushi restaurant, and hated dealing with customers. He loved making good Japanese food.

I doubt that Sam consciously chose which marketing rules to break, but he did select these to honor consistently:

  • Make great food.
  • Charge ridiculously low prices.
  • Make the people who will leave him alone feel somewhat welcome and chase out anyone who plans to be a typical demanding sushi customer.
  • Let those regulars feel like they have an exclusive right to his services.
  • Make low customer service expectations part of the experience of eating at Sam’s.

What are the marketing  lessons you can learn from Sam the Sushi Nazi?

1. Identify and serve your Perfect Customer. Don’t try to be everything to everybody. He clearly doesn’t worried about running out of customers, and if you are serving your own Perfect Customer, neither do you.

2.  Realize that “marketing” involves everything you do, beginning with your advertising and the signage on your door. It also includes the experience you provide for your customer – every part of it.

Build your marketing to meet both your needs and the clearly identified needs of your Perfect Customer.

Like Sam, be absolutely consistent in how, when and why you serve your Perfect Customer.

Sam could easily expand by identifying another Perfect Customer – maybe visitors like me, but it would transform the business he loves running just the way it is. Being “successful” must include your own satisfaction.

3. No part of marketing is sacred. Those lists of marketing “to do’s” should be used like a menu in a Chinese restaurant – take one from column 1 and three from column 2 etc.

You decide based on the needs of your Perfect Customer and your long-term satisfaction with your business.

Ultimately, Sam’s lesson to all locally owned business owners is that your own happiness and job satisfaction is one of your most valuable assets.

Identifying and serving that Perfect Customer who enhances your satisfaction will keep you enthusiastically opening for business day after day, year after year, just like Sam.

Here are several past posts on identifying your own Perfect Customer:

Rural Tourism Marketing Secret: Step Into the Mind Of Your Customer

THE BIG SECRET to Successfully Marketing your Small Tourism Business


1 Gouthami May 6, 2011 at 11:02 pm

Perfect! Just goes to show that there is a market for every offering – so dont get hassled. And dont be in a hurry. Of course, if Sam gets greedy and wants to run a chain of sushi bars across the world, he may need to change. But I am sure he is happy with what he is doing and more importantly how much he is earning. Hats off to him!

2 Joanne Steele May 13, 2011 at 3:06 pm

He would probably be surprised to learn that he is an example for other small business owners.. 1. Be who you are. 2. Money isn’t everything. I think we’ll make one more attempt to make eye contact with him before we leave Tennessee on Monday!

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