The Local newsletter is your free, daily guide to life in Colorado. For locals, by locals. Sign up today!
The road to Wellness Sushi’s success was a bumpy one for owners Steven and Phoebe Lee.
Husband-and-wife duo founded Wellness Sushi in 2019 as a primarily mobile concept, delivering 100 percent plant-based Japanese fare to the Denver metro area, a first in the Mile High City. The couple developed a strong business plan, which included selling at breweries and vegan retailers like now-closed Alternation Brewing Company and Nooch Vegan Market. But when the car the Lees used to bring food to customers was repossessed soon after they established the business and there was no one to turn to, it seemed like they should call it quits.
That's only $1 per issue!
“We have zero connections. We don’t know anyone over here,” says Steven. The Lees, immigrants from Myanmar who said they struggled to find community in Denver, were determined to give Wellness their all and had to find a solution on their own. They rented a car from Enterprise to satisfy accelerating demand for Wellness’ food orders and drove eight-hour-long delivery routes to drop off rolls and rice bowls at customers’ doorsteps—sometimes as far away as Colorado Springs or Fort Collins—with their two-year-old daughter strapped in the back.
Their dedication has paid off in spades. This past Wednesday, Yelp placed Wellness Sushi at No. 73 on its national Top 100 Places to Eat list for 2023. It is the only entry from Colorado this year. The news follows the evolution of the Lees’ business from a storefront-free operation to a 166-square-foot pilot store in the Golden Triangle to their current brick-and-mortar on East Colfax Avenue, a fast-casual concept that opened this past November. Droves of customers now commute to their doorstep, enjoying expertly crafted sushi, onigiri, ramen, and other meat-free Japanese fare in the dining area.
Considering the age of the business, Wellness’ win may be surprising, but it is backed by community data. Customer satisfaction is built into Yelp’s ranking system, according to Matthew Careccia, senior community manager for Yelp in Denver. Users nominate restaurants as candidates for the list, which is further culled into the final 100 by company staffers. “It’s not just like getting lettuce and tomato and cheddar cheese on [a roll],” he says, pointing to patrons’ receptiveness to Wellness’ forward-thinking menu as partly why it’s been such a local hit. “Vegan sushi sounds like the most Denver thing to be on this list.”
At the heart of Wellness Sushi is Steven’s ability to achieve near-identical seafood imitations from vegan ingredients. His plant-based salmon, tuna, and shrimp are made of konjac, a root vegetable which is pounded into flour, mixed with other ingredients, then cooked into solid pieces that he slices to drape atop rolls or fries into crispy tempura. His Krab mix capitalizes on the meatiness of young jackfruit and tofu, and to replicate the slippy sweetness of unagi (freshwater eel), he grills up slices of eggplant.
Hot food also shines at the restaurant. Those who enjoy sweet-and-savory bites should order the soupless tantanmen, which combines ramen noodles with ground soy meat, peanuts, sesame seeds, and a soy-based sauce to create a filling, yet light-on-the-stomach meal. While vegan customers have shouted their appreciation for a local Japanese option across social media and review sites (yes, including Yelp), the Lees assert that their menu is for everyone. As Steven says: “It’s for healthy choices… no matter your diet.”
Casual eateries in Denver have historically performed well on the Yelp Top 100 list, with recent winners including Woodie Fisher Kitchen & Bar, Pho Haus, Esters Virginia Village, and Lucky Noodles. Unlike these spots, however, Wellness Sushi does not have a waitstaff, so while Steven isn’t delivering food to your house, he still might bring it to your table.
Wellness is looking to expand to a second Front Range location soon. In the meantime, diners have to drive to East Colfax to taste its offerings. And Careccia confirms they already are, as he’s met customers from as far as Steamboat Springs who visited the restaurant a mere day after the list’s publication. “This is huge,” Steven says. “This is just the beginning.”
2504 E. Colfax Ave.