Some people say sushi is an acquired taste.
But for Jay Zheng, owner of Kaizen Hibachi Grill Sushi & Bar, a new restaurant on Goshen’s west side, the same can be said about local politics.
“Every single town is different. Every single county is different,” said Zheng whose family has operated numerous restaurants in Lafayette, Indianapolis and the Chicago area since the 1980s.
For the 25-year-old, opening an upscale restaurant featuring sushi and Japanese cuisine in Goshen has meant learning the finer points about the local sign ordinance and inter-governmental relations.
Take for instance, the grand opening celebration held April 11.
Zheng, who is now a member of both the Goshen Chamber of Commerce and the Elkhart Chamber of Commerce, said he had been working with the Elkhart Chamber on some issues including health department policies, and was under the impression that the Elkhart Chamber would talk with and invite Goshen officials to the grand opening.
That set the stage for a ribbon cutting event that featured Elkhart Mayor Dick Moore and Phil Penn, executive director of the Elkhart Chamber of Commerce.
Missing were any representatives of Goshen — a fact some people apparently noticed.
David Daugherty, executive director of the Goshen Chamber, called the circumstances “regrettable” and said representatives of both Chambers met Wednesday to discuss the issue.
The point of the meeting, Daugherty said, was to ensure “we coordinate those kind of things better in the future.”
Phil Penn said Thursday the entire episode was a misunderstanding and that they were embarrassed by the awkwardness of the situation.
Penn said he expected Goshen officials to be there.
Penn pointed to several examples in which both Chambers work together, including an upcoming trip to Washington D.C., and said the two Chambers are partners and not competitors.
“We do not want that connotation that we’re trying in any way to usurp the Goshen businesses,” Penn said. “We want to work together as a region.”
Zheng, seemingly caught in the middle of an awkward situation, said he’s eager to smooth things over with Goshen officials. He said he would like to invite Goshen Mayor Allan Kauffman and his family for a complimentary dinner.
In fact, a second grand opening ceremony is being planned with the Goshen Chamber.
Goshen City Councilman Jim McKee, who helped get a liquor license application for Zheng, said he believes the two chambers need to work together.
He pointed to a recent effort by Goshen Mayor Allan Kauffman, who spoke in Elkhart on behalf of a proposal sought by the mayor of Elkhart.
“I would have thought someone would have extended the courtesy to Allan at least.” McKee said. “Our mayor has been helpful to their city as well.”
And then there is the sign issue.
Zheng posted a “Now Hiring” sign near the store’s entrance along U.S. 33 and hung a strand of little flags often used to promote a grand opening.
Zheng was informed by letter by the Goshen zoning office that both had to be moved. He said he was told the help wanted sign presented a visibility issue for traffic, but noted that it only stood a couple of feet or so off the ground.
The banner had to be moved because it was attached to a utility pole, he said.
Failure to comply, the letter said, could lead to action by the zoning office.
The banner would have to be attached to the building, but Zheng said that would be ineffective since the building sits far back from the road.
Zheng said he was a bit “shocked” by the letter, but struck a diplomatic tone over that matter as well.
“It’s not a big deal,” Zheng said. “We don’t want any trouble.”
Others, however point to it as example of what they believe is a less-than conducive climate for businesses — a theme echoed in last year’s mayoral campaign.
Mckee was so bothered by the issue that he started a thread on his Facebook page questioning the circumstances.
Don Riegsecker, who ran unsuccessfully against Kauffman in the last election on a pro-business platform, chimed in on the Facebook conversation by simply restating his campaign theme: “Open for Business.”
McKee wrote that he thought the restaurant was being unfairly punished.
McKee said officials need to keep in mind that small businesses create a large share of employment opportunities. The city, he said, needs a more personable approach.
“We can’t just be sending letters out,” McKee said. “That really, really does make us look unfriendly.”
Kauffman said he believes the planning and zoning office will likely attempt in the future to talk with business owners about violations.
“Sometimes too much gets read into letters,” Kauffman said.
But at the same time, Kauffman notes, violations of the zoning policy did exist and that “some people just like to stir the pot.”
Zheng’s restaurant opened several weeks before the grand opening. He said business is steadily picking up and is bustling on weekends.
Before opening, Zheng renovated the building along U.S. 33 and invested a large amount of money in the décor and specialized kitchen equipment.
A customized granite countertop in the bar is part of an interior design that captures the essence of an upscale dining experience.
“We want to be part of the community,” Zheng said. “We don’t want to make it hard for the community.”
He said the restaurant is still hiring.
The sign, though, is now posted on the store’s front door.
Some people say sushi is an acquired taste.
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