A line wound down the stairs of the Grille every Thursday during the fall semester, as students waited for their lunch of the day — a box of sushi. While the sushi was briefly available on the meal plan as part of the college’s efforts to reduce the lunch rush in dining halls, sushi has been a staple available to purchase in the Grille for several years.
Behind this popular sushi operation is sushi chef John Maru, founder of Sushi Maru. In the Freeman International Center kitchen, Maru works with a partner and three part-time student workers to make an average of 150 sushi boxes a day, distributed in Crossroads, MiddXpress and the Grille.
Maru is in the kitchen making sushi at 6 a.m from Monday to Friday.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the college added meals at the Grille to the meal plan to spread students out during meal times. Thursday lunches included one sushi box per student, quickly becoming a popular alternative to long lines in dining halls. To meet demand, Middlebury bought 500 sushi boxes to serve at the Grille, and Maru stayed as late as 2 a.m. on Wednesday nights to ensure the freshness of each roll. Each sushi box contains a sushi roll, a Makuni leaf garnish, pickled ginger and a dab of wasabi.
Originally from Burma, Maru arrived in Middlebury in fall 2018 to work for Sushi with Gusto, the college’s hired sushi business at the time. Maru was stationed at Crossroads Café where he made fresh rolls for students each day. In 2019, Middlebury ended its contract with Sushi with Gusto, and Maru faced the possibility of moving with the company, but he was reluctant to leave.
“Not every customer is the same, and I know what the customers here, the students, want for their sushi,” Maru said. “I wanted to stay at Middlebury and keep serving the students here.”
Maru decided to start his own sushi business at the college, but the process was harder than he had anticipated.
“It was my first time doing my own business, so everything was new to me, and we almost didn’t make it. Everything is new; I am new to the U.S. and new to businesses, so it was very hard for me,” Maru said.
Maru opened Sushi Maru in fall 2019 after securing supplier approval, insurance and a license from the Vermont Department of Health. Without a third party company, Maru had more flexibility in selecting ingredients and experimenting with sushi options.
“Under Sushi with Gusto, everything was limited and with strict regulations. Now that I have my own business, I can do more,” said Maru. “I hope people will be satisfied by my sushi because I make it with love. I use clean, fresh ingredients. I add more quantity so students can be full with just one box of sushi.”
When students evacuated campus in spring of 2020, Crossroads Café Manager Laura Chang ’19.5 started a GoFundMe to help Maru and his family during the pandemic when the college temporarily stopped retail and food operations.
“I started the GoFundMe for him because we were all told to evacuate the campus after Covid became a lot more serious and prevalent in the US,” Chang said.
The fundraiser exceeded its initial goal of $2,500, ultimately raising a total of $5,671.
When the college reopened, Maru was grateful that he could serve sushi to the students again and said the generosity he received during the pandemic motivated him.
“I’m not only looking at the profit,” Maru said. “I want to give back to the students who have done so much for me.”
Maru has expanded his business to the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op and hopes to one day serve sushi at a sit-down restaurant.
“I love serving people. I always think: what can I do to serve people? And food is my way to do that,” Maru said.