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.
You grew up in your family’s restaurant business. How has that shaped how you do business today?
My mother was the most influential person in my life. She helped shape my outlook, how to establish and maintain a restaurant, and, most of all, how to be a good person. Nikko is built on love and she will always be a huge part of that. She taught me passion, discipline, and love of people and I practice that every day.
You are one of precious few female sushi chefs in the world. What barriers have you faced as a woman in this industry, and what advice do you share with young food industry professionals?
First of all, there are no barriers. Challenges are just part of hard work and fear is unsexy. When you have passion and discipline, you will do anything to get there. I tell young people especially, go with hard work and believe in yourself. Sticking with your plan is the reward. Know that quitting is not an option. Every day I’m working because I’m having fun, no matter how many hours I spend prepping or on the floor.
You’re a private person with a very public image as one of the most recognizable personalities in Charlotte. How do you leave the restaurant behind?
Business is business and personal is personal. If you don’t manage them accordingly, you can’t focus on either and you’ll lose your balance. When I come home, I’m a lovely wife and awesome mom. I work and live with my husband, but I still maintain that separation. I call it “Self-Discipline 911!” Without the discipline to manage your life, others around you will have to sacrifice.
You are known for working long hours, getting up very early, and staying at the restaurant late into the evenings. Where do you find the energy to maintain such a hectic schedule?
How I feel affects our business and customers, so I physically and mentally prepare for all of what Nikko encompasses. I’m a little of bit of rock-and-roll and a little bit of a cowgirl, which require a lot of energy. But, most of all, the passion I have for my customers and my staff fuels me to meet those demands. When you love what you do, it never matters how long the days become, but working out and staying in great shape is very important. A glass of sake always helps, too. Sake and sushi make everything better.
Photo credit: Mitchell Kearney (top).