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Fresh food, family help restaurant flourish

If you want good Japanese food good and fast, Blue Fin Sushi & Teriyaki is the place for you. The Claremont restaurant serves up sushi, teriyaki plates, salads and noodle dishes so fresh and tasty that first-time visitors tend to become repeat customers.

Located in the shopping center at the corner of Foothill and Claremont Boulevards, the restaurant draws clientele from the nearby Claremont Industrial Park, which houses dozens of businesses.

The Claremont COURIER is among these, and employees at the newspaper count themselves as Blue Fin boosters. The colleges also provide their fair share of business.

Blue Fin falls somewhere between fast food eatery and traditional restaurant. You can get your food to go, enjoy it onsite, order catered party plates or have dinner delivered every evening of the week.

Blue Fin had already been open for six years when Paul and Mimi Jo bought the business, which they have run for the past four years with the help of their son Alex Jo, 26.

As you may have guessed from the surname, the Jo family is not Japanese. “A lot of sushi places people find are owned by Koreans. I don’t know why it is,” the younger Mr. Jo said.

Paul met Mimi on a visit to Korea and the couple has lived in the United States for 28 years. They raised their family, including Alex and his younger sister Grace, in the city of Walnut. 

The Jos initially went into the dry-cleaning business, which Alex says is “very physically demanding.” A few years ago, Paul decided it was time to retire and saw that Blue Fin was for sale. Given his wife had a passion for cooking and food, they decided to give it a go.

They enjoy their “dual citizenship,” living in Walnut while working in the City of Trees. “Claremont’s a very nice place, with very friendly people,” the younger Mr. Jo said.

Ms. Jo majored in food science in college and is a strong enough cook that she could have tackled any kind of cuisine, including savory Korean dishes. Instead, the family decided to stay on the path that had already earned the restaurant many loyal customers. 

“We wanted more to change the work ethic while maintaining the restaurant’s identity,” Alex said. “We wanted to do it with integrity and make it the best possible.”

Each of the Jos has their particular role. Being fluent in English, Alex is the face of the enterprise, serving as the mediator between customers and the business. Paul has the most experience with running a business, so he takes on tasks like buying supplies and crunching numbers. As for Mimi, Alex says, “My mom is the dictator in the kitchen, making sure everything is cooked right, the sauces are right.”

Grace is pursuing a different course. After studying biochemistry at UC Riverside, she realized her passion lies with visual art. She is currently putting together her portfolio in hopes of gaining admission to the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena.

Alex, by contrast, has embraced the restaurant industry and when his parents step away from the business, they plan to pass it on to him. In the meantime, the family works together as a unit, keeping one precepts foremost in mind: customers deserve fresh ingredients.

The restaurant’s interior is clean and well kept but nothing fancy, so many people are pleasantly surprised. “We get customers who say, ‘I’ve eaten at a lot of sushi places and you use really high-quality fish.’ Other people don’t notice. They eat with their eyes.”

Maintaining high standards while keeping prices reasonable isn’t easy, given the ever-rising cost of supplies. The Jos, however, remain committed.

“If we find a vendor we like, we stick with them,” Alex said. “We really bust our butts trying to make everything as fresh as possible. If there’s anything of poor quality, we return it.”

The family doesn’t just have an eye for fine fish. “We go grocery shopping every day and make sure all of our veggies are fresh and ripe,” he said.

As a result, customers generally find anything on the menu is a good bet.

“In most fast-food places, the sushi quality is good but the teriyaki is bad or vice versa,” Alex said. “For us, both the teriyaki and the sushi are pretty good.”

Having a strong staff is also a priority.

“Our chefs are all full-time, and they’re kind of like family,” he said. “It can get heated at times when we’re busy, but there’s never any hard feelings. It’s all about getting the food right for the customer.” 

Blue Fin lost an important source of foot traffic when the neighboring Iron Works Gym closed a few weeks ago. Many gym-goers would stop in for a healthy meal after working out.

“We’ve got a lot of salads. And if you really want to be healthy, you can order the chicken breast bowl with brown rice and sauce on the side,” Alex said.

Still, the restaurant is keeping afloat.

When Alex was a teen, he admits, he didn’t help out with his folks dry-cleaning business as much as he could have.

“Now I regret it. If I can help my parents out even a little bit, that makes me happy,” he said. 

It’s been a real learning curve. 

“When I told people we were going to open a restaurant, everyone told me the restaurant business is hard, and I’m starting to understand why,” Alex said. “There’s an art to it. You have to be patient, keep the quality good and maintain good customer relationships.”

The Jos are at the restaurant every day, but it’s important for them to observe their Christian faith. Fortunately, Sunday is Alex’s day off. His parents go to an early service at their Diamond Bar congregation before heading to Blue Fin.

In what little spare time he has, Alex sometimes heads to the Claremont Village to scope out the competition. “I love Eureka Burger,” he said.

More often than not, however, the Jos take home food from their restaurant. Luckily, they enjoy it. Alex’s personal favorite is the Freemont Roll: It’s spicy tuna and shrimp tempura on the inside and salmon and avocado on top. “I can eat that every day,” he said.

And while Blue Fin doesn’t please everyone—“Just read our Yelp! Reviews,” Alex joked—they have a growing fan-base.

“A lot of times first-time customers will say it was very good and when they leave take a menu with them. When they find out we deliver at night, that seals the deal,” he said.

Every day, Alex learns more about running a small business. Most of what he needs to know, however, was imparted by his parents long ago.

“When I growing up and working part-time elsewhere and wanted to quit, they said. ‘All jobs have their own set of problems, and the grass is always greener on the other side.’ They told me to be committed. They encouraged me to learn to deal with the problems that I stumble on, appreciate what I have and work hard.”

Blue Fin is located at 665 E. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont. It’s open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day except Sunday, when hours are noon to 8 p.m. Evening delivery is available every day from 5 to 8:30 p.m. except on Sundays, when Blue Fin delivers from 5 to 7:30 p.m.

For information, call (909) 482-0300. 

—Sarah Torribio

storribio@claremont-courier

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