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Economy

After 37 Years, Woman Who Founded Sushi Deli Restaurants Retires

Sushi Deli owner Hiroe Otake is shown at her restaurant in Mission Hills on Dec. 17, 2020.
Nicholas McVicker
Sushi Deli owner Hiroe Otake is shown at her restaurant in Mission Hills on Dec. 17, 2020.

Back in 1983, there weren’t many places to get sushi in San Diego. Most San Diegans probably didn’t even know what sushi was back then.

But that changed thanks to one woman, a recent transplant from Japan at that point. Now, more than 37 years later, the woman who began the Sushi Deli restaurants is retiring.

After 37 Years, Woman Who Founded Sushi Deli Restaurants Retires
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"It has been 37 years and 6 months, so I’m 64 years old.” Hiroe Otake is remembering what it was like at the beginning.

She's got plenty of help these days at her two Sushi Deli restaurants.

But back then, it was just her. She’d come to San Diego a couple of years earlier, after meeting a couple visiting Tokyo who owned a car dealership in Encinitas. But the car business wasn’t for her.

She wanted to open a restaurant, but she knew it would be a challenge in the fast food-loving U.S.

“They start knowing about sushi and you know, I wanted to try a restaurant and see how it worked,” she said.

But initially Otake hedged her culinary bets.

“So I started selling both sushi and sandwiches, that’s why we named it Sushi Deli," Otake said.

To Otake’s pleasant surprise, the sushi sold much better than the sandwiches, so the sandwiches went, but the name stayed. And back then, she did everything.

“Making sushi, serving and dishwashing and cleaning (the) restaurant," she recalled.

Business was good at her first location downtown, so Otake began bringing on employees. But there were hurdles along the way.

Her first landlord filed bankruptcy and she had to move.

Iconic Sushi Restaurant Bids Farewell To Founder

Then in 2001, the owner of the San Diego Hotel, where her restaurant was at the time, showed up at the restaurant and shut off the water, right during the lunch rush.

“And they told us to leave the building immediately because the building conditions were extremely dangerous,” Otake said.

Otake soldiered on. She found another location downtown.

In 2005, she found out the owner of the building sold it without telling the tenants — they all had to get out.

But, only a couple of weeks after that, she relocated to the restaurant’s current location in the Spreckels Theatre building. She recently sold that one.

Now Otake owns the Mission Hills location, Sushi Deli 1, and Sushi Deli 3 in Kearny Mesa.

Her employees love her. Sushi Deli 1 Manager Miki Holmes said, “No one even compares to the way that Hiroe runs this company.”

Holmes has worked for Sushi Deli on and off for the last four years. To hear her tell it, it’s easy to see why employees love Otake so much.

“She will come out on the floor and she will bus tables. She will answer the phone, she’ll take orders … at the end of the year, she gives us all such generous bonuses," Holmes said.

Holmes has worked in other restaurants in San Diego and in Los Angeles. She said there simply is no place like Sushi Deli, and it’s all because of the woman that started it all.

“She wants us to be here. She really cares about us and that is something that I have never experienced anywhere else," Holmes said.

Holmes said it’s not about profit for Hiroe Otake, never has been.

“I feel so loved here, and we’re gonna miss her so much," she said.

Otake’s last day will be Dec. 31. In her retirement she said she plans to do quite a bit of traveling including, when the pandemic is over, going to Japan to see her 94-year-old mother.