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Sushi: Live Bait for Singles

Linda Gassenheimer / November 1997

Give away a high-ticket "in" nibble, and the crowds will come. Linda Gassenheimer reports on a winning formula.

"It may seem like letting 1,000 people go wild in the hotel," a Miami Grand Bay Hotel spokesperson had warned me about their weekly Wednesday sushi evenings in hip Coconut Grove. But nothing prepared me for the electric surge of energy and excitement that threatened to blow the circuits. There was a teeming stream of young professionals and a walkie-talkied security force directing traffic. The lobby seethed with attractive 30-somethings. This was obviously the place to be and be seen.

True to it's name, the Grand Bay is a sophisticated European-style hotel, pairing sleek modern architecture with oriental carpets, antiques, and magnificent floral arrangements. Hardly the sort of place you'd expect to find a swinging singles bar. Every Wednesday night, however, since February 1995, the decorous reserve gives way to a wildly successful evening—making it the mid-week meeting place in Miami.

How did this metamorphosis happen? "I was in Paris when the gm called and said we needed to do something about the slow mid-week traffic," recalls Pascal Oudin, director/executive chef. "I said, 'How about a sushi night? Let's give it away free every Wednesday.' After a little silence the reply was, 'Let's plan it.'"

But how do you take what seems like a simple idea and turn it into a mega-success? "It wasn't easy," Oudin admits. "At first we tried very sophisticated sushi, including octopus. But we found people wanted simple sushi, not octopus or eel. It was also very expensive. So we refined our menu and downscaled a bit."

Now Oudin uses yellowtail, cobia, salmon, wahoo, shrimp, California roll with cucumber or carrots, as well as avocado, and even fruit. Yes, fruit. Knowing that Floridians like their papaya, mango, and pineapple, Oudin decided to make fruit sushi, and it's a big success. "Not everybody likes fish," he explains.

Oudin's stint as executive chef of Festival Disney at Disneyland Paris helped him add an element of showmanship. He bought kimonos and hired a woman who owns a Japanese restaurant to teach the staff the correct way to wear them. He also had sushi bars custom made and bought Japanese tableware. But, he says, "we don't try to make the room look Japanese."

Using the hotel's extensive mailing list, Oudin sent flyers to 15,000 people and bought additional mailing lists to target young professionals, secretaries, and other specific demographic segments in Miami.

The first time around, Oudin expected to need about 100 pieces of sushi, but he served 500. Within a few months that grew to 1,000 pieces. It seems that giving away something that is not only high-priced but very popular is what drew the crowds. The hotel had once tried a caviar give-away, but it flopped. Go figure.

The Wednesday night before Thanksgiving Day in 1995, the crowds were so huge that police had to be called in to direct street traffic. Worse, the hotel had to actually close the bar because it simply couldn't accommodate the numbers.

After that, even on regular Wednesdays, crowds have consistently exceeded the capacity of the 2,000-square-foot bar outside The Grand Cafe. To siphon off the surplus, The Penthouse Club Bar/Disco, site of the shuttered Regine's, in a larger upstairs area, was pressed into service, and a DJ was hired. Even two bars couldn't handle the orders fast enough. So sushi night was expanded yet again—this time into the 1,500-square-foot mezzanine. And the hotel brought in seven additional portable bars and hired a number of cocktail waitresses to circulate through the crowd.

Customers willingly wait in line for up to 20 minutes to fill their plates. A staff of 40 (33 of whom work only on Wednesday nights) serves an astounding 4,000 pieces of sushi and 3,000 California rolls a week.

The sushi service takes four hours to set up and four hours to close down. "The crew starts at about noon," Oudin says. "They have to skirt the portable bars, assemble the bottles, glasses, and ice. Cleaning up is even harder because the next day, the hotel has to look like nothing ever happened. So they stay to clean up till 2 or 3 a.m. But they make very good money—an average of $250 to $350 for the night."

Drinks cost from $4.50 to $8, and generally revelers order two to three drinks each. Johnnie Walker Black Label is the popular power drink. The house white wine, Barton & Guestier, and bottle beers are also big sellers.

It took about eight months for sushi nights to start making money. Today, producing it costs between $6,000 and $7,000, which results in sales of approximately $15,000. Annual revenues from it are close to $800,000. Not bad for one mid-week night.

Furthermore, sushi night has introduced a whole new segment of Miami to the Grand Bay Hotel. The Wine Room, adjacent to The Bar and The Grand Cafe, have both greatly benefited. The mahogany-paneled Wine Room, lined with wine storage racks, is now booked two to three nights a week for private parties. Mid-week traffic has also increased in The Grand Cafe.

The story doesn't stop here. As other Miami restaurants and bars have copied the idea, The Grand Bay has had to add other fillips to keep up the excitement. "We serve mostly locals, and we want them to keep returning," Oudin says. Each Wednesday at 10 p.m., there's a drawing for a free weekend for two at The Grand Bay. One Wednesday per month the hotel also raffles his-and-hers Movado "Grand Bay" watches. Each drawing is dramatized with flashing lights and a roll of drums. The winning ticket-holder must be present.

In the middle of July, typically Miami's slowest season, the crowds were larger than in mid-February.

Couples, including a local news anchor and his spouse, have met at sushi night and subsequently married. One Chicago businessman frequently flies in on Tuesday night and stays through Wednesday just for this event. And nearly 1,000 locals keep on coming back—they didn't do it for pizza, nor even for caviar, but the sushi has them hooked.