Tag Archives: Rich Howland


The backstory: RA Sushi

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.


SOL Mexican Cocina

SOL Mexican Cocina: A Healthy Approach To Mexican Food

Push away that heaping plate of beans, rice and melted cheese, and take a healthier approach to Mexican food with SOL Mexican Cocina.

SOL Mexican Cocina offers an alternative to Mexican food we are used to, focusing on healthy but flavorful cuisine in smaller portions. Opening its second location at the Scottsdale Quarter within the first two weeks of March, SOL Mexican Cocina models the cuisine and atmosphere of Baja, Mexico.

Rich Howland, operating partner of SOL Mexican Cocina, says that the goal of the restaurant is for diners to feel like they are on vacation while enjoying traditional cuisine and handcrafted cocktails.

“What you will find on our menu is a large selection of appetizers that have very bold flavors and are really designed to share,” Howland says. “You order three, four or five different things, and it keeps that social environment we discovered down in Baja.”

Deborah M. Schneider, executive chef of SOL Mexican Cocina, says her inspiration comes from Mexico, not from other Mexican restaurants in America. Schneider who is the author of “Baja! Cooking on the Edge” as well as five other books on Mexican cooking says traditional Mexican food is lighter and better for you.SOL Mexican Cocina

Most of the items on the menu are vegetable-based, high in fiber and include healthier items like brown rice. But this does not go along with the myth that all healthy food has to be boring and tasteless. In fact, at SOL Mexican Cocina it is quite the opposite.

Schneider says the trick to healthy, flavorful food is keeping it simple with fresh, high-quality produce.

“Chef always emphasizes letting the flavors speak for themselves,” Howland says. “If you take a really fresh, high-quality tomato, it tastes how a tomato should.”

Even the bar uses only the freshest, best-quality ingredients. For instance, the margarita sour mix is made from fresh juice everyday, and all cocktails are handcrafted with muddled fruit that also arrives daily.

SOL Mexican Cocina has created 20 to 25 original cocktails switched in and out throughout the year based on what fruit is in season.

Howland says SOL Mexican Cocina also strives to stimulate your visual senses and in doing so created a sophisticated but casual environment for their diners to enjoy.

“We hope the end result is people feel comfortable, but they also look at it from a standpoint of being stimulated visually because great food is enhanced through your other senses: smell, taste and sight,” Howland says.

The open kitchen may contribute to that.

“I insist on cooking in an open kitchen because of two reasons,” Schneider says. “One, the kitchen is the heart of the restaurant, and two, because they can see us, and we can see them. I am cooking for a real person, and I think it creates a deeper connection in each direction.”

Howland says a successful restaurant has to include more than great food nowadays.

“It has to be about atmosphere, ambiance and the environment that you create within the restaurant,” Howland says. “I think that really is our goal, to capture not just the great food, which you would expect but also focusing on creating a comfortable, social, fun and high-energy environment.”

For more information about SOL Mexican Cocina, visit solcocina.com.