By Mary Jeneverre Schultz | Asian Avenue magazine

Makoto Kawafune (left) and Kenny Sonoda (right) of Sonoda's Sushi
Makoto Kawafune (left) and Kenny Sonoda (right) of Sonoda’s Sushi and Seafood

As the owner of the first sushi restaurant in Colorado, Kenny Sonoda was a trend setter in the restaurant business back in 1988. He established his Aurora location during a time when the general eating public did not comprehend sushi and everything Japanese.

Bad press and misunderstanding of raw fish spurred the eating public in a distasteful manner about sushi combined with the efforts of Green Peace opposing the death of dolphins from fishing nets of Japan, Korea and Norway.

“It was a tough time for Japanese restaurant to grow,” recalled Kenny Sonoda, sitting in his first restaurant in Aurora at 3108 South Parker Road.

Closure of Downtown Denver
Last February, he shut down his location in downtown Denver at 1620 Market Street, hanging up his chef hat and packing away his sushi knives. He blames the inability to negotiate a better lease and sees himself turning 65 in a few short months as a sign to retire from the restaurant business.

As he reminisces about his restaurant business, Sonoda talks about how history has intersected his life, sharing trends, facts about the war and the coincidences that have occurred during his reign as the owner of Sonoda’s.

During the late 1970s, Japanese businesses started expanding to the United States, and more and more sushi restaurants opened to serve the Japanese businessmen living locally. Besides catering to the local Japanese, sushi chefs in the United States tried hard to introduce sushi to Americans, but it was difficult to persuade people to try eating raw fish. Soon, the California roll was invented, and sparked a new trend towards fusion sushi. The California roll, containing imitation crab meat, was the perfect introductory sushi for people unfamiliar to raw fish. More and more Westerners started to eat raw fish and many adaptations were made to the Edostyle sushi to adapt with western culture.

Growing popularity of Sushi
Sonoda agreed pointing to New York and California as trend setters in “saturating the market” due to the large Japanese population in these two states. He also credits movies and mass media on the growing popularity including mainstream series such as the Sopranos, an Italian mafia family sharing a sushi dinner somewhere in New Jersey.

Sonoda also believed that the 1980’s Miller Lite beer commercials evolved the general public into changing their eating habits and making healthy choices, which supported eating sushi. These commercials emphasized light beer and less calories.

He also accredited the ease of today’s climate in the shipping business. Back when he started, after the restaurant was closed for the night, Sonoda would drive to Stapleton International Airport to pick up daily fish shipment. Today, more shipping companies are accessible in delivery, coming straight to his restaurant’s doors. In 1995, Denver Interational Airport also replaced Stapleton.

Sonoda lived in New York when he first immigrated to the United States in August 1969. When his boss in New York asked him to oversee the construction of the first Japanese hibachi restaurant to the area currently known as the Tech Center, he could not resist the beauty of Colorado, deciding to make it his home.

When asked about the secrets of his success, Sonoda shares “service is key.” He also attributes that a successful operation is one that gives back to the community.

sushi
Sonoda’s Sushi in downtown Denver at 1620 Market Street closes in February 2014.

Retirement years
Sonoda considers working as a greeter with a cowboy hat at Denver International Airport, a volunteer position for those assisting travelers, who are curious about Denver tourism and need more information. He loves how there is a direct flight between Denver and Tokyo and wants to be the first to greet for those passengers.

He also wants to travel, a chance to see more places on his bucket list, which includes revisiting Japan and paying respect to his family.

Or maybe he will volunteer at a history museum. This is a chance for him to explore his heritage and step in time in Colorado.

Sonoda’s Sushi in Aurora continues 
Fast forward to 2014, Sonoda leaves the Aurora restaurant to his trusted chef and long-time friend Makoto Kawafune. At 51, Kawafune doesn’t believe Sonoda will leave the restaurant entirely. He shares that his friend’s workaholic style will keep him around the Aurora location.

“He might take off for three month, then come back,” said Kawafune, adding that it is hard to retire.

Masaaki Kawafune, son of Makoto Kawafune, shares great enthusiasm of his father’s ownership of the established Sonoda’s Restaurant. “His cuisine has taken a different path over the past few years since he’s taken on ownership,” Kawafune’s son said. “The cuisine more or less serves the traditional side of Japanese cuisine.”

Kawafune has created a fan base, faithful sushi lovers who will visit the Aurora restaurant for his traditional food items. “For instance, we have many customers from Japan who always make it a point to come in and have my father’s food and request traditional items that are not on our menus,” said Masaaki Kawafune.

In addition to the loyal base of customers of Kawafune, faithful diners of sushi chef Jutaro (Jimmy) Tajima will drive to Aurora for “Jutaro-san’s sushi and culinary ability.” Tajima has worked in the industry for the last ten years.

Loyal customers expressed their dismay of the closure of Sonoda’s in downtown Denver.

“I enjoyed the flavorful tofu dishes offered there; I never felt these dishes were dismissive add-ons to placate a vegetarian,” said Carolyn Linville, a resident of Wheat Ridge, who frequented the downtown Sonoda’s. “Still, I equally enjoyed the presentation of the sushi dishes ordered by my lunch companion.”

Sonoda’s will always continue the tradition of providing its customers with Japanese food from the heart—the food that different generations of Japanese native and Americans alike have enjoyed over the past 26 years.

Kenny Sonoda with his daughter, Maki, and wife, Midori.
Kenny Sonoda with his daughter, Maki, and wife, Midori.

Timeline
1969
– Kenny Sonoda immigrates from Japan and begins his U.S. journey in New York
1971 – Runs into a woman, Midori, he had met on his plane trip to New York in 1969; she later becomes his wife
1973 – Oversees the grand opening of the Gasho of Denver, a Japanese hibachi-style steak house at 1627 Curtis Street
1976 – Builds a free-standing replica of a 400-year-old Gasho farm house modeled after one in Japan’s Takayama City, sister city to Denver; it was builtin Denver Tech Center, where Shanahan’s Steakhouse now stands
1988 – Establishes the first Sonoda’s in Aurora, Colorado, the first of four sites
1995 – Opens second location at 1620 Market Street in Downtown Denver
2014 – Closes downtown location and Sonoda retires

For more information about Sonoda’s Sushi and Seafood, visit its website at www.sonodassushi.com.

Mary Jeneverre Schultz shared her first Colorado Valentine’s dinner with then-boyfriend, now-husband Frank 15 years ago at Sonoda’s in Aurora. Follow her on Twitter @Jeneverre.