More Than Just Sushi Burritos: An Interview with Jeff Carter and Lawrence Yoo
Updated: May 4, 2021
If you’ve had the pleasure of eating at Sushioki, you know the food is great (the Bull City Bulgogi and the Titan Tempur are my favorites, although I haven’t met a roll I didn’t love), but you might not know the story behind it. Afterall, it’s not every day that a pastor and one of the founding elders of a young church decide to go into the restaurant business together. I was recently able to ask co-owners Jeff Carter and Pastor Lawrence about Sushioki’s origins and its future.
So, how did the two of you decide to open a sushi burrito restaurant? Why open a restaurant at all? Why burrito-sized sushi?
Lawrence: I went to a place that had a similar concept in California and I thought that this idea would work well in the Triangle. I wanted to put our spin on this idea and make it more of an Asian fusion place with a bit of southern charm. I’m an entrepreneur at heart and love the idea of creating new things. I went to Jeff because I wanted a partner in crime. He loved the idea and brought in Joey, Jeff’s son.
I also really loved the idea of a place where we could employ refugees at a living wage and be flexible. I love the dignity good jobs can give people and I love the culture we were able to help create.
Jeff: When Lawrence told me he thought it would be fun and profitable to open the Triangle’s first sushi burrito restaurant, I agreed. He mentioned the idea to Jina and she didn’t shoot it down, and I mentioned it to Susan and she didn’t shoot it down, so Lawrence and I started planning.
What were some of those early conversations like?
Jeff: The first real conversation we had was at a Chick Fil A during the summer of 2018 when Susan, Joey, Lawrence, and I brainstormed what we thought it would take to open a restaurant. Joey was about to start his senior year in college, and because he had already been working for Chick Fil A since the age of 14, we thought he would make a great general manager. Joey was excited about the idea. We started meeting at Lawrence’s house on Saturdays to test recipes and to make our first sushi burritos.
What do you mean by the phrase "business as mission"?
Jeff: We opened the restaurant thinking it might be a good financial investment, but God had additional plans. At the time we opened 3 years ago, refugees were still coming to the US to start new lives, and Waypoint was helping to settle them in the Triangle. We quickly realized that refugees needed jobs, and our restaurant needed employees, so we hired several refugees when we first opened. The restaurant became like a business/ministry, employing refugees who needed jobs, and feeding both stomachs and souls. On one occasion Susan was working at the front counter and a woman came up to order and just burst into tears. Susan wasn’t sure what to do so she asked the woman if she could pray for her, and the woman said yes, so with about 10 customers still standing in the line behind this woman, Susan came out from behind the counter, put her arm around that woman, and prayed for her. I’m sure that had a huge impact on not only that woman but all of the customers who stood in line watching this whole situation unfold. On another occasion one of our employees asked one of our Christian employees what Easter was all about, opening the door for the gospel to be shared! That’s business as mission…God using people in their every day, mundane jobs to have an eternal impact for his glory.
What are some of the goals of Sushioki?
Lawrence: We want to continue to provide great food and service while giving quality jobs.
Jeff: Our mission statement is “To provide an excellent dining experience in an environment where our guests are known and valued.” This is modeled after what Lawrence calls “the human condition”. We want our customers and our staff, particularly those who don’t know Jesus, to feel known and loved. We also want to support our community, especially those who are marginalized by society, which is one of the reasons we employ refugees and others who are struggling in various ways. And we like to support other ministries like Waypoint preschool and World Relief when we can.
What have been some of the biggest challenges of this venture?
Jeff: Opening a restaurant from scratch (ie: not opening a franchise) turned out to be a TON of work…designing and building the restaurant, creating the menu and recipes, sourcing all of our supplies, handling all of the legal and financial aspects, finding a location, hiring and training staff, marketing, etc. And doing all of this while both Lawrence and I already had full time jobs and Joey was a new college grad. Life was very busy during the start-up phase and continues to be busy even 3 years after opening.
One of the biggest ongoing challenges for both of us is in balancing time supporting this restaurant we created with time being home to support our marriages and families, and again while having full time jobs already. Another challenge for me personally has been trying to keep focused on how God is using the restaurant for His glory, rather than focusing on running the business of the restaurant. If all we’re doing is selling food, we’re missing the bigger eternal opportunity that God has given us with the restaurant, but even while I realize that, I still tend to focus more on the business (how is our bank account looking, how can we improve our marketing, how will we handle staffing challenges, etc.) since I know there won’t be a business if we’re not wise in how we operate, especially in the 2020 economy devastated by COVID. In many ways I can see how God brought us together to start Sushioki, and it’s really HIS business, so I need to learn to seek God first and let Him take care of everything else.
What have been some of the highlights?
Jeff: The biggest highlight for me is in meeting people I wouldn’t have had a chance to meet and get to know if it weren’t for the restaurant. Many of our customers are regulars, so they’ve become like a part of the Sushioki family. When they come into the restaurant it’s like a reunion with friends you haven’t seen in a few weeks, and that has been really gratifying. And from an eternal perspective, the hope is that the Holy Spirit will be laying the foundation in those new friendships for the opportunity to share the gospel. We also play contemporary Christian music in the background at the restaurant and that sometimes opens the door for spiritual conversations. Because COVID has forced us into a “take-out-only” model for almost a year, it has been harder to connect with customers, but hopefully it will be safe to reopen the dining room in 2021.
What has God taught you through this experience?
Lawrence: To trust in Him more and not in our own abilities.
Jeff: Probably the biggest lesson I’ve learned (and continue to learn) is in how to wait on and trust in God. Every time Sushioki has a problem or challenge, I feel like I need to fix it. But many times over the past 3 years, problems have come up that I simply can’t fix. I have had to learn to wait and let God work and trust him with the situation. Probably the most recent example of this is with COVID. In the early days of COVID, everyone was afraid to go out into public, and Sushioki had a sharp decline in business volume and revenue. As the pandemic began to spread and grow and business continued to decline, it was unclear if we would be able to stay open. Reports began to emerge of businesses across the entire country having to close, and there was nothing we could do to except wait on the Lord and trust that he would miraculously sustain us, which he has!
What dreams do you have for Sushioki? Any prayer request in regard to next steps?
Lawrence: I would like to expand in the area and around the world. I would like to see others follow our model.
Please pray for the catering part of our business. And pray for continued favor in the community.
Jeff: My dream is that God would use Sushioki as a hub for accomplishing his purposes. I think it would be great to see the business grow and expand, but it was be even more amazing to have customers and employees come to faith as a result of this restaurant. I pray that the Holy Spirit would dwell within the walls of Sushioki and that believers and non-believers would feel God’s presence there.
With regard to prayers for next steps, I would love prayer that God would give Lawrence, Joey, and me wisdom as we run the business and that we would be able to keep an eternal perspective as we make business decisions. I pray often that we would clearly understand where he is leading Sushioki and to have the courage to follow His leading (some business decisions can be scary!). I pray that God would be pleased with Sushioki as a business that glorifies him.
If you are interested in learning more about business as mission, Pastor Lawrence would love to meet and talk with you (firstname.lastname@example.org)