Trapper O’Keeffe just wants to make sushi.
He must be doing something right because he now owns two sushi restaurants, Sushi Town in Bonney Lake and Trapper’s Sushi in downtown Covington, both of which have loyal regular customers.
O’Keeffe, 33, opened the restaurant that bears his name in Covington six months ago but he’s been making sushi since he was 17.
At 14 he began working at his brother in law’s restaurant in Reno, Nev., where he grew up, and a few years later he was learning to make sushi.
He moved to the Seattle area with his ex-wife and brought his entire family with him.
From there, he started a pair of restaurants.
“I started the sushi bar at the Muckleshoot Casino,” O’Keeffe said. “I was basically running the restaurant for everybody else. Since I left my brother’s, I worked at two other restaurants that I started from scratch.”
Then he moved on to I Love Sushi in Bellevue, where he served as a manager, but he wasn’t satisfied with that because he “wanted to make sushi.”
“I was trying to get my restaurant started at the same time and that takes time,” he said. “I figured I would rather do it for myself than working for someone else and giving them my ideas.”
It had long been a goal of O’Keeffe’s to open his own business, but it was just a matter of timing and money.
He lived in the area and saw there was nothing to fill that particular gap in the restaurant market, so, five years ago he opened Sushi Town in Bonney Lake.
Customers drive from far and wide to eat at Sushi Town, some doing the 70 mile round trip to partake of his unique interpretation of sushi, which he describes as a fusion of Japanese tradition and American flavors.
He saw another opportunity in Covington which also didn’t have any sushi restaurants.
“After I decided to go into Bonney Lake and we were successful and packed, I found out where people were coming from, I wanted to spread it out a little bit,” he said.
Patrons sitting at the sushi bar will rave to someone about the food if they notice their neighbor is not a regular. They offer opinions on their favorite roll or suggestions on other items to try like the squid salad.
Devoted customers talk about following O’Keeffe from the Muckleshoot to Bonney Lake to Covington and even bragging about how far they drive just to get a fix.
“It’s a compliment,” O’Keeffe said. “It’s humbling. You feel good about it. We get a lot of regulars.”
For example, a regular showed up to Sushi Town 34 days straight, O’Keeffe said.
“He stopped coming because his wife saw the debit card statement and it said, ‘Sushi Town, Sushi Town, Sushi Town,’” he said. “
O’Keeffe pins his success on customer service and the food.
“A lot of it is communication with the customer,” he said. “It’s almost like a ‘Cheers’ atmosphere where we get to know the customer. We try to make them feel welcome. It helps when your food is really good and people love it.”
He also takes pride in the fact three of his brothers work for him creating that family atmosphere but O’Keeffe said it’s also important to take care of the rest of his employees like they are family, too, because that cultivates the kind of atmosphere he wants for his customers.
Inspiration strikes anywhere and everywhere for O’Keeffe — who has developed many of the rolls on the menu himself — whether it’s when he’s eating out or making sushi for a customer.
“My biggest thing is that I like to keep things simple,” he said. “I’m big on textures and flavors. I’ll make a roll and have the customers try things out then I’ll put it on special and see how it goes. We really try to do more fusion stuff and cater to our clientele.”
It seems to be working in Covington, though, it’s not yet as busy as Sushi Town.
“The weekends are really, really good for us,” he said. “The weekdays and lunches aren’t as busy as we’d like. We do all you can eat and we do that because it keeps your product fresh and you get a high turnover. We’re doing pretty well given the economy.”
O’Keeffe said that finding the right staff has been a challenge, but now that he’s getting the right people in place it helps because “the staff knowing their jobs is huge.”
“My biggest goal is to make all the customers happy and all the kinks are worked out,” he said. “Breaking down mistakes is our biggest goal, not making simple mistakes, make sure our customers are our No.1 priority.”
He even takes time to communicate personally with customers when they have concerns or questions or even suggestions for a roll.
“I’m always accessible to my customers,” he said. “If there’s an issue, I try to get back to them. It’s not always heard of in a restaurant where the owner gets back to you.”