From Silicon Valley to sushi revolutionary, how one man landed his dream job
“A basketball coach in the NBA. That was all I wanted to be,” he laughs. A few years later, his dream gig was “something in corporate finance.”
“A basketball coach in the NBA. That was all I wanted to be,” he laughs. A few years later, his dream gig was “something in corporate finance.” At no point did he think he'd be at the helm of the world's first sustainable sushi restaurant.
Yet here we are, Lofgren running Bamboo Sushi in Portland, Oregon, and rather surprised that this ended up being his ultimate dream job. His path was perhaps unorthodox, but shares one commonality with many entrepreneurs: he turned something he was passionate about into his career.
It was November 2008 and Bamboo Sushi was finally ready for its grand opening. Lofgren had spent the last year and a half working relentlessly towards this very moment, and was anxious about whether or not his idea of opening a completely sustainable sushi restaurant would actually pay off. It needed to pay off. Fast. “We literally had 50 dollars in the bank. We needed to be profitable very soon,” Lofgren told MensHealth.com.
Then the American economy collapsed, days before their scheduled opening.
“I was definitely scared,” he recalled. “I had no idea that was going to happen, and certainly didn’t anticipate it being as devastating as it was. But we had to go on with the planned opening. I didn’t have any other choice.” He forged ahead as planned.
Lofgren graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, where he played basketball and rowed crew. After abandoning pursuing a basketball coach job, he decided to move to Silicon Valley. “I had heard there was a lot of money in tech investing, so I decided to go into that,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about investing or tech. I went and got a venture capital certificate, and read a lot of books and asked a lot of questions.”
He spent five years doing investing. While the money was good, Lofgren wasn’t exactly passionate about his labor. The environment, on the other hand, was something for which he had always had a strong affinity, and wanted to get more involved. “I wanted to be an environmental lawyer, so I moved to Oregon in 2006 to go to school for an environmental degree,” he said.
There in Oregon, Lofgren invested in a local sushi restaurant as a fun, side project. He knew nothing about the restaurant business - sushi just happened to be his favorite food. He did understand about investing and doing due diligence before putting his money into a business.
While doing research, “the more I learned about the restaurant scene, the more appalled I became by how socially irresponsible and un-environmental it was,” he said. “I started looking into restaurants that were more sustainable. I thought it was something that a lot of people would already be doing, and that wasn’t the case.”
Lofgren went to his business partners and suggested they try to create a better model of a sushi restaurant, one that helped the environment. “My partners told me that it was a terrible idea, because everybody already eats unsustainable fish and no one really cares. I didn't buy it, so I bought out my partners and shut down the old sushi restaurant.”
Lofgren wasn’t exactly a stranger to jumping into uncharted waters - like he did with tech investing, he started reading a lot of books and asking a lot of questions. “I think part of success is recognizing what you don’t know. I knew absolutely nothing about the restaurant business, so I started networking and building my team based on filling in those gaps,” he said.
Fast-forward another year and a half, and Bamboo Sushi opened its doors. Despite sharing the month with one of the worst economic disasters since the 1929 stock market crash, the new restaurant was almost immediately successful, ironically thanks in part to the economy collapsing.
“When the collapse happened, a lot of fishermen were dropped by their partners,” he said. “These partners that buy massive amounts of their fish just left, and we kind of just stepped in and took advantage of that situation.”
Lofgren explained that part of the worry of having a sustainable restaurant was the cost of product - premium product comes with a premium price, and consumers, especially in a time like late 2008, weren’t exactly looking to put extra money towards something like sustainably-caught fish. “We did something a little different and went straight to the fishermen, so we cut out a lot of the middle men,” Lofgren said.
Lofgren admits some of the success was due to timing, but attributes more to his pushing forth, even when things looked grim. “There were plenty of times during the process that I got knocked down, and seriously considered throwing in the towel, thinking that I had really given it every ounce of energy I had,” he said. “But I just kept going, and it worked out. That’s really the key - staying with something. If you give up, you’ll never know how great you can actually be.”
Today, Lofgren is also the founder of Sustainable Restaurant Group, a collection of brands, including Bamboo Sushi and QuickFish, a poke bar with locations across the United States, focused on providing sustainably-sourced foods to customers.
Lofgren's advice to future entrepreneurs is straight-forward: If there’s something you’re really passionate about, don’t be afraid to go for it, but recognize immediately what you don’t know and fill in the gaps as quickly as you can. “I advise seeking out mentors as soon as possible,” he said. “That’s one thing I would have done differently, found help earlier.”
Although he admits it sounds trite, Lofgren believes you must keep pushing until you think you can’t go any more, and then push some more. “It’s important to recognize when to pivot, but there’s also something to be said for doggedness and tenacity,” he said. “I would liken it to many things in life, marriage, running a business, or anything. Anything worthwhile is going to have challenges, and probably a lot of them. But the willingness to push through and overcome the challenges. That’s when those things really become worthwhile.”
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