Daniel Chen is not your ordinary restauranteur. After finding himself uninspired in business school, Daniel made the switch to get his commercial pilot license. He made a return to the business world with his first restaurant concept, Light Bulb Asian Cafe, and has since opened The 1126 sushi restaurant in the Short North. Daniel is a no-frills, no gimmicks restaurant owner who would rather be known for having high-quality ingredients than known for having a cool atmosphere or concept. Moving forward, Daniel wants to pave the way for a new standard of high-end Asian food. We’re not going to give away any spoilers, but all we can say is this: keep an eye out on the horizon for Daniel Chen, because he has got some big plans coming up for the city of Columbus.
D: My name is Daniel Chen. So originally I'm from China, not too far from Beijing. I've been here almost six years. I went to Capital University and majored in international business. After a couple of years I transferred to the University of Cincinnati and got my commercial pilot license. I opened up my first restaurant in Upper Arlington, called Lightbulb Asian Cafe, where we serve bubble tea in light bulbs and offer Chinese and Malaysian cuisine as well. One day I drove through the Short North and I saw that this location was for sale. That's when 1126 came in. I called my best friend Seven, my head chef, and said "there really isn't a true sushi restaurant in the Short North. It's time to bring one here." I gave it the name 1126 because I didn't want to call it "Sakura" or something like that. Once I saw the street name, I said well why not just go ahead and name it 1126?
D: Food quality. I'm the pickiest person when it comes to food quality and that's why we have a strong return customer base. We're not really a fancy restaurant, like, we didn't spend a couple million dollars on the interior design or decoration. We didn’t need to. We're a small restaurant. We have 90 seats. What we care about is food quality and customer service.
D: Seven [head chef] told me that it is important to keep the food traditional and to never sacrifice quality for a cool concept. It's all about quality. Our tuna and salmon may look the same to the customer, but the difference is in the taste, and they know that. We know a lot of restaurants that have closed down because they tried to bring a cool concept without the quality. If you're a bar - you need a cool concept. But if you're a restaurant - it's all about the food quality.
D: Well, I'm not on that level yet [laughing]. With 1126 being here only two years, I'm brand new. I'm a brand new restaurant owner. Some restaurant owners, they've got a ton of money. They probably don't want advice. But if you're just starting a new business or you're a young professional trying to get into the restaurant industry, I don't recommend spending tons of money to build out a huge restaurant. For me, I used a little investment. That's what I do for my restaurants. I don't need to pick the best location, pay a ton of rent, spend a ton of money, focus on the interior design, put in a lot of cool things. I will say, make sure of one thing - that the food quality matches your restaurant. That's my advice.
D: I'm looking to open more sushi restaurants in Columbus. But I don't want to do a chain restaurant. I want to do different concepts. You can't open 20 sushi restaurants in Columbus. That's impossible. Hopefully in the next couple of years I will do a high-end Chinese restaurant. There is nothing like that here. That's my goal.
D: There's a lot. I love Cameron Mitchell - they're doing a great job. I go to Cameron Mitchell restaurants a lot to study service and table set up. There's some small Filipino restaurant with awesome food on King Avenue (Bonifacio), they did a great job too. They're not a fancy restaurant, but the food quality is awesome. There's a restaurant called Bangkok, that's the best Thai restaurant in Columbus.
D: Well, first of all, I love talking to my customers, like RJ, my man. The Short North is a great location. You can meet people from anywhere, right? When you have customers that become your regular customers, and they're all from different areas and different careers, it's a cool thing. I love to talk to people. I also want to bring new concepts to Columbus. I have another restaurant coming soon by the convention center. I'm doing hand-rolled sushi and a sake bar, which is a brand new concept in Columbus. I want to create more new restaurant concepts and at the same time keep the same high quality as 1126. Another reason that I love it is because I can eat sushi for free everyday [laughing]. But at the same time, the restaurant industry is hard. It's a lot of work. Keeping a good staff, that's pretty hard.
D: Well, a lot. I fly a lot and take my two dogs with me.
D: Hey, I will take care of you!
D: Yeah, that's what I'm doing right now. Hopefully next year I can sign up for the Red Bull air race. Unfortunately, right now they canceled this year and next year’s season, which is good for me because it gives me extra time to set up. I need more training. That's pretty much all I do in my free time.
D: Business school for me was so boring, I wanted to do something different so I got my pilot license, and thought about flying for an airline. I have a lot of friends who are working for an airline right now, but the schedule seems tough. You have no time for family. You have no time for you, but you do get free tickets and can travel the world, so that's a pretty good benefit. Hopefully, in a year or two, I can start my own aviation business in China. That's another one of my goals.
D: It’s tough man! Seriously! The good thing is if I lose my driver's license, I still have my pilot license.