Remember that neon sign of a pufferfish that went through the City Commission? This is that restaurant, though the owner has gone in a different direction.
There's a new sushi restaurant in downtown Ormond Beach, and coupled with views of the Halifax River from its outdoor patio and a dining room covered in black light murals, the owner seeks to bring a unique experience to every person that walks in the door.
Fugu Sushi restaurant owner Kirt Roberts has had a vision for what he wanted from the start, and he never compromised on that. The pufferfish sculpture overlooking the sushi bar played a big role in the ambiance he wanted to create, as well as being the namesake of the restaurant.
“I wanted it to kind of look like a club and the focal point to be the sushi bar, and the fish over the sushi bar," Roberts said. "That’s why that’s lit up the way it is.”
Rest assured — no fugu, or pufferfish in English, is on the menu. But there are specialty sushi rolls such as the "Ormond by the Sea," a King crab California roll wrapped in salmon, and the "Tomoka," a yellowtail fish roll with scallions, cucumber and cream cheese wrapped in spring roll skins.
Roberts, who has been in the restaurant industry for 50 years and is a managing partner at Rose Villa Southern Table, was approached by local developer Bill Jones several years ago with the concept of bringing a sushi restaurant to downtown. At the time, Roberts wasn't interested, but after getting involved with Rose Villa about five years ago and getting to know more about Jones and his vision for Ormond, he changed his mind.
The two began working on building a sushi restaurant in another of Jones' downtown properties, but it wasn't a good fit for what Roberts envisioned. Then, Jones bought the former medical office property at 26 N. Beach St. in 2017, and proposed building a restaurant in the 3,400 square foot building — with an outdoor patio overlooking the river — Roberts agreed.
Two years, a City Commission approval and a pandemic later, Fugu opened its doors on June 30. It is the 25th restaurant Roberts has opened.
“We’ve been very well received, in spite of everything that’s going on," Roberts said.
Last year, the City Commission approved a special exception allowing Jones to place a neon sign of a pufferfish outside the restaurant. Despite the commission's OK, that sign is no longer happening. Roberts said Jones couldn't find a company to build exactly what he envisioned, and while they may still add a small neon sign in the future, for now, the idea has been nixed.
Opening a new business during COVID-19 brought many challenges. Part of his staff, including his executive chef and general manager, were recruited from out of Florida. He brought them in without knowing when they would be able to open, as the pandemic delayed the original plans.
There's also the threat closures by the state, which has already impacted their bar, Roberts said.
“It has been a horror story," Roberts said. "All capital letters.”
But, he's making it work. The outdoor seating on the patio has helped business, and Roberts said the stunning view doesn't hurt either.
“If you’re sitting out there at seven o’clock and you’re looking at that river and the bridge, and the lights are on, and you’re not just blown away by it, then you don’t understand what beauty is," Roberts said. "It just works.”