Shabu celebrates 20 years of freestyle asian cuisine on Main Street

PARK CITY, Utah — As Shabu, the beloved Main Street restaurant, celebrates its 20th anniversary, owners and brothers Bob and Kevin Valaika share insights into their journey, the evolution of their dining concept, and what the future holds for this Park City fixture.

Kevin and Bob, with business and culinary school backgrounds, respectively, both tried their hand at the “real world” after school. In 1989, though, they decided to go skiing for a season… and the rest is history.

Celebrating 20 years on Feb. 4, Kevin extended a heartfelt thanks to their loyal customers, recalling Shabu’s humble beginnings in a tiny space in the Main Street Mall. He recalled, “Our first location was in an abandoned mall on Main Street. When Mrs. Fields Cookies went bankrupt, the mall was empty, and we got the cheapest rent we could find. We rented by the hour at first. We had a private cheffing business before we started the restaurant. Then, one day, we were sitting around and said, ‘We should turn this room into a restaurant.'”

The brothers likened their start to making a movie for Sundance. They didn’t have a million-dollar investor. They got second mortgages, put everything on credit cards, and did it on their own.

Bob, Shabu’s executive chef, coined the term “freestyle Asian cuisine” as a nod to Shabu’s ski town roots. He sees it as an opportunity to “not so much pinpoint a certain type of cuisine,” allowing them to blend different influences and techniques. The restaurant’s culinary direction was heavily influenced by Bob’s training under Nobu Matsuhisa, who is renowned for his attention to food detail and professionalism.

Reflecting on challenges, Kevin discusses navigating the recession, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the competitive landscape of Park City’s dining scene. Despite these hurdles, they have seen remarkable employee retention and growth, with many former staff members going on to open their own successful ventures. Ever heard of Sammy’s Bistro? Yeah, Sam worked for Shabu for years before starting that “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” success story.

Bob adds, “One of our mottos is ‘You got to be a ripper skier to work at Shabu. We’re the Shabu Shredders.” In fact, Shabu just started selling a Japanese lager that SaltFire, a local microbrewery, is producing for them called the Shabu Shredders Freestyle Lager. Bob wants staff members to “enjoy the mountain and come to work with smiles on their faces.”

Bob attributes the restaurant’s longevity to “consistency in the food… and the type of ambiance that we give off.” He highlights the importance of their staff’s loyalty, noting that some employees have been with them since the beginning. This sense of family and commitment to quality has been central to Shabu’s success.

Responding to evolving dining trends, Kevin elaborates on how they’ve turned the concept of fine dining “on its head” by combining great music, freestyle food, and a laid-back atmosphere, devoid of the traditional white tablecloths (which, by the way, disqualifies them from ever receiving Michelin stars).

When asked about their favorite dishes, both brothers were quick to mention longstanding menu items, such as the Hot Rock and Miso Glazed Cod.

Looking to the future, Bob stated, “A future looks like time with our family.” While many have suggested franchising, the brothers express little interest in this, focusing instead on maintaining the unique charm and quality of Shabu in Park City.

As Shabu looks forward to the next chapter, Bob and Kevin Valaika remain committed to their original vision of offering an exceptional dining experience grounded in quality, consistency, and a deep appreciation for their patrons and the vibrant Park City community they call home.

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