Evil Katsu: An Unlikely Success Story
By: Jennifer Coco
There are always obstacles to overcome when starting a new business, but opening a restaurant in New York City in 2020 brings quite a few more challenges than just the usual opening-night kinks to iron out. Yet in the face of seemingly insurmountable restrictions and regulations, that is exactly what Chef Chris Wagenlander decided to do when, under the immense pressure of a global pandemic, he and his team created a gem of a Katsu establishment in the East Village aptly named Evil Katsu.
Like thousands of other restaurant workers, Wagenlander found himself without a job in 2020. A former chef at notable establishments like Nobu and Michelin-starred Casa Mono, Chris had a wealth of skill and experience and more free time than he was used to. So, when a friend from his old job approached him with the idea that they open their own place, he eagerly accepted. Undeterred by an environment hostile to new restaurants and the high probability of failure, Chris and co. managed to create a successful business under the most unlikely of circumstances.
Because of COVID-19 regulations, Evil Katsu began as a pop-up restaurant in December of 2020. After early success including a lot of overwhelmingly positive press, the team was eventually able to transform into a brick-and-mortar restaurant in July of 2021. And to what do they owe their success? The answer is threefold, according to Chef Chris. First, the concept was really a dream for Chris who had always wanted to work with Japanese cuisine, “I’ve always loved Japanese cuisine. When I was in college I worked at a Japanese restaurant as a server and that cemented my love for the food.” He and his partner decided to focus specifically on katsu, a Japanese comfort-food made of breaded cutlets, as it was one of their favorite late-night noshes after a late-night shift. Chris’ genuine passion for Japanese food is something you can taste in each of Evil Katsu’s dishes from the savory fried cutlets, to the expertly crafted sides.
Also behind Evil Katsu’s success is a sort of dream-team made up of Chris, his friend-turned-partner Asher Sendyk and his wife, Hai Oliveria. As Chris explains it, Asher is the business-minded one of the group while Hai has a knack for marketing and design. Not only does everyone bring a unique set of skills to the table, but the groups’ close relationship allows for a playful atmosphere that’s welcoming to customers–just take a look at their Instagram to see what I mean.
Finally, and most importantly, the success of Evil Katsu comes down to the quality of its ingredients. Applying fine-dining techniques to humble cuisine, the team at Evil Katsu hand butchers their proteins, breads each item to order, and makes all of their sides from scratch with one notable exception; they use KEWPIE Mayonnaise in their dishes instead of making it in house. When asked about this choice, Wagenlander says, “KEWPIE for us was a no brainer. Not only is the flavor of KEWPIE superior to other mayonnaises, but it was our way of putting a premium product on a premium product.” According to Wagenlander, using KEWPIE was a way to set themselves apart from the competition, “The creaminess and depth of flavor of KEWPIE really added to our sandwiches and made us stand out.” Whatever they’re doing, it’s clearly working–Chris is already talking about expanding. There is a lesson to be had in Chris’ impressive story; When life gives you lemons, make delicious katsu—or something to that effect.