A sushi burrito at Hai Street

After two years in operation, Philly-based Hai Street Kitchen & Co. has set a lofty goal: To become the largest Asian food fast-casual company in the country.

Ambitious? Yes. Unrealistic? You be the judge.

When the first U.S. location opened in May 2014, on 18th Street just north of Chestnut, its signature “sushi burritos” were an immediate hit. Within a few weeks, the tiny shop was pulling in $35,000 a week in sales, according to retail group manager Patrick Hughes, and business has grown steadily since.

With last week’s opening of a counter in the food court at Liberty Place, there are now six U.S. outposts of Hai Street Kitchen — including three in NYC, where Hai Street is consistently one of the best-performing stands at seasonal pop-up Urbanspace Broadway Bites, Hughes says — plus a roving Philly food truck. (There’s also a Hai Street Kitchen in the U.K., managed by a separate team.) The company’s new, even more affordable concept, Southeast Asian noodle and rice bowl specialist Wok Street, made its debut on Chestnut Street in Center City last month. Next week, the first of several planned Ai Ramens will join the Liberty Place lineup, offering variations on the rich Japanese soup, plus bao buns and traditional sushi.

And we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

36 locations within three years

“We’re planning to have 36 locations open by the end of 2018,” says Hughes. Glancing around the clean, sleek, smooth-running Wok Street, which is mostly full during a weekday lunch hour yet doesn’t feel at all crowded, it’s not difficult to believe.

Hughes, a 35-year-old native of Northeast Philly with a business degree from La Salle and a decade of front-of-house restaurant experience, joined the company in 2013. At the time, it was just an idea percolating in the back of Genji president Shingo Kanai’s mind. Kanai had helped grow Genji from a Philly mom-and-pop sushi spot into Whole Foods’ official sushi purveyor. Under parent company Peace Dining Corporation, which bought Genji in 1997, it now provides freshly-prepared rice rolls to more than 160 of the upscale supermarkets in the U.S. and U.K.

But though sushi has become much more mainstream since Genji first opened in the mid-1990s, the company’s market research found that only around 15 percent of the United States eats it on a regular basis.

“We took what American diners reported as the ‘negatives’ of sushi — it’s raw fish, it’s cold, they don’t know how to pronounce the dishes, they don’t know the etiquette — and developed a new brand that addressed these issues,” Hughes explains. Along with a team of three others, including current district manager Nick Muzyczka and head of product development Sun Joon Kim, he helped craft the menu, design, business model and philosophy of Hai Street Kitchen & Co.

A few things set it apart from other, similar ventures. There are purposely no touchscreen ordering kiosks, a hallmark of another fast-growing fast-casual hit from the Philly region, Honeygrow.

“That personal interaction was important to us,” Hughes says. “It’s our chance to educate customers about our food. To ‘walk them down Hai Street,’ as it were.”

The giant, burrito-size rolls feature nori (seaweed) wrapped around ingredients that are both classic and unorthodox, in build-your-own or pre-designed combos. Ultra-popular Slammin’ Salmon, for example, features lightly-seared sushi-grade salmon with spicy gochujang sauce and crunchy raw vegetables. Chicken Katsu is another best-seller — it’s basically strips of fried chicken in the center of the roll.

Lack of kiosks hasn’t slowed things down; on the contrary. Per Hughes, most locations rack up between 120 and 140 transactions per hour. That’s not up there with the top-of-the-top Chipotles, some of which hurtle 350 orders through the register in 60 minutes, but it’s right in line with the burrito juggernaut’s average.

Unlike Chipotle, which recently launched campaigns touting its farm-to-table cred, Hai Street tries to avoid being too preachy or tooting its own horn about ingredients, even though they’re mostly housemade and all-natural (“We’re like Snapple — we use ‘the best stuff on Earth’ ”). Not taking itself too seriously has become a prominent part of the brand, which regularly reminds potential diners to stop by and “get Hai.”

Branching out both high and low

All this worked to attract a dedicated following — the University City location opened just over six months after the first one, and was similarly mobbed — but it still wasn’t enough for the HSKC team.

Left out of the Hai Street demo, per Hughes, were people on both ends of the age spectrum. Many college kids felt the $10 to $13 price point was too high, and some older people were still put off by the unfamiliarity of a sushi burrito. The answer: Wok Street.

“It’s $5 or $6 for 1 to 1.5 pounds of food, hard to beat,” Hughes says.

Ai Ramen is the company’s push in the opposite direction. Though the first outpost, in Liberty Place, will be counter-service, that’s mostly a test location. In general, the concept is designed to be a sit-down restaurant with liquor license, though one that’s unpretentious and relatively affordable (think $12 to $13 per bowl). Broth will be made in-house, from scratch, and be filled with noodles from famed shop Sun Noodle, which provides the curly strands found at NYC’s best ramen houses.

Why branch into the higher-end? “There’s a lack of high-end Asian dining here,” says Hughes, who laments that ramen still hasn’t taken off in much of the U.S.

In order to help educate the public about how good the soup can be, Ai Ramen — “ai” means love in Japanese — will give customers a free bowl of real ramen if they bring in a bag of the freeze-dried stuff many Americans (especially broke college students) grew up with. The dried ramen will be donated to a nonprofit.

Hughes and his team are still searching for the right location for the first sit-down Ai Ramen, which will be in Philadelphia. They’ve considered several options so far, but “we don’t like to force things, we have a very specific set of criteria.”

The company is also actively looking for a space in DC, and expects to be open with one concept or another there by the end of this year. Next up is Chicago, then Boston and eventually “every major U.S. metro.”

“We don’t have someone we call our ‘head chef,’ even though we have very talented people who work on our recipes,” Hughes says. “That’s because our company isn’t about us. It’s about making our customers happy. Customers are our No. 1 priority. It’s a win-win.”

Danya Henninger is a Philadelphia-based journalist who believes local news is essential for thriving communities, and that its format will continue to evolve. She spent six years overseeing both editorial...