From its origins as an obscure little food hut perched on the outskirts of the borough to its emergence as one of the finest Japanese restaurants in the Philadelphia area, the story of is a wonderful tale of perseverance and dedication.
Its moral: finding success in America can be as simple as a little hard work and taking pride in what you do.
Sagami opened in 1974, the dream of owner Shigeru Fukuyoshi and his wife, Chizuko. Shigeru, who had left his job at Canon Camera to apprentice as a sushi chef at a Japanese restaurant in New York City, came to Collingswood with the intention of opening a place of his own.
“His mother was from the area,” Chizuko said. “It was a huge risk opening in this area, because people weren’t yet used to sushi.”
As a matter of fact, according to Chizuko, there was only one other Japanese restaurant in the area at the time, and it was across the water in Philadelphia. Collingswood was decades away from blossoming into a premier dining destination for South Jersey residents, and the culture just plain wasn’t interested in exotic, foreign cuisines.
Things got off to a rather slow start. The couple purchased an old ice cream shop with an abnormally low ceiling and made it their own. In those lean early years, Sagami had trouble keeping people in the restaurant.
“People would see the menu, see raw fish and not want to stay,” Chizuko says. “After about 15 years, people began to get comfortable. Fifteen to 20 percent of customers would order raw fish in the first few years, compared to 60 to 70 percent now.”
Despite the difficulty moving his product, Shigeru refused to compromise. When no one bought his sushi, he imported Japanese chefs to prepare it. Every other day, the Fukuyoshis trekked to New York’s Fulton Fish Market to purchase top-quality fish, and would often sleep in their car before returning to the restaurant the next day.
The overnight Manhattan trips are a thing of the past today, but for Shigeru, quality is still everything. He still uses New York purveyors to supply his seafood.
After a few years, sushi became more popular nationwide, and Sagami stood out among the best in the region. The couple added a sushi bar and a back room, and the reservation book began to fill up. As people were tempted by the delicate, subtle beauty and immaculate taste of a perfectly prepared piece of sashimi, Shigeru was able to drop different proteins from his menu in favor of additional seafood.
Despite the success Sagami has achieved over the years, it retains a remarkably simple menu, something that might cause casual sushi connoisseurs to scratch their heads in confusion.
Here, you’re not going to find any of those big, goofy, Americanized sushi rolls that have become such a staple of trendy sushi spots. Chizuko offers an explanation.
“My husband is hard-headed,” she says. “We try to be authentic. Not many Japanese owners open Japanese restaurants. There are many Chinese and Korean owners, and they don’t really ‘understand’ Japanese cooking and how it’s supposed to be.
"People are surprised we’re Japanese," she says. “People that eat in Japan can come here and have something similar to what they had over there.”
In turn, Sagami exploded in popularity among sushi aficionados who crave a bite of something fresh and authentic. Word has spread well beyond the city as well: movie stars Mark Wahlberg and Clint Eastwood have dined there, and Philadelphia athletes are known to pop in from time to time, including Phillies manager Charlie Manuel and pitcher Joe Blanton.
Collingswood is pushing ever forward into a new stratosphere of dining destinations. Like the American colonists heading west into uncharted territory, skilled chefs and slick restaurateurs are eyeing up Collingswood as new ground in which to stake their claims. In the next few weeks alone, two new Indian restaurants and a hibachi grill are slated to open.
Meanwhile, Sagami still sits in its Route 130 hideout, an unassuming little shop that for the last 38 years has served as the cornerstone of Collingswood dining by doing what it’s always done: serving the best Japanese food in South Jersey.
- Haddonfield’s First Friday is tonight, Sept. 7 from 5 to 9 p.m. Autumn is upon us, and the nights around here don’t get much nicer than this time of year. Take advantage.
- Follow me on twitter, @davevaliante. I’ll keep you in the mix about great events happening around Haddonfield, Haddon Township and Collingswood.