New cuisine rolls into south metro

Fast-casual Asian Kitchen opens in Apple Valley and Eagan

SotaRol’s feature menu item is a sushi-burrito called the SotaRito. The chef makes a Spicy Tuna SotaRito by placing rice, vegetables and tuna on a soypaper wrapping and folding it into a large, maki roll. Photo by Amy Mihelich

The team that brought Yogurt Lab and Agra Culture to the Twin Cities is expanding its culinary offerings.

Aaron Switz, CEO and co-founder of Z&H Hospitality Group, is working to broaden the way Minnesotans enjoy fast-casual dining. He opened two new SotaRol locations – one in Apple Valley in mid-July and one in Egan on Aug. 7.

SotaRol is a fast-casual Asian restaurant, primarily serving Japanese and Chinese cuisine. The restaurant combines “innovative Asian flavors with an Up North appeal.”

The menu features a sushi-burrito, similar to a large maki roll, dubbed the “SotaRito.” Switz’s professional chefs wrap rice, vegetables and a protein of the customer’s choice in a flexible and tasteless soypaper shell. Switz said that because they do not use nori, the SotaRito is easy to eat and free from the seaweed flavor that often turns people away from sushi.

Although the restaurant was originally marketed as a sushi restaurant, more than 85 percent of menu items are created for people who don’t like sushi. In addition to traditional and nontraditional sushi rolls, the extensive menu offers rice bowls and salads. Customers can choose from raw fish, cooked meats or vegetarian options.

SotaRol also serves sliders, tater tots and other side dishes, as well as gluten-free chocolate chip cookies and Yogurt Lab ice cream.

“There’s nothing bad in our food. We don’t use fillers,” Switz said. “We are offering people the quality that they would get at a high-end restaurant; we’re just delivering something to them quicker, faster and at a lower price point.”

Switz and his business partner, Mikael Asp, began thinking of new restaurant ideas in May 2014, after opening their second Agra Culture restaurant. As the business grew, Switz began envisioning a new line of fast-casual sushi restaurants.

“I’d been to San Francisco and seen some of these concepts, like the sushi burrito,” Switz said. “I thought it would be cool, and I love sushi, so we started a drawing board of names and marketing.”

When a space opened up next door to Agra Culture on 50th and France in Edina in 2015, he decided to build the restaurants. After six months of planning and developing the menu, Switz and Asp opened the first SotaRol restaurant.

Since then, the partners have opened four more locations: Stadium Village and Uptown in Minneapolis, and Apple Valley and Eagan.

Most SotaRol restaurants have been built in spaces previously occupied by Yogurt Lab.

“While Yogurt Lab is really seasonal, SotaRol is an all-year restaurant,” Switz said. “The square footage worked out perfectly. It fit in that space really well.”

While the market for SotaRol aligns with Minnesota’s seasonal weather better than an ice cream shop, the unique business faces challenges of its own.

Switz said many of SotaRol’s main challenges come hand-in-hand with its strengths. He said although fast-casual Asian dining is an underdeveloped market with room for growth, most Americans have a limited understanding of the products and services provided.

“No one’s really had Japanese fast-casual, so that in itself is a challenge because people aren’t used to it. They’ve been trained to go into a nice restaurant and sit down to eat these kinds of foods,” Swtiz said. “And, sushi-burritos are a completely new product. No one really knows what they are or what to expect.”

Switz said that getting people into the restaurant for the first time is the most important step for the growth of his business.

“This is the exciting part: We get to tell people about our product, bring them in and let them try it, and in the next 30 years that audience will grow and we will grow along with it,” Switz said. “We look at it like a marathon, not a sprint. We came into this knowing there is a limited market for just sushi, so that’s why we wanted to offer all the other options.”

After the initial struggle of getting people in the door, Switz said he usually sees sales double in the first two and a half years in his businesses. He said growth has been steady and proportional across locations.

“We are excited about the next 20 or 30 years,” he said. “Millennials have a wider palate range. They like spice, they like trying new things and they like the ability to get things at a reasonable price quickly. And, people also want some level of embedded health in their food because they are eating out more. We do all of that.”

As the five existing SotaRol restaurants gain in popularity, Switz said he is beginning to look at possible locations for expansion. He is already in the process of bring a SotaRol stand to Target Center.

Switz said the chefs are always happy to recommend meals to customers, especially those coming in for the first time. The new resturants are located at 7394 W. 153rd St. in Apple Valley and 2000 Rahncliff Court in Eagan. Both locations are open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Contact Amy Mihelich at [email protected]