When I first heard that Kuni was selling his sushi restaurant, Kuni’s, after 25 years in business, I was bummed, but at the same time I was very happy for the man who brought sushi to Buffalo. Actually, Bob Rich brought Kuniyuki ‘Kuni’ Sato to Buffalo when he opened Saki in the basement of The Guaranty Building, upwards of three decades ago.
The first sushi I ever had was at Saki – I remember walking in with my girlfriend and sitting at the sushi bar. I told Kuni that I was a newbie, and to go easy. It turned out that I loved sushi, even though my girlfriend was not a fan. I was also a fan of saké, the drink.
It wasn’t long after that initial visit to Saki, and a couple of follow up visits, that Kuni walked into my store on Elmwood Avenue (called Thunder Bay). He walked up to the counter, greeted me, and got right to the point. “What do you think about me opening my own restaurant on Elmwood Avenue?” he asked. I told him that I felt that it would be a huge hit, and he would be crazy not to do it. We chatted for a while about owning and operating businesses, Buffalo’s acceptance when it came to ethnic foods, and Elmwood Avenue as whole. It was not long after that that Kuni’s opened up around ten doors from my shop.
The first few years of Kuni being open on Elmwood Avenue were the salad days – some of the best eating experiences of my life. Every Tuesday our gang, or crew, would head over to eat and drink at Kuni’s, who never once took a reservation. Actually, I would call from my store, to put my name in, and one of “Kuni’s girls” would say, ” You have to put your name in, in person.” I would then walk from my shop to Kuni’s, put my name in, and walk back to the shop to wait with my friends… or we would wait at a nearby bar or restaurant, which was more likely the case.
The early days at Kuni’s was always quite the production. Sometimes it would be a two+ hour wait to get in. By the time we would get a table, we were already feeling pretty good, but the sakés were always flowing, and everyone was having a good old time, including Kuni, who beamed with pride.
Kuni’s on Elmwood was so successful that it ran its course within a decade’s time – it closed in 2005. Kuni burned out from the craziness and decided to take a break, much to the amazement and sadness of his devoted clientele. A couple of years later, he surprised everyone with a comeback, when he opened up his new place on Lexington Avenue. Kuni explained that he was going to get his feet wet with a take-out concept, though it didn’t take long before the place was bumping and hopping again, with some long waits to boot (this time, customers waited at The Place).
As much as Kuni appeared to be back in the swing of things with his new sushi restaurant, it would never manage to capture that original fervor and spunk that I had come to love on Elmwood. I believe that during his new business stint, he began to ponder and reflect more upon his life and his homeland, which he would occasionally visit. The restaurant appeared to be lively, yes. At the same time, I felt that Kuni appeared to be torn, which was one of the reasons that he closed the Elmwood location to begin with. I admired Kuni for that – who closes a successful restaurant that is bringing home the bacon?
Maybe it has something to do with Japanese culture vs American culture? Kuni always knew that there was something that was missing. It was not just about the money… or even the fame. After all, Kuni’s name was synonymous with great sushi, not just in Buffalo, but anywhere. He proved that Buffalo was not simply a chicken wing town, and opened up the door for countless other ethnic cuisines to break into the market. Yes, he made his mark in Buffalo, and he did it on his own terms. He captivated the imagination, and satiated the appetites, of an entire city. Not since the chicken wing had someone made such a profound mark on the WNY food world.
Upon initially learning that Kuni was planning on handing off his business to someone else (the deal could take up to a year), I was not surprised. Rather, I was elated for Kuni, who I believe had longed to get out of the limelight once again. It’s hard admitting that I am happy to see someone leave a business – especially a successful business with one’s name emblazoned upon it. The only way that I can be happy to see Kuni move on, is by knowing that my friend will be at ease and at peace, no matter what his future plans are. He has done more for this city than just about any other person that I can think of. His legacy is firmly in place. Buffalo will always be his home, just as Japan is his home. Like a bird in a gilded cage, Kuni will be free to travel. At the same time, I know that he will always have a home in Buffalo, alongside the people who heralded his arrival, relished his 25 year run, and consider themselves his friend.
Looking back. I will always think of those 25 years as an era of time, where one person managed to move a city forward through food. Food has the power to heal. It has the ability to bring people together. It can be delicious… and soothing. We need it to live. Kuni put his heart and soul into his restaurant and his food, and in return we were nourished in ways that we will never fully comprehend.
Lead image: Photo by Tori Greco