The idea of gas station sushi might conjure images of raw fish sitting out for hours, and rice that has turned crispy and hard. The thought is so shudder-inducing, the insurance company, Esurance, made a commercial comparing raw fish bought by the pump to sketchy auto insurance. “We all make bad decisions,” the voiceover for that commercial goes, “like, say, gas station sushi. Cheap is good, and sushi good, but cheap sushi—not so good.”
The upshot is that a gas station is an unlikely place to find sushi that’s safe to eat, let alone tasty. But that’s exactly what is for sale inside Lee’s Fresh Sushi & Deli. The BP gas station at corner of Poplar and Ridgeway avenues is known in Memphis as the “sushi gas station.”
According to manager Jung Jin “JJ” Lee, the pick-up-and-go sushi is made fresh everday at the gas station’s small deli counter. One of the reasons Lee’s sushi tastes good is he gets his ingredients from the same place that local restaurants do. “It’s not like we have any oceans, or lakes, or rivers where we could can catch tuna and then cut it up ourselves. So, we all have to get the ingredient from the same vendors,” Lee explained. “You know, we still have a health department testing like every other restaurant.”
In 2002, Lee’s family bought the gas station, located next to the Shea Ear Clinic, from Dr. John Shea, Jr. The family had seen pick-up-and-go sushi fly off shelves in Detroit. If the concept didn’t work at their gas station in Memphis, they planned to try another food. They never had to. Sushi is a top seller. The store sells 200 to 300 boxes daily.
The gas station also provides sushi for the cafeterias at the Nike distribution centers in Memphis, and several catering companies, including Fork in the Road, and Hog Wild’s A Moveable Feast. A few years ago, the gas station was featured in Gourmet magazine.
Even so, most of their sushi business comes from word of mouth. Elizabeth Saxton works nearby and is a regular customer. She recommends Lee’s to her friends.
“This is the only sushi I’ve ever had from a gas station, but I’m often telling people that they should try it and not be afraid, or think that it would not be good just because it is from a gas station,” Saxton said.
Although their sushi is popular, Lee hasn’t considered a separate restaurant. Lee estimates the sushi grosses more than $8,000 dollars a week, without the additional overhead expenses. Within the store, only one product outsells sushi in volume.
“If you talk about inside sales, I would have to say cigarettes,” Lee said. “If it goes down to food, it would be sushi, beer, and then candy.”
With such a successful product, it was surprising to find out the sushi chef for the past three years, Ace Hodge, is allergic to shellfish. He cannot taste the ingredients, and the food sometimes irritates him through the safety gloves.
“Crawfish is the only one that actually feels like acid on my hands,” Hodge said. “The rest of them are a little mild. I guess you could say I know how to make it and what tastes good just by the way it smells, and customers’ reactions.”
One thing Lee’s customers have been reacting to recently is the Esurance commercial denigrating gas station sushi. The company and Lee have spoken on the phone, “Matter of fact, I was contacted by Esurance,” Lee said. “Saying that it [the commercial] wasn’t, it wasn’t directly to you. He actually didn’t know there was such a thing.”