Brothers Peter and Yuen Yung push the envelope on fast-casual Asian dining.
By Leo B. Carter
The art of sushi, a centuries-old Japanese tradition, is one of hallowed custom and rigid rules. Brothers Yuen and Peter Yung have essentially turned this idea on its head. Their restaurant chain, How Do You Roll?, transforms your next meal in to a creative endeavor, allowing you to personalize sushi in a way previously unheard of. Here, tradition comes second to the cravings of your hungry stomach. If you want grilled chicken and eel sauce with brown rice in a nori cone, then you shall have it. No matter how unorthodox your wildest wishes, HDYR is determined to give you exactly what you desire.
From an early age, the brothers moved a lot, and what they bring to the table reflects this international upbringing. They daringly combine ingredients and flavors to create meals that blend cuisines from throughout the world. Their menu boasts everything from signature rolls like their 3-Alarm roll with spicy tuna, jalapeño and avocado, to creations out of left field like the Fruitella, a dessert roll loaded with fresh fruit and Nutella. If these aren’t exactly what you want, they will assemble from scratch a made-to-order roll with everything you want and nothing you don’t. To top it off, their prices rival many pre-made, store-bought sushi options. Too good to be true? Think again. Their mission statement says it all: Making the world better, one stomach at a time.
HDYR’s first location opened in October 2008 just off Braker Lane at the Arbor Walk, and since then, they have expanded with lightning speed. In addition to four locations in Austin, HDYR has started up shop in Houston, College Station and even across state lines in Florida and Arizona. After appearing on ABC’s critically acclaimed business-themed show Shark Tank, the brothers walked away with a $1 million investment deal and a boost in popularity that has helped them in establishing a national and soon to be international br and. The two brothers sat down with ATX Man and explained their vision for the futur e of fastcasual dining and how they push the envelope in the industry.
ATX Man: Tell us about the beginnings of How Do You Roll?
Yuen Yung: My brother is a sushi chef. I was just a busy executive running a financial-planning business. One day, I had 30 minutes for lunch, but I didn’t want the usual fast food. I wanted sushi but I couldn’t get in and out at a regular restaurant fast enough. I went to the grocery store, bought a roll, went back to my desk and ate it. It felt like dating someone I didn’t like, but I guess it was better than having nobody. Then one day at Peter’s sushi bar, I said, “Why can’t we do this in more of a fast-casual atmosphere? A place where I can get a roll the way I want it done?” That’s where the concept started.
AM: What is a childhood memory that allowed you to be where you are today?
Peter Yung: For me, personally, it was being in the restaurant industry. Our parents owned several restaurants. Just being there in the trenches with them, going to school and then straight to the restaurant to work. Even after high school, that was still the direction I wanted to go. After being a chef for more than a decade, I decided I needed a new challenge. That’s where this idea came in to play.
YY: The defining moment for me wasn’t from childhood. It was when my second son was born. From that, this brotherhood relationship was formed. My message to my son was, “Now you guys are a team, you have to watch out for each other.” I realized then that I was really talking to myself. For me, it was that core value of family.
AM: You two moved around a lot as kids. How did changing homes influence you as businessmen?
PY: You are correct. I was born in Guangzhou, China, and Peter was born in New York. We did move around a little bit: New York to Houston, Houston to South Florida and South Florida back to Houston. Now I’ve been in Austin for 20 years since coming for college at UT. I believe that moving around gave us a sense that the world is actually very small, and it ’s allowed us to expand far and wide because we’re not afraid of the different places that exist in the U.S. and the world. From a culinary point of view, I think what this jumping around did was help us adapt and make slight changes to our menu from region to region.
AM: Being from Houston originally, what is it about Austin that made you feel it was the right environment for the venture?
PY: I think people in Austin are more receptive to new concepts. Austin is the place to start.
YY: Austin as a town is very unique. Innovation and creativity are well accepted here. As a concept, we need to continue to innovate because that is really what the public wants. It’s a younger, hipper town and that was a better demographic for us.
YY: We feel we’re on a culinary cutting edge. What’s unique about us are the ideas of customization and personalization, which has never been done in the sushi industry. We take sushi and really modernize it and allow people to personalize it.
AM: Would either of you have been able to do this on your own? Would you have had the same success individually as you do as a duo?
PY: I’m the foodie, the experimenter, the one who comes up with the ideas on the menu. My brother is more on the business side and deals with the financial situation, making sure we continue with our company’s vision. I think we blend well together. If we were identical, then we’d probably bump heads a lot, but because our experiences are in different areas, we complement each other very well.
YY: What makes it tick is the fact that we are so different. He has his world that he plays in, which is all the research and development and the culinary innovations he works on. Then I, on the business side of things, work with how we build systems and operations and deal with the direction that the company is going in and what markets we’re going to take. I’m not sure that if I was on my own that I’d be successful at all. In fact, I’m not even sure I’d do it.
AM: Peter, as the culinary mad scientist, do you have any new projects, any new rolls that you’re working on right now?
PY: Well, a lot of that’s confidential. A lot of these new concepts are fusion. We can’t continue to look narrowly at just Japanese food and sushi. We need to think about how to fuse different Asian cuisines.
YY: But continue to use authentic ingredients. That’s important.
PY: We fill the demands of the majority of customers. For instance, you’d never think to mix chicken and beef together or fresh fruits in a roll. You’d never be able to go into a traditional sushi restaurant and get something like that. If you tried to customize there, the chefs would probably stare at you, like “there are no requests.”
AM: You both seem to have a bit of a philanthropic streak in you. Tell us why you think it’s important to give back to the community and how you’re doing it with HDYR.
YY: From the moment we started this company, we made a pact that our mission w as to make the world a better place. We’ve never turned down a charity for donations or contributions. On top of that, we try to be proactive and lead some initiatives ourselves, focusing on children and health issues. That’s what it comes down to for us. The sushi part is almost secondary to what we stand for as a company.
AM: What’s the next big move for HDYR?
YY: The next step is exploring further the fast-casual genre and to see whether or not we can be successful not only on the food side of things, but also the beverage side. Until now, we’ve always focused on food and never beverage. Peter and his department are now giving some more attention to that.
Visit the How Do You Roll? website to check out the menu, start planning your own unique roll and find a location closest to you.