It could be said that things have come full circle for former Marquee Theatre general manager Donny Johnson.
Previously a professional bass fisherman and full-time angler, the longtime Mesa resident pivoted to the entertainment industry over the past several decades. He views working at the Electric Ballroom as a sort of entry point, and then in 1995 he launched his own music bar, the Bigfish Pub. After running the joint for about a decade, he took a job at the Marquee Theatre. But last year, the pandemic hit — and he began to rethink things.
Now, he’s back in business for himself, having recently hit the road in his Rockin Rollz Lobster & Sushi mobile culinary venue. The venture incorporates his two backgrounds: In the trailer is a seafood operation with a menu ranging from lobster rolls and tacos to poke bowls and sushi, while the rear is equipped with a stage for performances.
“The whole idea was to do something unique, something that had never been done before, and still — I searched all over the internet — I cannot find any sushi trucks,” Johnson says. “I can’t find any food trucks or food trailers that offer live music anywhere, so it was really my own idea, and it was my concept, and there we are. So far, it’s just been amazing. The response has been unbelievable.”
Relationships are fundamental to Rockin Rollz. Johnson’s girlfriend Katie McAtee is his business partner, and his longtime friend Ricky Gonzales is the sushi chef. Johnson says he has known the latter for 25 years, some of that time spent as on-and-off roommates.
“Really talented guy,” Johnson describes Gonzales. “When it comes to sushi, (he is) really smart, knows a lot of stuff about it, and he was the culinary trainer at Kona (Grill). … But he also cooked for the Diamondbacks and he’s cooked for some other places. I met him when he was at Ichiban, which was on University and McClintock. … It’s where everybody went for sushi back then. It was a big party spot.”
The two spoke about opening their own place with live music, Johnson recalls, but life got in the way. Busy with a demanding position at the Marquee — at one point he recalls the venue booking 180 shows a year, not to mention the late nights working and the strain on his dating life — Johnson admits “it never happened.”
But last year, when COVID-19 hit, things changed. Isolating at home with McAtee, sitting out on their patio gazing at the pool over drinks, Johnson says she asked, “Do you really want to do this at 60, or would you rather have a little fun and do something you really want to do for your next five or six years before you decide to retire?”
His response, inspired in part by McAtee’s home state of Maine and her “amazing” recipes, was they should sell lobster rolls and sushi. Add to that a live music stage and he found a way to combine his two interests.
“Thus came Rockin Rollz Lobster & Sushi,” he says.
Rockin Rollz’s menu is split into a handful of categories, loaded with a variety of sushi rolls (classic or new style), the poke bowl, lobster tacos and, of course, the lobster rolls. Complete an order by adding chips and a drink.
Johnson doesn’t have to think twice about bestsellers so far. The AZ Rockin Roll — lobster, avocado, cucumber and Japanese aioli topped with shrimp, drawn butter, ponzu and sea salt — is “by far” the most popular of the sushi rolls. But lobster rolls are also selling well, he adds; he recommends eating them cold to get a good sense of the taste.
“We keep it simple,” he says. “Either you get a Connecticut style, which is lobster with (warm) clarified butter, or you get a Katie’s Way, which is cold lobster with this sauce that Katie makes which has (scallions), chopped celery, (Japanese) mayo, salt and pepper and lemon juice.”
But it’s the lobster tacos — lobster, cabbage, pico de gallo and spicy Japanese aioli on locally made tortillas — of which Johnson is most proud.
“I think they’re just amazing,” he says, citing a recent event where “every single person” who tried them raved about how unbelievably delicious they were.
“So, I know we’re doing something right,” he says.
Perhaps that “something” is that the seafood is fresh — he says the product is “tasty” and “really, really good” — and the brioche rolls are imported from Paris. Or maybe it’s that Johnson and his team spent time working on the menu, doing trials and inviting friends over to try ideas, to ensure they got the recipes right.
“The whole idea was to put out something that everybody liked,” he says.
Johnson is first to admit the idea of eating sushi from a truck may on its surface seem a little suspect. That’s why he says he wanted Rockin Rollz to be transparent — literally. He says he doesn’t like being unable to see inside food trucks.
“When I designed the truck, I looked at it like this: Would you go into a Circle K and buy sushi? No. Now, if they had a sushi counter at a Circle K and you watch the guy make your sushi, would you buy it? Maybe. … It’s perception. It doesn’t mean it’s any better or any worse, but the whole thing about watching a guy make your sushi, I think, is ultra important,” he explains.
“So, when I designed this, I put a window right in front of where Rick was going to be, and I wanted people to sit there and watch him make our sushi so he could talk to them. If they had questions, they could ask him and he could answer them. I try to ease people into the fact that you’re getting sushi off a truck — or trailer.”
Johnson says going mobile, as opposed to running a brick-and-mortar restaurant, allows him to take the food and music directly to the customers — and the performers help Rockin Rollz stand out from the crowd.
“I’m not a restaurant person. I’ve never been a restaurant person,” he admits. “I used to own the Baseline Pub on Baseline and McClintock, and we had a kitchen that my mom ran. I knew nothing about it. I still don’t know anything about the restaurant business, but I do know this: what people like and what they don’t like. I know that that perception is really, really important, especially when it comes to sushi or fresh fish.”
Rockin Rollz Lobster & Sushi
Find scheduled locations on Facebook and Instagram @rockinrollzlobsterandsushi