FROM THE BASEMENT TO THE TOP
Many days and nights passed while the brothers transformed the basement at Nansensgade 59 in central Copenhagen into a venue that fully reflected their vision.
It was time for the Danes to learn how to eat sushi—chopsticks and all.
Jens Rahbek had just returned from six years in Japan, now a trained yakitori chef.
Jens’ Japanese mother, Keiko Rahbek, welcomed the idea of teaching the Danes how to eat sushi with open arms, but his brother, Kim Rahbek, thought it too risky to serve just sushi.
He came up with the idea of combining sushi and yakitori, just in case the Danes were not quite ready to start eating raw fish. The idea was not particularly well-received by the Japanese part of the family—in 1994, combining those two components of the Japanese kitchen was unheard of. It was against all Japanese customs.
But Kim, suddenly seeing a fast way out of his student debt, stood his ground and insisted that they serve sushi and yakitori side by side. The eldest brother, Hiromasa, drew up a logo for the company. It did not take long to settle on the name: Sticks’n’Sushi
A third family member by the name of Thor Andersen had saved up a fair amount of money and was thus invited to join the team.
Jens cooked, Kim took care of admin, and Thor did the building.
Simple and humble
A simple concept with a simple name. The young men worked hard to transform their low-ceilinged basement into a venue that reflected their vision. But the end of the manual labour did not mark the end of their preparations—once the foundation was laid, the question of architecture arose. And to answer it, they brought an old classmate: Terese Erngaard. At the Henning Larsen Arkitekter studio, Erngaard had designed a hot dog stand that was extremely well-received and on the basis of this achievement, the family asked if she would be interested in having a look at the basement that once housed a burger joint. Since then, the architect has helped decorate all Sticks’n’Sushi restaurants. Nowadays, she lives in Berlin.
As it turned out, the family made a lucrative decision by establishing the first sushi restaurant in Denmark—the sushi trend had come to stay. The concept was just as simple as it was genius: they combined the imperial sushi kitchen with the authentic yakitori street kitchen.
They dedicated their nights to discussion and planning. Back home on Falster, they collected small stones on the beach, which were later placed on the restaurant tables so that diners had somewhere to put down their chopsticks.
Good days call for strong legs, they reminded each other late at night, when their ideas started becoming a little too far-fetched. And good days make for tired legs, they laughed.
The brothers struggled in the beginning, as nobody had faith in their vision. The banks refused to loan them money—thankfully, their friends and family were more supportive.
The brothers agreed not to spend money on advertising, instead relying on reviews, recommendations, picture-filled menus, and bon mots like No Nonsense Gade.They invited their guests to take their menus home, thus using them like business cards.
At the time, there were roughly 64 Asian restaurants in Denmark and the brothers wanted to stand out in terms of style and décor. They wanted to combine the best of both worlds—to bring a little piece of Japan to Scandinavia. Their success took everyone by surprise. Everything from their main courses to their dressings was such a hit that they started wrapping up food to go in whatever packaging they could find. When a real estate opportunity presented itself further down the street, they gathered all the money they could and invested in a takeaway venue. At the same time, they added miso- and keiko dips to their menus—they even worked hard to improve their soy sauce, based on their mother’s traditional recipe.
When they first started out, Jens was the only full-time employee, but it did not take long for Thor to join him. As they started earning more, they began to hire more people. The courtyard that belonged to Nansensgade 47 was filled with workshops, offices, and a small hotel, and after a few years, the chance opened up to rent a small building.
–We could set up a main kitchen and perhaps even an admin office here, Kim Rahbek, who is now the main face of the company, said. A kitchen capable of meeting the increasing demands for tsukune—the chicken meatballs the Copenhageners have taken a liking to.
–In your wildest dreams, Thor said.
–Without those dreams, we will never get anywhere.
And so dreams became reality. The members of the family proved to be a good mix of dreamers, poets, and realists. There were plenty of discussions, frustrations, and fights, accompanied by everything from joy and laughter to disappointment and tears. But then again, what else would you expect from family members turned business partners.
They rented the backhouse and, as Kim had dreamed, used it as a main kitchen that mixed the sauces for their restaurant. After a while, the company began to turn a large enough profit to allow the brothers to quit their other jobs and focus all their energies on Sticks’n’Sushi.
That milestone was quickly succeeded by the expansion into the suburbs of Copenhagen. They rented one of the two listed pavilions in Hellerup, where they set up a restaurant, a takeaway service, a bar, and a café. Back in the day, it was far from the norm for a single venue to offer a sit-down restaurant, a takeaway service, a grocery shop, and a cup of coffee or a cold beer. The brothers used the grocery shop to sell their own products, including their soy sauce, rice, tea, bowls, cups, and coals.
The venture proved a huge success. Seven years later, they rented the neighbouring pavilion on the other side of the garden. On top of everything else, they could now offer their guests the chance to eat outside during the summer. There were plenty of creative discussions during this entire process, including discussions about which stories to tell on the menus to supplement the descriptions of their food. It had always been a given that the food should be delicious and of the highest quality, but Sticks’n’Sushi wanted to be about more than just food.
A couple of miles from Nansensgade, Østerbro had a bit of a facelift when the Sticks’n’Sushi logo was put up at the turn of the millennium. From the very beginning, the brothers had agreed that every restaurant should be different. Although they wanted all their restaurants to have a Sticks’n’Sushi feel to them, they also wanted to make sure that each and every one of them told their own story. They wanted to make sure that they respected and incorporated their surroundings, the local history, and the structure of the buildings themselves—both inside and out.
When the brothers opened the doors to their restaurant on Istedgade in 2004, their guests were met with long communal tables. Back then, the neighbourhood was one of the rougher parts of Copenhagen, but its inhabitants prioritised community and collective values in a way that served to inspire the brothers. Although the tables were communal, there has always been enough elbow room for everyone. Nowadays, this setup is more common, but when the restaurant first opened its doors, it was intended to challenge the room and the guests.
Thor, Kim, and an accountant set up shop in the Backhouse of the Nansensgade restaurant. By this point, the living room had been transformed into a fully functional main kitchen, and it was time to start making decisions for the future of the company. Jens wanted to go his own way—he thought the company had grown too big. And so three became two.
Gammel Kongevej used to be the home of one of the most well-stocked antique shops in Europe, complete with books piled from floor to ceiling. Before the antique shop moved onto the premises, the building housed a gasworks, so there were heaps of history to sort through when deciding how best to honour the space. Sticks’n’Sushi hosted their opening reception here in 2007.
It all well and truly took off the next year, when two new restaurants were added to the ever-growing list. The brothers were turning enough of a profit to finance the expansion themselves and the growth was all organic. Rather than trying to loan money, they saved their profits, so the foundation of each new venue was built on the success of its predecessor. One of the restaurants was built at the old courthouse in Valby; the other was built in Lyngby. The latter expansion marked the first time the brothers opened a venue inside a department store, which was a decision that was met with significant resistance, as it raised the question of whether they had ‘sold out’, so to speak.
These expansions were followed by the establishment of a new main kitchen in Rødovre, as the old one was transformed into the Sticks’n’Sushi Academy, where the brothers began offering classes on the Japanese arts of tea, sake, and raw ingredients.
Multiple investment funds have reached out to Sticks’n’Sushi to offer opportunities to expand into the international market—but the brothers had more domestic ventures in mind. Tivoli Hotel requested that Sticks’n’Sushi open a restaurant on the top floor, from where they would be able to offer their guests a view of Sweden (not to mention the towers and spires of the Copenhagen skyline). The brothers accepted the offer and the doors to this particular venue were thrown open in 2010. This was also the first of their venues to offer a cocktail bar.
Over the course of ten years, they had moved from the basement in Nansensgade to the top of one of the tallest buildings in the city. And on that note, they decided to give the international culinary scene a shot and so they had to choose: England or Germany?
The first thing on the agenda was to start negotiations with potential investors—and to open another couple of restaurants in Denmark.
Sticks’n’Sushi had many balls in the air, but they never dropped any of them. In 2012, they landed a real estate deal for a berth in Rungsted—and that same year, with the help of Maj Invest, they decided to try to establish themselves in England. They decided to establish their first venue in Wimbledon. Thor and Kim maintained the majority of the shares in the company and Maj Invest bought the rest.
With the backing of this solid equity fund, they opened a series of restaurants in England, as well as a few new ones in Denmark: Covent Garden (2013), Greenwich (2015), Canary Wharf (2015), Cambridge (2016), Oxford (2017), and Victoria (2017). Later in 2017, they even expanded into the German culinary scene, with a restaurant on Potsdamer Straße in Berlin.
The beach of Amager in Denmark is home to an old powder house. It has been carefully restored and offers a lovely view of Øresund, windmills, and our Swedish neighbours—and since 2016, the old powder house has offered sushi and pétanque.
Overlooking the old amusement park in Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens is the most recent Sticks’n’Sushi venue. The restaurant is located in the capital’s newest food mecca and on top of fantastic sushi, they serve an amazing view of the old amusement park.
The story of Sticks’n’Sushi is one to remember. It is a story about how innovation and dedication—rather than megalomania and an insatiable hunger for power—are the cornerstones of success; a story that goes to show that wonderful things happen when we work with the cultures around us to make something truly special.
The seed of the gigantic tree on Nansensgade was planted almost a quarter of a century ago. And who knows—maybe it all started in 1955, when a young Japanese girl got on a ship from Tokyo to Copenhagen.
Nowadays, thousands of people have her to thank for a unique culinary experience.
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