UNIVERSITY PARK -- Before Kona Grill, an American bistro with Asian influences in the Mall at University Town Center, opened its doors, the restaurant's 100 employees had to try all the dishes on the menu as part of their training.
Because the restaurant has two full kitchens -- one for the regular-menu items and one for sushi -- training is always a big challenge for the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based restaurant chain.
It opens its second Florida location at The Mall at UTC at 11 a.m. Thursday.
"We educate so they can educate the guests," said Kevin Ryan, the restaurant chain's senior training manager. "It is a very unique concept. It is very overwhelming ... Everything is made from scratch. We take a lot of pride in our food."
For the past two weeks, the staff has been learning the menu. But it isn't until events such as Tuesday's soft opening, Ryan said, that it all comes together.
"Until you get actual people in here, you can't re-create that," he said.
With an outdoor patio and bar and a sushi bar in the restaurant, the Kona Grill, located on the east side of the mall, seats about 275 people in the 8,800-square-foot space. The restaurant's interior decoration is modern with a wood accent wall, 800-gallon aquarium featuring more than 200 fish in the center of the restaurant, white decorative squares hanging from the ceiling and blue lighting. Both the regular and sushi bars have barrier-free access and seating and the booths, in addition to both bars, have outlets and USB ports for customers' electronic devices.
Palmetto's Janell Long ate at Kona Grill on Tuesday and said she enjoyed the business-friendly atmosphere.
"It was a really good dining experience," she said, adding that the food was fabulous. "You can taste the flavor."
Long said she plans to come back.
The menu includes jambalaya, lemon-garlic shrimp penne and pad thai noodles as well as ceviche, traditional sushi rolls and Kona specialty rolls, such as the bama roll and shrimp and lobster roll. The desserts are all meant to be shared and made from scratch daily.
"We are trying to be able to offer something to everyone who comes in," said Matthew Lease, the restaurant's general manager.
Lease, who is from Anna Maria Island, said he heard about the restaurant at a general manager convention in Tampa and the restaurant's sushi, vibe and happy hour attracted him to the restaurant.
"I am going to be very pleased to have a restaurant like this in the area and see all of our hard work come to fruition," Lease said. "The satisfaction we are going to see from guests makes it worthwhile."
Kona Grill's happy hour will be the best happy hour in the area, according to Lease. The restaurant will have discounted sushi and appetizers and drinks from 3 to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and a reverse happy hour from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
And the discounted food and drinks for happy hour don't mean smaller portions. All the portions will be the same size and quality as the regular menu, Ryan said. The happy hour menu features half off certain sushi rolls, half off appetizers such as chicken satay and flatbread and drink specials such as a $4 margarita, $6.50 sake sangria and $5.50 featured wines.
For more information, call the restaurant at 941-256-8005.
Claire Aronson, East Manatee/Sarasota reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024 or at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter@Claire_Aronson.