Although Chop Chop Shop customers were dismayed by his seemingly abrupt decision to close the popular Asian fusion restaurant, he’s hoping that they’ll stick around for his brand new concept opening out of the same Seminole Heights space at 4603 N Florida Ave.
Sera’s new restaurant Chanko will debut out of the familiar refurbished diner car with a brand new menu, unprecedented approach to fast casual dining, and the support of his entire former CCS staff.
Chanko will boast a unique type of fast casual dining, as self-service kiosks and a pick-up counter will replace the need for front of house employees. The kitchen will split any other expected FOH responsibilities, like wiping tables down or assisting customers.
“It’s gotten harder post-Covid to even find people who want to work the front of house, and as an employer I don’t really want to require a position that makes someone susceptible to beratement like that, ” Sera tells Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. “At the end of the day, our new business model does not have the need for a front of house person.”
Although there won’t be a host to greet you when you walk into Chanko, don’t expect its friendly atmosphere to go anywhere.
“Chanko” translated from Japanese means “parents to children” and typically describes foods made by sumo wrestlers (aka chanko-nabe) that they prepare and eat together,” a recent Facebook post from Sera reads. “For our purpose, it’s meant to describe our restaurant culture. Cook together, eat together.”
Besides a brand new sign out front, a new pickup counter, and more self-service POS systems, there won’t be many physical changes to the inside of the refurbished diner. Chop Chop Shop's Asian fusion menu, however, will be replaced with a refreshing take on traditional Japanese flavors.
Gone are the days of Chop Chop's customizable bowls, twice-fried karaage and almost a dozen homemade sauces. The Chanko menu is smaller, more refined, and revolves around a traditional Japanese dish that Sera says cannot be found anywhere else in the Southeastern part of the country, let alone Florida.
Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki (also known as “Japanese pizza”)—a layered crepe dish stacked with shredded grilled cabbage, bean sprouts, leeks, grilled noodles, a fried egg sheet and a choice of protein—is the absolute star of Chanko’s brand new menu.
After shutting Chop Chop Shop doors in late April, Sera flew his chefs to L.A. to do some research on Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki. They visited Chinchikurin, a newly-opened restaurant in Little Tokyo that specializes in this specific dish—one of the only ones in the country, according to Sera.
Regular okonomiyaki is a savory pancake with its ingredients incorporated into the batter (similar to the scallion pancake popular in other Asian cuisines), while the Hiroshima style specifically boasts the layered technique.
A dish that typically takes over 10 minutes to prepare will come out of the Chanko kitchen in five or six minutes since Sera and his team approach their ticket times with laser-like precision.
“Because our star dish is the okonomiyaki and it's specifically a Japanese dish, I wanted everything else on the menu to follow more traditional flavors as well,” says Sera, who’s half-Japanese himself.
The only other categories are kare, a mild Japanese curry and the breaded cutlet known as katsu. Chop Chop Shop regulars, however, will be delighted to see its popular Chop Chop sauce (renamed Chanko) and Bangkok sauces make their return on Chanko’s menu.
Sides include rice, tiger slaw (think Asian coleslaw) and crunchy Japanese pickles, with dishes like kimchi and cucumber-wakame salad on the way. Alongside its entrees will be a wide variety of both Japanese and local beer, wine, soda, sake, and for the first time, boba. Sera notes that customers would regularly request for something on the sweeter side, but says he “doesn’t mess with desserts, so boba is a good compromise.”
Notably, every Chop Chop Shop chef has stuck through the transition with him, currently helping him tweak their new kitchen setup for maximum efficiency. He says that one of the motivating factors behind Chanko’s simple menu was to lessen the physical and mental stress on his chefs.
With Chanko’s refined menu, less technical skills are used, while less strenuous labor is applied on its chefs. And since okonomiyaki is cooked at a lower temperature, they will be standing over a 300-degree grill instead of a 500-degree one—a slight change that will make all the difference, Sera says.
Continuing the theme of less strenuous labor, Sera will continue the four-day workweek for his employees at the new restaurant. As part of the plan, which included increased wages, Sera was able to get his front of house staff a four-day workweek as well. Most of his employees preferred the “three-day weekend,” although he notes that some of his younger chefs actually preferred to work more than 40 hours a week.
The pandemic and its industry-changing effects have made him realize that Chanko’s business model might be the future of quick service restaurants—but success will only come with experimenting, reflecting, and making collaborative changes when needed.
“Ever since the pandemic, 42% of our sales are through UberEats or Doordash, and a half of our in-house orders are either placed online or over the phone for pickup,” he explains. “Weekends are more dine-in, but our delivery numbers haven’t really dropped at all.”
After Seminole Heights’ newest restaurant debuts this weekend, it will initially be open from 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Tuesday-Sunday, in addition to being available on third party apps like Uber Eats, Doordash and Grubhub.
Although the plunge to start a brand new restaurant revolving around a relatively unknown Japanese dish was intimidating at first, Sera was compelled to make a drastic change when he realized that Chop Chop Shop had reached its maximum potential.
It took him about seven years to build the team he has today, and starkly accepted the fact that the Chop Chop business model couldn’t be replicated. Instead of opening a second restaurant, he knew he needed a brand new concept .
“Finally I was just like fuck it,” he says with a pause. “Yeah…fuck it. It’s my restaurant and I can do what I want,” Sera says with a laugh. “I think this model is here to stay, and we're about to find out, because I’m about to do it.”
Chanko's soft opening is set for Friday, May 27; more details will be released on Facebook (@chankoichiban.)