What started as a childhood friendship during grade school at a Scottsdale elementary school grew into an enduring business partnership. At the age of 28, Rich Howland and Scott Kilpatrick, along with two of their college friends, founded the now national sushi restaurant chain, RA Sushi Bar Restaurant.
Fresh out of college from The University of Arizona, Rich and Scott began their professional careers separate from one another, but it wasn’t long until the two concocted an idea to start a business together in their hometown of Scottsdale. Another college friend, Todd Belfer, was brought in as a business partner. It started when they purchased an Old Town Scottsdale restaurant called Trappers. With great enthusiasm, they decided to open an upscale Mediterranean restaurant in its place featuring complex entrees and an upscale design. The restaurant fell flat in less than eight months.
Back to the drawing board, longtime sushi fans, Rich and Scott realized there was something missing in the sushi restaurant scene in the Valley. Many traditional sushi restaurants were drawing crowds, but they didn’t have an alluring ambiance to combine with quality sushi. The pair realized there was a demand for sushi restaurants, but they thought they could improve the concept by combining quality Japanese fusion cuisine, with a hip, stylish decor that would appeal to a younger crowd.
The concept was born, but the owners knew little about sushi operations. In June of 1997, they sought out a longtime acquaintance from their days in college, Tai Obata – a sushi expert and someone they trusted. Tai accepted a proposal to become a partner. To obtain funds to transform the failed Mediterranean restaurant into a trendy, contemporary sushi bar and restaurant, they brought in a number of colleagues who served as part owners. By adding investors, the original owners were able to greatly expand their circle of friends and customers. They credit much of their start-up success to this business decision.
The original team of owners quickly became the construction crew, interior designers and marketing professionals. Tai drew on his expertise as a native of Japan and longtime sushi chef to design the sushi bar and create the menu. Rich, Scott, Tai and the crew rolled up their sleeves and began building the restaurant’s interior all the while touting the new restaurant concept to locals.
In less than six months, the four business partners and a host of local investors opened the first RA Sushi in Old Town Scottsdale in October 1997. The concept took off and the place soon became the hotspot. By mid-1999, RA Sushi opened its second location in Tempe. The concept thrived and although there were some growing pains along the way, Rich and Scott remained at the helm. With a new bank loan and an extremely tight budget, RA opened two more locations in the Phoenix area in 2001 and 2002. In 2002, they were surprised to learn that Benihana Inc., operator of the nation’s largest chain of Japanese theme and sushi restaurants, was interested in purchasing the company.
Benihana purchased RA Sushi in late 2002 and immediately began expansion of the concept. What four young friends started has grown into a successful national restaurant concept with 25 locations throughout the United States. Initially, Scott, Rich and Tai stayed on board to oversee the exciting new adventure. To this day, RA’s corporate office remains in Scottsdale, with Scott as the Vice President and Tai as the Executive Chef. Rich has since moved on to other restaurant ventures.