A few knickknacks aside, Acorn Alley’s Dancing Beta, located in Kent, Ohio, looks like a regular diner. If not for the sweet, vinegary smells of the sushi, it might pass for one.
Plain white walls, clusters of inelegant black chairs and tables on either side of the door and in front of the bar—there are few visual cues.
Paul Geldhof, owner and head chef, stands behind the counter, preparing the next order—a crab Rangoon roll.
Early in the semester, Geldhof expects the enthusiasm for The Dancing Beta to continue well into the school year.
“With school being back in… you know, the sky’s the limit,” Geldhof said.
Though owning a restaurant is new to him, Geldhof said he’s worked with food for almost half his life.
“I’ve pretty much been rolling sushi since I was 18,” Geldhof said, sliding a knife through a pink slab of fish, cutting off a neat, little sliver. “It’s been a good, solid eight years.”
He has another three years of experience on top of that. Geldhop managed the kitchen in his mother’s restaurant and bar, Stowaway Pub (in Stow, Ohio), for two years. Before that, he attended culinary classes at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh while working as head sushi chef for Common Plea, a high-end Pittsburgh caterer and restaurant, he said.
“A lot of Pittsburgh dignitaries and judges came to the restaurant,” Geldhof said.
He’s even met Steelers players and Heinz family members (best known for Heinz ketchup).
After finishing his associate’s degree at AIP, an advisor asked Geldhof if he was interested in returning.
“I told them I would have actually been better off going to an apprenticeship,” Geldhof said. “Because honestly, paying the amount of money that you do for culinary doesn’t really pan out when you can just learn under a chef.”
Before the Beta opened in January, Geldhof said he imagined himself opening a sushi bar in at least 20 years.
“The landlord that… owns this whole alleyway is actually a good friend of my grandfather’s,” Geldhof said, dodging a mop-wielding employee.
With the connection to businessman and philanthropist Ron Burbick, he got to open the Beta well ahead of schedule.
But Geldhof isn’t the only one with a sushi bar. Kent State dining services unveiled its own this semester.
The university Hub’s sushi bar comes from Sushi with Gusto, a company that adds sushi bars to department stores or food courts by request.
“Sushi with Gusto is part of a plan based on feedback we’ve had over the last couple years and… adding more variety… to the campus in general,” said Richard Roldan, director of university dining services.
One of the most common complaints he saw was that the Hub is “always fried food.”
Roldan said Sushi with Gusto is there in response to the request, “Can we see something that’s healthier?”
But is Kent big enough for the two of them?
“Absolutely,” Roldan said. “Yeah, I think without a doubt, we can coexist.”
Geldhof responded similarly, saying he doesn’t feel threatened by the new competition.
Some show concern.
Christopher Wunderle, a sophomore computer design and animation major, said the addition of a sushi bar to the campus is “disrespectful,” suggesting it may hurt the Beta’s business.
“That’d be like if somebody opened… a deep-fried turnip stand downtown… and they decide, ‘Oh, hey, we’re putting a deep-fried turnip stand in the Hub,'” Wunderle said. “It’s a very niche market.”
He remains impassive when asked, though he’s certain dining services knew about The Dancing Beta.
“We’re more established than the one up at the Hub, and we have a lot more culinary autonomy,” Geldhof said. “From what some of the college students have told me, they will continue to come down here.”
For the most part, The Dancing Beta has relied on its Facebook fan page (with 600+ fans) and word-of-mouth as advertisement.
Even with little advertising, some days at the Beta, like Thursday through Saturday, are “crazy.” On busier days, the restaurant is at full capacity, and occupants often find themselves waiting for seats. But Geldhof said he’s only been totally swamped four times since opening.
On the other hand Tuesdays and Wednesdays are “notoriously slow.” Still, Geldhof expects business to pick up.
Orders of crab Rangoon rolls have taken off since the beginning of the semester, he said. The Facebook fan page announced Sept. 9 that the all-time record for crab Rangoon rolls sold in an hour had been broken: it now stands at 19 rolls, up from 17.
The crab Rangoon roll wouldn’t have existed without Wunderle.
“Chris decided to come in here on opening day and be kind of a small pain in the neck and be like, you know, ‘Make me something off-menu,'” Geldhof said, shaking his head with a wry smile. “So, I was like, ‘All right. I’ll just go do that.'”
As a result of suggestions and new ideas, the Beta’s menu has seen five revisions in the past six months.
“What we’re going to end up doing is putting a little insert slot in our menu for new items,” Geldhof said, sharing a knowing laugh with an employee. “Reprinting menus gets kind of expensive.”
Geldhof said sushi’s been one of the top culinary trends in the past five years, and the enthusiasm he and Roldan report for their respective establishments reflects that. Whether or not both establishments will thrive in the small-town environment remains to be seen.
(Aaron’s note: Another old one. Originally supposed to run in my university paper, but that didn’t pan out. It’s old, and the writing isn’t as tight as it could be, but it turned out all right.)