Fast-growing chain of sushi restaurants is on a roll in North London

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Fast-growing chain of sushi restaurants is on a roll in North London

Jason and Adam Balsam realised their dream of bringing quality sushi to the 'burbs

Louisa Walters is Features Editor at the Jewish News and specialises in food and travel writing

Jason (left) and Adam Balsam
Jason (left) and Adam Balsam

I don’t tend to go out for lunch during the week. But if it involves Kiyoto’s famous sashimi salad with its ‘secret recipe’ dressing, plus a chat with the owners, I’m certainly not going to turn it down. And so I find myself on a sunny Thursday lunchtime in Kiyoto’s large bright, corner restaurant in Cockfosters sat opposite brothers Jason (37) and Adam (33), who founded their restaurant brand seven years ago.

Both boys left Immanuel college after GCSES, Jason to work in a bank and Adam to do telesales, which he says was the best education he had –“it taught me so much”.

A few years later Jason was a city trader, thriving on the adrenaline rush that comes with the highs and lows of making and losing large sums of money, not to mention the early mornings. Adam was working in China manufacturing beauty products for high street multiples and when he sold the business he came back to the UK to embark on a new venture – bringing sushi to the suburbs, where it was curiously missing despite its growing preponderance in central London.

“At the time you needed to travel into town for great sushi and pay high prices at places like Roka or Zuma,” he says. “I wanted to serve the same quality but make it accessible.”

Sashimi salad

Jason, who lives in Letchmore Heath with his wife and two daughters, aged seven and four (with a third on the way), quit his job to join him and Kiyoto was formed. They saw an empty unit in Borehamwood flanked by cafes and bakeries. “We could see that the high street was opening up and we knew that there was no other sushi in the area. We had a dream to create a venue where sushi was made fresh to order at an open sushi bar, where the customers could watch the food being made in front of them,” says Adam.

They recruited a chef from another Japanese restaurant. “What was so incredible was that we had a couple of great staff in the very beginning. They had a lot of experience and they believed in us. Some of them are still working with us seven years later,” says Jason. “We look after our staff – we like to think we are good employers. We pay them well and they know they can come to us if they have any issues.”

At first Kiyoto didn’t even have a kitchen so they weren’t doing any hot food. “The idea was to purely run a takeaway. Sushi is one of the best takeaways because cold food travels well. It doesn’t get spoiled and the presentation doesn’t get ruined,” says Jason.

It was a tremendous success from the start. “From the beginning we wanted to do good food at good quality at a good price and I think that’s what we did,” says Adam, who lives in Bushey with his wife and two sons aged four and six months. “Once we had the facilities to make hot food we found that it sold really well. We keep it simple – we haven’t got a large menu, just dishes like goyza, teriyaki chicken, katsu…. However even in winter the cold food sales outweigh the hot.”

Tuna crunch roll

The brothers opened a second unit in Mill Hill about 18 months later. A slightly larger unit meant that there was more of an eat-in trade but takeaway was really popular. “We choose our areas carefully,” says Jason, while I’m tucking in to my sashimi salad. “In Borehamwood there are a lot of families in the area – the school (Yavneh) is a big attraction – and of course it’s central to Radlett, Shenley, Elstree and Bushey. Mill Hill is a busy high street all day and night and it’s a destination, plus you’ve got a lot of people working in both areas.”

The next location was West Hampstead, which opened in 2019 and then in summer 2021 they took over an estate agents’ office in Cockfosters to open a 32-seater restaurant with more of a restaurant feel than its predecessors, which are quick in-n-out diners. Floor-to-ceiling windows make it bright and airy while wooden tables and wall features add warmth. Later this year Kiyoto will open its fifth branch, in Hatch End.

Chomping down on delicious crispy rice cubes topped with tuna tartare, I note that the restaurants are all in largely Jewish areas. What is it with Jews and sushi? Why do they love it so much? “I’m not sure it’s just Jews, but they do love it,” says Jason. “It’s such a clean meal. You don’t feel unhealthy afterwards, but you do feel full.”

“Food fashions come and go but it’s had the longest run,” says Adam. “It’s taken over from Chinese, of which there aren’t many good ones around.”

Crispy rice and tuna tartare

The menu is the same across all the restaurants. Adam explains: “Everything is made fresh every day using the same process so we get consistency across the branches. We personally oversee everything we do from morning to night ourselves, the whole process literally – we keep an eye on all the deliveries and the prep.

I wonder whether the boys would be able to step in if they were short staffed. “Er, no!” says Jason, decisively. “I can make a roll,’ says Adam. “I’m not quick or that neat but I can do it.”

Kiyoto does a good line in supplying caterers and party planners. Last week a caterer ordered 15 platters – that’s more than 1,000 pieces of sushi.

Jason takes care of the operations while Adam is more hands-on inside the stores. With a general manager on the team they don’t work antisocial hours any more but they do make sure that they are not away at the same time other than for a couple of nights. Adam particularly found it hard to relinquish control but with young families they needed a better work-life balance.

I ask whether they would ever consider opening a premium restaurant  in the west end. “Never say never. We get quite a few emails from customers asking if we’d consider open in their areas,  which is a compliment,” says Adam. “One thing we would never consider is franchising, as we believe this would compromise the quality as we wouldn’t be in total control of our product. We are so involved in the day-to-day running of how everything works.”

Whichever route they take next I hope the sashimi salad goes with them.

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