Lenny Sean, one of nine siblings, moved to the United States from South Korea in 1983 at age 17. He was following in his parents’ footsteps, chasing the dream of a new start in life.
“I had to come without it being my decision,” he says of his parents’ leading. “But I’m glad I did.”
Sean and wife, Julia, were high school buddies, both graduating from Denbigh High School. He studied engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach but left after two years to earn money and eventually start his own business.
Sean spent his high school years and college breaks learning Japanese cuisine as a hibachi chef at Sakura Williamsburg. After college, he went from working in a New York delicatessen to a gig as a Japanese chef in northern Virginia.
“Around that time, Japanese sushi bars were not as popular,” Sean says. “I saw that Japanese cuisine would be popular in the future, so I decided to get into the sushi business.”
Sean opened his first restaurant,
Hayashi Ramen & Grill, in Williamsburg in 1997. He opened Hayashi Sushi & Grill in City Center in 2007 and sold the Williamsburg restaurant in 2013.
The only Asian eatery in City Center, Hayashi offers a unique combination of cuisine.
“We specialize in two menu categories: items cooked in the kitchen, such as teriyaki, udon, ginger chicken and yakisoba; and freshly prepared sushi,” Sean says. “In addition, we have the hibachi grill where a customer can come in to make a selection.”
The restaurant also offers a few Korean dishes such as Kalbi, Bibimbap and spiced pork bulgogi.
Hayashi features a large bar, including cocktails, wine, sake and beer (imported and domestic). Its happy hour runs Monday through Friday from 4:30 until 6:30, with savings on drinks and a mini kitchen/sushi menu. It has a martini section and its customer-favorite mixed drink, a Soju Cocktail, on the regular bar menu.
At City Center, Hayashi is surrounded by offices that attract a lunch crowd. Marriott City Center refers guests and conference attendees to them, as well.
“Hayashi is one of my favorite restaurants,” Newport News Mayor McKinley Price, says. “Great food, great atmosphere, great service.”
Of Hayashi’s 28 employees, there are four hibachi chefs, two kitchen chefs and two sushi chefs. Sean’s wife also works with him at the restaurant.
“Julia is really great with customer relationships and does a lot to make them happy,” Sean says. “When you run a restaurant, money is not the main concern. Customer relationships are. Generations of customers continue to come here from Williamsburg because they were missing me, and they love Julia,” he adds with a smile.
A live jazz band performs every Thursday from December through June. And Hayashi offers patio dining when the weather permits.
Sean values the large number of local military personnel. “They’ve been exposed to other cultures and their food,” he says.
For Sean, now is a time for settling in after five years of growth, including a City Center expansion.
“I want to focus more on this business, customer relationships and what we can give back to the community,” he says.
Hayashi gives back by contributing its work and food to local fundraisers including the Virginia Peninsula FoodBank, the American Cancer Society and March of Dimes.
Hayashi won Coastal Virginia’s Best of 2017 Reader’s Choice Award.
Lenny and Julia live in Newport News. Their son, Jonathan, is studying medicine at University of Virginia, and their daughter, Amanda, graduated from Boston University with a degree in international business and marketing.
Today, Sean is letting go of his
20-year workaholic habit, which always kept him at the restaurant.
“When my kids were growing up, I took summer and winter breaks to travel the East Coast from Florida to Boston with them,” he says.
Now that their children are grown, he and his wife want to travel west. Until then, he finds great joy in Hayashi’s loyal clientele.
“When a customer comes here, eats and says ‘I had a great time, I had great food, I’ll be back’ and they come back? That’s the happiest moment,” Sean says. “How could you ask for more?”
TO THE POINT
Hayashi Sushi & Grill
Address: 111820 Merchants Walk, Newport News, VA 23606