Two decades ago, Joanna Nix launched Nikko Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar with a newborn baby on her hip and just 25 seats. One regular diner at a time, Nikko has grown into a Charlotte, North Carolina, legend with 350 seats, helping define this growing southern city’s culinary voice. On any given night, patrons from rock royalty to celebrity athletes belly up to the sushi bar in search of life advice, char-grilled cod, and sashimi.
Now, as she celebrates 20 years in the business, this sharp-as-a-sushi knife restaurateur is reflecting back on the journey, from crafting that first plate of sushi to cheering on the Carolina Panthers as they stormed the Super Bowl last year. Nix had always dreamed of running her own restaurant. Here’s how she went from beloved local to sushi superstar.
In the restaurant business, operating for two decades is almost an eternity. What’s your secret to staying busy every night and holding on to regulars despite the competition?
We stick together like sushi rice. Our customers are so loyal, and I think of every single one of them like a brother or sister. Showcasing our cuisine and culture creates a vivacity that people feel when they walk through our doors. Nikko is more than a restaurant; for many of our customers, it is a second home, so we see them almost on a daily basis.
You’ve held on to many of your team members all this time as well. What insight can you share with fellow restaurateurs about server longevity?
I work with my staff. They don’t work for me. They are me and I am them. We spend more time together than our own families sometimes, so it has to be a good environment. I’m the quarterback, so I know the game plan and where to throw the ball, but we are all part of a team. We serve for a living, so when a customer comes to the restaurant, we give it all. Every table is our chance to put on our own production and live show.
A roster of professional athletes comes to Nikko as much for the food as they do to catch a few bites of your wisdom.
Famous or not, all of my customers are my superstars. I build relationships with each of them. However, I credit what I call the pro mentality for our following of overachievers. This means consistent performance and practicing every day. I am so proud of our local Charlotte sports teams and our NASCAR family. Athletes need a lot of sushi therapy to help them be the best they can be, so we love when they visit us at Nikko.
Speaking of sushi therapy, how did you first get the title of ‘sushi therapist’ and what does that mean?
Our customers share a lot of their lives with us, including difficult times. Sushi is such a happy, healthy food, so it’s like a sushi prescription that feeds the soul as much as the body. That energy is contagious and the joy of it shows in our attitudes and in our cuisine. [Read more…]