By Doug Gray, Contributing Report
RIO DE JANEIRO – Walk around Zona Sul after dark and you cannot fail to notice the enticing orange glow emanating from little nooks and crannies along the busy streets of Ataulfo Da Paiva, Farme de Amoedo and more recently making its home in Botafogo, Humaita and Largo do Machado. Its not just the cartoonish colour scheme that catches your eye, but also the crowds of people huddled around outside, probably looking-to-see-who’s-looking.
First opened in late 2006 in Leblon, Koni became an instant hit and overnight sensation, filling a gap in the culinary market few thought was there – fast-food sushi. Sao Paulo does have the largest Japanese population outside of Japan and no doubt the number of sushi restaurants spreading like wildfire across Zona Sul and Barra is testament to the popularity of their native culinary expertise, but raw fish as fast food?
The first restaurant opened in December ’06, and now there are now sixteen outlets in Rio alone, another nine across Brazil and the first overseas project due to open soon in London. Originator Michel Jager could barely have imagined that his first conception of the idea, borne from a trip to a Temaki store in New York, would lead to what is fast becoming a national obsession.
Formed along with partners Flavio Berman and Roni Markus, all in their late 20s, the company pays attention to the small details whilst keeping the quality of ingredients high, and in doing so reaps the rewards (and the ultimate accolade if imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery – Temaki stores now litter the high streets but are never bursting with customers or atmosphere in the same way as the ‘original’)
On the surface it seems a simple idea. Healthy fast food that is available all day and night in a city that doesn’t sleep and where the body beautiful rules the beach. But converting a sound idea into reality takes something more and the trio injected a certain amount of science to their plan that has clearly paid dividends. Keeping the stores small – with only room for around 20 people to sit and eat at anyone time – they look constantly busy, and it not being the easiest snack to eat on-the-go, customers will happily stand outside munching away before finishing up and moving on.
Then there is the décor. Utterly iconic and eye-catching, the orange throbbing glow that emanates from the sign, the furniture and the waitresses uniform is not just there to stand out in a crowd. The colour is known to stimulate appetite, appeal to a youthful crowd, and also, as the owners freely admit, designed to encourage a fast turnaround of diners not overly keen to hang out in its radioactive-looking walls.
The only question that remains is how to keep the customers hungry for Temaki and stop them from moving onto the next ‘new thing’. Well, keeping their edge digitally via a well thought out website which includes a blog from their chefs as well as maintaining a link with their Japanese inspirations is a good start, and having set up mobile restaurants at key events such as TIM Festival and Fashion Rio in 2008, there is clearly more to Koni than an orangey gimmick and fast-food-fad.