Meet the trio behind Ashburn’s hottest new takeout restaurant

By Chris Wadsworth
Photos by Astri Wee Photography

When people eat at a Japanese steakhouse or a hibachi restaurant, one of the key elements is the small bowl of pink-ish sauce served with their meal. It goes by a variety of names around the country, such as white sauce or shrimp sauce – but here in Northern Virginia, it’s perhaps most well known as yum yum sauce. 

Yum yum sauce is perfect for dunking a morsel of steak, or chicken, or shrimp fresh off the hibachi grill. And as it turns out, it was also the perfect name for a new restaurant right in the heart of Ashburn. 

Yum Yum Hibachi opened in June 2023 at Ashburn and Hay Roads. Its tiny space was an addition to a historic building that is now a retail space on the southwest corner of the intersection. 

“Ashburn was ideal for many reasons,” said operating partner Ryan Nelson. “We’ve always considered ourselves a family enterprise. All the partners are very close friends. So, it just seemed perfect to be surrounded by families in Ashburn.” 

He opened Yum Yum with two high school classmates, Davis Cooper and Kaveh Safa. The three all graduated from Langley High School in McLean. 

Safa is the owner of Courthaus Social, a popular restaurant in Arlington. Cooper is a lawyer and entrepreneur. And Nelson worked in management for the PF Chang’s brand for a decade. 

Their Ashburn restaurant has a small outdoor patio – but no dining room – and focuses primarily on takeout and delivery orders. It serves up a simple, fast-casual menu of grilled protein bowls. 

Guests choose a base such as white, fried or cauliflower rice. Then they select a main ingredient such as shrimp, chicken, steak or tofu. And then they pile on the toppings – items like broccoli, mushrooms, onions, peppers, sesame seeds, bean sprouts and more.

All three men fell in love with the concept at an early age. 

“The three of us have been close friends since high school,” Nelson said. “Kaveh used to be the master chef for our weekend campouts where meat, rice and vegetables were pretty much the only items on the menu.” 

And the bowls and the flavors have certainly caught on with diners in the Ashburn area. Yum Yum Hibachi was named Best Takeout Food in the 2024 Best of Ashburn competition. 

“We are thrilled,” said Safa. “We put a ton of hard work into creating Yum Yum. It feels great to know that hard work has resulted in something our customers appreciate and enjoy.” 

One of those customers is Stephanie Callaghan. She lives in the Broadlands and is a broker and partner in 15 West Homes, a Loudoun-based real estate agency. As an agent, she is always looking for new restaurants and amenities in area neighborhoods, and she made a beeline to Yum Yum Hibachi when she heard about it. 

“I loved that you could choose to be healthy,” Callaghan said. “You could choose your proteins and your veggies, and the sauces are all yummy. I could put together what I thought was a fairly healthy meal and it was a pretty good price for the huge amount of food you get.” 

She’s been to Yum Yum several times, but still remembers her first bowl with steak and white rice, various veggies and some ginger sauce that she says was “delicious.” She has also tried Yum Yum’s spring rolls, which she described as “light, crispy and tasty.” 

Reviews like this are music to the ears of the restaurant’s three partners, but getting to this point wasn’t always smooth sailing. 

Looking back on the first year, Nelson says things have been mostly positive, but there were a few speed bumps – not the least of which was retrofitting a historic building that Nelson says is roughly a century old. 

“Quite frankly, this building was not meant to be a restaurant. It was a storage space,” he said. “We were dealing with fitting an entire industrial hood system into a space that wasn’t even meant to be air conditioned. We were basically playing Jenga trying to fit the exhaust in.”

Nelson also says the owners underestimated the impact of not having a dining room during the colder months. 

“I would do indoor seating, but not full service,” he said. “More like a Cava or a Chipotle with some tables indoors for people to dine at. Last summer, we were jamming, but in the winter when we took a dip, it was noticeable. Our next location will 100 percent have seating inside.” 

Chalk it up to lessons learned – something anyone who has ever opened a restaurant can identify with. 

And the Yum Yum trio is undaunted. They believe the success of the Ashburn store over the first year has proven that the concept is solid and could be replicated anywhere. They would like to open a second store this year and then two to three stores a year until they have roughly a dozen or more across Northern Virginia. 

The hunt for that next location is already underway. 

“We have looked in Purcellville, the Stone Ridge/Aldie area. We thought about Falls Church, Vienna, Arlington,” Nelson said. “Do we open one in a high population city area where we are just another take-out restaurant? Or do we go the way we did here in Ashburn where we are a destination for the community?”