The Fusian chain of fast-casual sushi restaurants traces its roots to the Dayton area, and more specifically, to Oakwood, where founders Stephan Harman and brothers Josh and Zach Weprin were childhood friends.
The three attended Oakwood’s Harman Elementary School and “always talked about going into business together,” Stephan Harman told us in September 2011, just as he and his business associates and friends were poised to open their first Dayton-area Fusian on Brown Street near the University of Dayton campus.
The three split after high school, with the Weprin brothers heading to Ohio State University, while Harman enrolled at UD.
“I always wanted sushi when I was at UD, and I was looking for a restaurant that could make sushi a convenient, affordable, everyday meal,” Harman said.
He and his friends have created just that. Together, the young entrepreneurs — Harman and Zach Weprin are now 29, Josh Weprin is 31 — opened their first Fusian restaurant in Cincinnati in May 2010, then returned to their hometown to open the small chain’s second location. They added restaurants in Cincinnati and Columbus, and earlier this year, opened their second Dayton-area location, in Washington Twp. in the retail center that houses Whole Foods.
After a relatively deliberate approach to growing the chain in its first five years, the trio is doubling the number of locations in a two-year period and is poised to expand into new markets in Cleveland and Toledo.
We posed five questions to the Fusian founders about their venture that traces its roots to their shared Oakwood childhoods.
Q: Tell us how FUSIAN got its start and how your roots as childhood friends in Oakwood are helping to shape the company today?
A: Dayton, and more specifically, Oakwood is a unique place to grow up — families are close, friends are developed from a young age, and (in Oakwood) these friendships are cultivated year after year from grade school through high school and beyond.
We’re lucky to have known each other for the past 24-plus years, and we’re bound by life experiences and trust. It makes our partnership figuratively and literally a brotherhood. We connect through the values we grew up with which we’ve applied to business. Those values include doing the right thing, making service a passion, and building relationships with meaning. FUSIAN was a simple idea started with these principles and we have an incredible team that subscribes to them in order to make that simple idea a reality. — Stephan Harman
Q: Tell us about your newest locations in Centerville, Clintonville and Grandview and the significance of those locations and how they came about.
A: We grew up in Dayton, but we’ve had the privilege of living in all three cities that we currently operate in (Cincinnati, Dayton, and Columbus). This has allowed us to dedicate lots of emotional energy into our cities, understanding cultural patterns, and developing meaningful connections with our communities. Each of our new locations are the result of an intimate understanding of the community it is in and the desire for FUSIAN to be a part of the dynamic that makes each one unique. — Stephan Harman
Q: You’ve talked about Fusian’s “go slow” approach toward expansion, but you’ve had quite a bit more activity in the last year or so. At this point, what are your expansion plans — both in and around southwest Ohio, and elsewhere in Ohio and outside the Buckeye state? What makes now the best time to rev things up a bit?
A: We have two main focuses for our business. The first is new unit growth or expanding our footprint. The second, which we refer to as “Kaizen,” is about continually improving the operations of our existing locations.
As with everything in life, timing is a big part of maintaining these focuses. We can’t have one without the other and we must stay laser-focused to be successful at both in order to build a long-term, sustainable organization.
At this point, we are focused on building out the Ohio markets. We will be opening new locations in Toledo and Cleveland next year while also working on adding to our existing markets as well. Being from Dayton, going to school in Columbus, and starting the business in Cincinnati, I know that we haven’t scratched the surface in our potential in Ohio communities. — Zach Weprin
Q: What role do your two Dayton-area restaurants play in incubating ideas and management and employees for Fusian’s other locations?
A: The Dayton community has played a HUGE role in building our team. Many of our Operating Partners (our version of a General Manager) and other leaders at our Cincinnati and Columbus locations have worked their way up through our ‘FUSIAN U” (short for FUSIAN University) training program out of our Dayton-Brown Street location. Leadership and team-building are very important to us. It’s all about the people, and Dayton has great people! — Zach Weprin
Q: Fast-casual sushi restaurants are a growing trend in some parts of the country. What sets Fusian apart from its current and future competitors, and where do you see Fusian in 10 years?
A: The fast-casual segment of the restaurant industry is the fastest growing because of the affordability, convenience, and quality of products. The niche category of fast-casual sushi is limited to only a handful of operators, but the market has tons of potential and opportunity.
In addition to our story, the differentiating factors for FUSIAN are our culture and our food. Our culture is unique and driven by personality instead of skill. We have set ourselves apart by hiring individuals who align with our core values and don’t base hiring decisions on professional experience alone.
Our sushi in Sushi in Schools program also differentiates us. We have established relationships with more than 33 schools where we serve fresh and wholesome sushi to students during the lunch period. This program is a win-win-win for the students, school districts, and FUSIAN as we aim to educate students on what’s worth eating and why while saving money for the schools.
Lastly, our food! We develop a new community of sushi lovers by challenging people’s perceptions of what sushi is in a fun and inviting way. The general belief is that sushi is “raw fish” but translated it refers to “seasoned rice.”
In addition to raw seafood options, we serve a variety of less traditional sushi options including roasted chicken, braised beef, roasted tofu and shrimp tempura which appeal to sushi novices and experts alike. We always tell people who say they don’t like sushi that if they like roasted chicken, vegetables and rice, they’ll love FUSIAN. So far no one has told us we were wrong.
At our core, in 10 years we hope to be the exact same: amazing people, serving amazing sushi, to amazing customers. The main difference we hope to see in 10 years is that we will have MORE people serving MORE sushi to MORE amazing customers! — Josh Weprin