After having built up and sold a successful pharmaceutical business and then getting into financial services, Dr. John Kapoor focused his attention on his true passion: food. Having teamed with a friend who launched the Roka Akor brand in London, Kapoor then brought the restaurant to Scottsdale, Ariz., in 2008 where it was named one of the year's 10 best sushi spots by Bon Appetit. Kapoor, who lives in Lake Forest, wanted to bring the restaurant home to not only be closer to family, but also to allow his friends to enjoy what so many loved in Arizona. The restaurant opened a year ago today and to celebrate, Roka Akor is offering complimentary robata grilled pork belly as well as $1 barrel-filled sake. Kapoor talks about the restaurant's first year, working with chef Ce Bian and possible expansion plans.
Congrats on the first year. How does it feel?
It feels pretty good. The first year is always the tough year, but we're happy to be in Chicago and accepted by the community and that's a great feeling.
How has the first year been?
Anytime [you're in] a new market, you learn and for us it's been a learning curve. I'm very happy and pleased to be here. I am from Chicago and have a house in Lake Forest and have businesses here and it's nice have a restaurant that's successful.
Does it feel like it's been a year?
It's has passed fast. And it was a lot of fun and it's really nice. I'm very happy with it that we're looking at a suburban location as well in the North Shore in the Skokie area.
How was the actual opening, did things run smoothly?
We learned a lot in Scottsdale when we opened that restaurant so we had our executive chef [Ce Bian] move here. And we had a bunch of other people who were involved with that who moved here full time and really helped us recruit the front of house and back of house. The whole process was about a 90-day process of hiring and training. Then when we opened, we did the soft opening for a couple of weeks. You have so many moving parts in a restaurant, but I'd say that it went really smooth. I was really pleased with how it opened. The key is having the right people and we have had some really nice people since day one. Ce Bian was with me since day one and that's important having the top executive chef [come with you]. The chef is like an artist and you give him freedom—he drives the entire back of the house. In the front of house, we have good operators.
Not too long after opening, both COO Art Mendoza and GM Felipe Ospina left to help open Untitled. Was that hard to lose them both so early on after opening?
I had hired [Art] to come in and open the restaurant. So when it opened, Art left. That was a mutual agreement and the first week after it opened, it was going well and my agreement with him ended. Felipe was my GM and he worked until the end of the year. Felipe is a great guy and I enjoyed working with him. He helped get the restaurant launched and he's great in the front of house and knows a lot of good people in the community, which helped a lot. When he left, we had other people who could step in. But yes, I miss him.
The restaurant seemed to have opened somewhat quietly, but quickly received high praise from critics and locals. Were you surprised?
It was a pleasant surprise. There's this heat index and for seven months, we made the top 10. It was nice to get buzz and the word of mouth is what drives the restaurant. I think we have fantastic food. I'm committed to the food and wine and I want people to come in and enjoy the food and drink. It's the food, enjoy the robata grill and we have a pastry chef who makes great desserts. It's an experience. Come for the food; enjoy the drinks.
How do you go from owning a pharmaceutical company to opening a restaurant?
I'm an entrepreneur. I still have a couple of companies, like Akorn in Lake Forest. My other company is in Phoenix. My background is pharmaceutical and healthcare and my roots are here. I got in with my friend from London with Roka and once I'm in, now we took over that project from London. I've made it an effort to learn the business and work with my staff. And I have passion for food. That's the reason I'm in it. And we have Bombay Spice, two restaurants, one in Scottsdale, and we are expanding that concept in a more casual aspect. Good food is good entertainment and it's nice to see people smiling when they're eating.
What's been the best thing about opening Roka Akor here?
For me, the best thing is all of my friends are here and for them to be able to come and enjoy the Roka food, to have it here, and my family is here. It gives me a great feeling to have my friends and people enjoying. We're here to stay for a long time.