Dubuque restaurant prepares for sizable expansion

A Dubuque restaurant revered for its Japanese cuisine will undergo a major expansion.

A project at Ichiban Steakhouse & Sushi Bar, 3187 University Ave., will double its seating capacity, increase parking options and add eight new hibachi grills. A city-issued building permit indicated that the 2,400-square-foot expansion has a total construction value of more than $915,000.

Co-owner Guang Ming “Sam” Chen spoke to the Telegraph Herald through a friend who outlined the newspaper’s questions and then relayed Chen’s answers.

Chen said the upcoming expansion will allow Ichiban to meet demand and provide better customer service.

“We do not have enough seating,” he said of business before the COVID-19 pandemic. “We always have lines on the weekends. Some people would have to wait a long time, and some people would leave.”

Seating capacity will grow from about 90 to 180. The eatery will also move its sushi bar and redo its decor.

Chen estimates that Ichiban will employ about 30 workers following the expansion. It currently staffs 11, though that number is lower than usual due to the pandemic.

Work has begun on the building’s foundation and firewall, but the crux of the project will unfold later this year.

Chen said he hopes the expansion will kick off in late spring or early summer. Once work begins, owners expect it will take four to five months to complete.

“With the unknown factors of COVID and also trying to get labor and materials, it keeps extending the timeline,” he said.

The restaurant is currently open for carryout. However, it will be forced to close entirely when the expansion kicks into full gear.

Chen and his wife, Yi Mei “Cindy” Chen, who co-own the restaurant, have seen the business come a long way.

Sam Chen left China and came to the U.S. as a teenager, according to a previous TH article. He honed his culinary skills at a Galena, Ill., restaurant before moving to Iowa.

The Chens opened Ichiban in 2013. Sam Chen admitted that the eatery’s popularity has surpassed his expectations.

“I thought business was going to be good,” he said. “It has gotten even better over the years. I am very surprised it grew as quickly as it did.”

Ichiban’s growth comes at a time when most eateries are in decline.

Jessica Dunker, president and CEO of Iowa Restaurant Association, said restaurants statewide have seen revenues decline by an average of 33% during the pandemic.

She expects that around 20% of Iowa restaurants — or 1,000 eateries — will permanently close because of COVID-19 impacts.

“Not many restaurants have the capital to do an expansion,” she said. “Most of them have burned through their reserves to get through 2020.”

Sam Chen is confident that the renovation will pay off in the end.

“I trust my food,” he said.