We opened some doors

A few more months have flown by and it's brought a raft of openings for us! For our Japanese-influenced salad bar, Shinkansen, we opened in two more locations: United Square in Novena and 100 AM mall in Tanjong Pagar. Since Shinkansen is a new concept for us, I felt that the faster we could put it in front of people, the quicker we would gain market recognition. The salad and healthy food area is a tough battleground though! I need to be clearer with what Shinkansen offers (create-your-own salad, rice, quinoa, or soba bowls using a mixture of Japanese and Western ingredients).

Japanese salad bar Shinkansen at 100 AM in Singapore's Tanjong Pagar. Additional locations in Raffles Place and Novena.

On October 13 we also opened another branch of Standing Sushi Bar. It's located at Income @ Raffles, which is the building formerly known as Hitachi Tower. I suppose one could view it as a return to Raffles Place as the first branch of Standing Sushi Bar was at One Raffles Place (formerly known as OUB Centre... I guess with all the development there's lots of 'formerly known' places). The new SSB is located at:

16 Collyer Quay
02-02 Income at Raffles
Singapore 049318

It's the first time I've used a designer for Standing Sushi Bar, and it definitely looks better than the other branches. I suppose my background in information technology and Microsoft Excel didn't translate into gorgeous restaurants! So it's definitely great that Wynk Collaborative applied their design chops to SSB. (See their site for more photos of the new Standing Sushi Bar).

Standing Sushi Bar at Income at Raffles. Located right by Raffles Place MRT.

Now that these places have opened, it's time to buckle down and commence the real work! We need to make sure that people are aware we exist and when they come that they will have a delicious and positive experience. For the latest Standing Sushi Bar, we're making it more of an izakaya and bar at night with a few Japanese cocktails, a good selection of sake, shochu, and umeshu, and also Japanese craft beer and $5 Asahi to wet your whistle. Food-wise we have a big menu of $5 bites at night and also will be introducing an awesome omakase soon.

I'll have to dedicate a different entry for the new Standing Sushi Bar!

I could use a drink...

Tanuki has finally opened and thank goodness it's a bar since I could sure use a drink.

We're well into our soft-launch period and it's been great receiving feedback from the folks that have dropped in.  We need to tweak our menu to make a better delineation between what the Japanese items are versus the "fusion" ones and also which dishes are good for sharing and which are meant as individual entree size.

Staff is trained up, bar is stocked, the point of sale machine is finally working (on the first night it completely failed... definitely Murphy's Law), and the chefs are able to consistently execute the food items well!

So what's next... time to start beating the drums and make people aware that we exist.  We're also adding more items to the menu and gearing up to offer some lunch sets for the weekday office crowd.

Come on in, have a drink, and enjoy the holidays!

Introducing Tanuki Raw

Three years have passed since throwing open the doors of Standing Sushi Bar.  It’s been a whirlwind of a ride; setting up branches at Queen Street and Marina Bay, opening in Jakarta, Indonesia, and putting in chairs for people to sit.  Three years of sake, sushi, and Japanese food.  It’s been heartening to see all the support from you all (yes, dear reader, I make the assumption that if you read this blog, you’re a supporter!) and there are exciting plans lined up for Standing Sushi Bar.

I’ve always envisioned Standing Sushi Bar as a modern restaurant serving straightforward tasty Japanese food.  We get a little experimental here and there, but as people would expect, we stick with Japanese.

The idea of a martini paired with oysters and sashimi has been gnawing at me.  There is something delightful in the mix of a crisp, chilled martini cutting through the brine and mineral bite of an oyster, and what’s better at bringing out the pure bright taste of sashimi than a bone dry martini?

I’m excited to introduce Tanuki Raw.  Inspired by the playfulness and affability of Seattle institutions such as the Walrus & Carpenter and Emmett Watson’s Oyster Bar, along with cocktails of yesteryear from ultra-hip Williamsburg’s Maison Premiere and Manhattan’s Mermaid Inn, Tanuki Raw focuses on delivering classic drinks exceptionally well combined with fun inventive food in a welcoming spot.

Tanuki is a mythological Japanese creature.  A playful trickster fond of pranks endowed with shapeshifting ability and a set of really big balls.

We’re opening late next week and I can hardly wait.

Learn more about Tanuki Raw on Facebook
Say hi to @tanukiraw on Twitter
Visit www.tanukibar.com

How do I hire staff?

I know, I know… I am always writing about staffing woes.  I’m sure the three readers of this blog are tired of reading about this topic, but I think it’s a reflection of what one of the biggest worries is when it comes to running a restaurant – you’ll always be worried about staffing.

Anyway, Standing Sushi Bar is expanding!  We’re heading to Orchard Road in late September and will be launching a new concept (so not called Standing Sushi Bar but something like xxxx by Standing Sushi Bar).  I’ll definitely be writing more about this later, but first… staffing!

Since I’m opening a new restaurant, I need to hire lots of people.  Service manager, chefs, service crew, bartenders, dishwasher, etc.  This is no easy task, and with the recent government changes, we are maxed out on our quota for foreigners.

I have put job ads out.  Current ones running are on JobStreet and Gumtree.  Certainly I will be putting more up in newspapers and other internet sites.  The JobStreet ad has been running since July 24 and the Gumtree ads I just put up this morning.

In each ad I state that the positions are for Singapore citizens and permanent residents only.

There have been 25 responses so far.  All are non-citizen and non-permanent resident foreigners from the Philippines and Myanmar.  There have been 0 responses from Singapore citizens or permanent residents.

This is what I state about pay and experience in the JobStreet ad:

“We pay based on experience, and we pay well to secure the right talent.
All levels are welcome!
Must be a Singapore citizen or permanent resident”

I also make it a requirement that the applicant speaks English fluently.  This might be limiting the people that apply.  I have no idea.

So, if you have any advice on how I can tweak my ad or how to find a Singapore citizen or permanent resident who would like to be part of this new concept, let me know!

I feel bad receiving CVs from all these foreigners, many who have great experience in F&B, but I can’t hire them.

Back from Jakarta

Hello dear reader! (If there are any…) Hope you’re having a fine time easing into the weekend and getting ready for Chinese New Year.  I recently came back from Jakarta and wanted to share some experiences from the opening of the first international branch of Standing Sushi Bar.  It’s located in Jakarta at La Piazza Kelapa Gading.

Standing Sushi Bar JakartaSushi Bar Queue

The restaurant was scheduled to open on January 15, so I flew to Jakarta on January 13.  I wanted to familiarize myself with the area and see if there was anything I could help with prior to the opening. 

When I arrived, the restaurant looked like this…

Sushi Bar Jakarta Construction

Let’s say my first reaction was to ask, “So… are we really opening 2 days from now?  I notice there is no furniture…”

Shortly after that one of the air conditioning units malfunctioned and dumped water all over the floor.  That was exciting.

Well, there’s nothing a 24 hour construction cycle can’t accomplish and thankfully on opening day we had chairs, tables, and functioning air conditioners.  For a bit I thought we were going to have to revert to the original Standing Sushi Bar concept with no chairs!

I’m sure any restaurant owner has the same opening day worry – what if no one shows up?  I was doubly worried since we had done very little advertising of the restaurant in Jakarta.  The main things were the Facebook page, a tie-in with one retail shop, and a banner along the main street.

I guess when the main street is full of Jakarta traffic, that leads to a lot of eyeballs.

Kelapa Gading Circle Traffic

Which thankfully brought in a lot of people on opening day!

Popular Japanese restaurant JakartaJapanese food sushi Jakarta

The mall where we’re in is like an open air shopping plaza; though there are very few retail shops (you can find a ton in the adjoining mall called Mal Kelapa Gading) and instead it’s full of restaurants and cafes.  There is also a movie theater on the top floor.  One cool thing is that almost every night they have a live band playing on the outdoor stage.  From Standing Sushi Bar’s balcony seating area we get a good view.

La Piazza Plaza

Here’s a daytime view of La Piazza:

La Piazza stores

Plenty of places to get a caffeine fix – Starbucks, J. Co, and Black Canyon Coffee come to mind.  Since there was no internet access in the restaurant yet I was constantly buying coffee so I could use these cafes’ wireless internet.

I’m trying to learn more about the Jakarta sushi scene.  If anyone has any pointers or comments about Japanese restaurants there, let me know!

Until next time!

(Oh, and Standing Sushi Bar Singapore sent a little greeting to the folks in Jakarta)

Jakarta Sushi

Standing Sushi Bar Jakarta

A little background about myself – I grew up in the US, fell in love with computers (and sushi) at a young age, and spent years working for one of the best software companies in the world.  9 years ago I came to Singapore to further my career and since then have encountered many random and great opportunities, of which 2 years ago led me to start Standing Sushi Bar.

Tonight I’m sitting in Jakarta, Indonesia (one of those countries which most Americans are scared of), feeling too excited to sleep.  Six hours from now I’ll get dressed and head to La Piazza to witness the opening of Standing Sushi Bar’s newest branch.

I was thinking about how SSB now employs over 60 people.  When you consider how big a part of someone’s life their job is, and that they’re choosing to spend that time with this restaurant, it’s kind of cool.

Earlier I was at the site; everyone was rushing around to get everything set for the opening tomorrow.  Maybe it was the stress or the unfamiliarity of the environment but I was feeling tired and low-key.  My girlfriend and I sat on the balcony which overlooks the main plaza where a band was playing.  I think they were performing an Oasis song.

View from Standing Sushi Bar La Piazza

She said to me, “We’re in Jakarta because of the restaurant you created.”

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Let’s eat some sushi, Indonesia!  I’m so happy to be here!

Standing Sushi Bar Indonesia team

So you want to start a business?

These days it seems being an entrepreneur is “fashionable.”  With the proliferation of articles celebrating the success of app developers, internet start-ups, and flashy food trucks, it creates an impression that anyone and everyone should get out there and start their own business.

Should they?  Should you?  Should I have?

I came across two blog entries written by Jay Goltz, who is the owner of a few small businesses in Chicago.  He contributes to the small business section of the New York Times and I’ve referenced many of their contributors here before.

From 2009 – Is starting a business brave, smart, stupid, or nuts?

From 2011 – So you want to start a business?

If you’re thinking of starting a business I highly recommend you read the above entries.

Standing Sushi Bar is hiring restaurant staff

Wanted
Sushi Chefs
Kitchen Cooks
Service staff (waiter, waitress)
Bartender
Assistant Manager

Interested parties, please e-mail me with your CV (or description of your experience, if any) at howard@standingsushibar.com.  You may also call 6333 1335 to schedule an interview at our 8 Queen Street location (or just show up any day at 2:30 pm).

Full-time and part-time positions available.

And we’re clear!

Well, 5:40 am.  That can only mean it has been another sleepless night.  I don’t know whether to consider it insomnia or a mind that is trying to process a million worries a minute.  Perfect opportunity to test out the new version of Writer (the tool that I use to write blog entries) that comes with Windows Live Essentials.

So it has been a little over a week since the Standing Sushi Bar at 8 Queen Street has been open. I am cautiously optimistic on how the business is developing.  The dinner crowd has been consistently good (except for this past Saturday, don’t know why) and our lunch has been growing daily.

The construction hoarding for the courtyard canopy at 8QSAM has finally been taken down, much to my relief. With the hoarding up we were basically invisible – it totally blocked our shop from being able to be seen from the street so someone would have to really look hard or already know we’re there. Not the best situation for a new restaurant in the neighborhood!

There have definitely been teething problems, a couple things I remember are the gas not being refilled properly which resulted in us not being able to cook for an afternoon and fiddling with a plug in the bar area that caused the circuit breaker to trip and all electricity shutting down for awhile. We also have a point-of-sale system that seems to control us rather than help us. That’s what I get for always choosing the high-tech options.

One of the biggest changes for me is what I do at the restaurant. At the original One Raffles Place outlet, I’m generally active there – waiting tables, washing dishes, or being the cashier. It’s small and casual so I can jump in and contribute easily. The new Queen Street location is bigger and our manager (Crystal) has created a great system for service and ordering. So I can’t just start helping out without disrupting what’s going on. It makes me antsy not being able to do anything, so I try to hover by the bar and pour beer from the tap when ordered. Can’t screw that up!

Standing Sushi Bar Panorama

An area that I’d like to focus on in the next week is the sake bar. We have over 30 types of sake, a bunch of shochu and varieties of umeshu, as well as the full range of Suntory whiskey.  But here’s what we don’t have that would actually make it easier for people to order any of these things… an alcohol menu!  It would be great to have various sake sets so people could taste the difference between a dry or sweet sake or any of the other characteristics.

On another note, I’ve been following the entries written by Bruce Buschel who also just opened his restaurant (Southfork Kitchen). He’s blogging his experience for The New York Times Small Business section.

Standing Sushi Bar 8QSAM – Opening Sep 27

Finally! Standing Sushi Bar at 8QSAM is opening this Monday, September 27. It’s a much bigger space than the existing One Raffles Place branch and with that additional space we have put in a full sake bar, a robatayaki counter, sushi bar, and a large kitchen. That means an expanded menu!

_69G1032  _69G1466

To celebrate, we’re kicking off a free flow happy hour! From 5pm – 7pm Monday through Friday, enjoy free flow of Asahi beer for 15 SGD. Come check out our new digs and celebrate with a mug or two or ten!

Outside of happy hour, we’ll have a plethora of lunch sets including bentos, donburis, soba, and sushi! For students with school IDs, we have special sets as well at student-friendly pricing!

Standing Sushi Bar 8QSAM details:

8 Queen Street
Unit 01-03
Singapore 188535
11:00 AM – 10:30 PM daily
+65 6333 1335
eat@standingsushibar.com

Located just outside of the Bras Basah MRT Queen Street entrance. Nearest parking at Hotel Royal or the SMU Administrative building.

Thanks for all the support that has helped make this second branch a reality!

O citizens and permanent residents, where art thou?

So now I own two restaurants. The existing branch at One Raffles Place and a brand new one at 8 Queen Street. The first restaurant is open, the other is not.

While the renovations for the new restaurant are complete, I am unable to open because I simply can not find local service staff.

The restaurant at 8 Queen Street (8QSAM) is under a new company. Singapore dictates a new company must hire only citizens and permanent residents for the first 3 months. After 3 months of paying the Central Provident Fund (CPF), a company is then able to hire foreigners based on a ratio of number of citizens / PRs employed to foreigner employed.

I read about how people are worried that foreigners will be taking jobs from Singaporeans. Maybe in some industries that’s true but in the food & beverage sector it is not.

Last week I placed an ad via CATS (the classified ads system for Singapore Press Holdings). The job ad ran in the Straits Times classifieds over the weekend and also online via ST701.com.

I had 95 people respond to that job ad – 95 people that wanted a service crew position.

Guess how many were Singapore citizens?

ZERO.  ZERO OUT OF NINETY-FIVE.

Two out of the ninety-five applicants were Singapore permanent residents. Only one showed up for an interview.

A few months ago I placed an ad with JobsDB. Similar results – out of something like 230 applicants only 4 were Singapore citizens or permanent residents.

This is crippling for a new small business.

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Suggestion: Rather than require new companies to start off by hiring only citizens / permanent residents, allow them to hire foreigners also. Give a year (or two) for the company to hire enough citizens to accommodate the ratio required by the Ministry of Manpower.

Expansion to 8 Queen Street

Sorry to have such limited updates recently.  We have been short-staffed and that resulted in many hours spent working as a cashier at the restaurant.  When I’m not manning the till, I’ve been focused on the next project – Standing Sushi Bar is expanding!

Our new location is at 8 Queen Street, within the Singapore Art Museum (Contemporary Art Museum location).

In my head I am seeing advertisements and commercials for next-version of products: Bigger! Better! New and Improved!

In a way Standing Sushi Bar at 8QSAM will be all those things.  We have a much bigger space – 3 times the size of the One Raffles Place branch.  With so much space we’ll be able to accommodate all you folks that prefer sitting; there is a section for tables and chairs!  (Is it weird that I have to trumpet this as a restaurant? Smile).  We will also have the sushi bar, robatayaki counter, and a bar for drinks.

The list of things left to do is a mile long. Waiting on CPF registration, food license approval, staff to hire, dishes to arrive from Japan, creation of menu, marketing tie-ups, etc.  I remember a year ago setting up the original branch, well, with the bigger space and larger menu there seems to be an exponential increase in things to do.

I’m thrilled to be opening in the Bras Basah area.  I’ve lived in the neighborhood for over seven years, and it has always struck me as full of potential.  In the past six months the area has really taken off – Bras Basah MRT opened, the old Catholic High has been redeveloped for retail outlets, Food for Thought moved into 8QSAM, and even dblO migrated to Queen Street!  I think the combination of being in the city core while being low-key is great.

I’m looking forward to the new opportunities. Standing Sushi Bar in Raffles Place is a totally different experience than Standing Sushi Bar at 8QSAM – for both me and the customer.  The former is in the fast-paced business district; where diners want to eat fast, eat well, and go.  The latter is a destination restaurant, for people to come to unwind, relax, and relish.

I don’t have an opening date yet but I’m aiming for mid to late August.  There are many ideas bouncing around in my head and I’d love to hear more from the community – happy hour thoughts, opening promotions, how to get the word out about the new location, etc.  Specific blog entries on these coming up soon!

For now it’s back to my dad’s birthday party here in Florida.  No sushi in sight but a whole lot of barbecue waiting to be eaten!  (Including a complete roast pig).

What’s the deal with bank credit card promotions?

Credit card promotions at restaurants are rife in Singapore. I never noticed such promotions in the US, but here every restaurant has a tie-up with a bank where users of that bank’s credit card will get some type of benefit – be it a percentage off the bill, free food based on a certain amount you spend, 1 for 1 deals, etc.

Credit Card

Before Standing Sushi Bar even opened, banks were approaching to talk about tie-ups. I wish I had known more about how to deal with them.

Their value proposition is that they will increase awareness of your restaurant by including the restaurant in their collateral - primarily booklets and web sites that list all the venues that have deals with them and what the promotion is.

Since I was a soon-to-open restaurant, I figured that any awareness would be good.  UOB is the bank best known for their restaurant tie-ups so when they approached me I signed on – offering discounts and a 1 for 1 omakase promotion to stimulate the dinner crowd.

The 1 for 1 omakase promotion was popular.  It helped bring new people to the restaurant that would normally not eat dinner in the Raffles Place area.  However a 1 for 1 promotion is hard to stomach, financially.

One of the awareness vehicles that the banks tout is that they will create banners and table tents with the credit card promotion that you’re supposed to place all over the restaurant.  They pitch this to you as if it’s a good thing.

To me, a bank / credit card promotion should bring in customers from outside the immediate area. One of the advantages of a restaurant in Raffles Place is that the foot traffic is incredible – people will discover you and try you out regardless of promotions.

So a promotion should convince people that aren’t in the Raffles Place area to venture into the CBD and try out the restaurant.  If a customer is already in the restaurant and has come of their own accord, the bank tie-up hasn’t contributed anything but the customer still gets the discount and then the restaurant makes less money without getting the benefit of the increased awareness by the bank promotion.

Tips on dealing with the banks:

- ASK FOR COMPENSATION

As a restaurant owner you’re losing money with every discount that you give. The bank is trying to increase the amount of times a customer will use their credit card (thus putting money into the bank’s pocket) by your restaurant’s promotion.

When negotiating with the bank, they should give you something tangible in return.  While there is value in being included with their collateral and advertisements, you need to ask for money, subsidy, or an actual item.  For example you could say to the bank, “I will do this 1 for 1 promotion with you if you subsidize the promotion by giving us 2,000 SGD.

- TIE UP WITH THE BANK THAT PROCESSES YOUR CREDIT CARDS

You may be paying 2.5% of the total bill for every Visa transaction.  If you partner with the bank that handles your credit card transactions they may be able to adjust the percentage rate to something lower.

- SET DEADLINES ON THE PROMOTIONS

Open-ended promotions are confusing for everyone. Make it clear when promotions will expire.

- EXAMINE THE BANK’S CUSTOMER DEMOGRAPHICS

Ask for the demographics of the bank’s credit card holders. Are they the right market for your restaurant? If a bank’s credit card is popular with students and you’re targeting professionals, you’re not going to want to promote to that bank’s credit card base.

- MEET WITH A FEW BANKS BEFORE COMMITTING

In the opening weeks, a flood of banks will meet with you and try to sign you to exclusive (i.e. can only sign with them or must give them the best deal) contracts.  Make sure you’re getting a good deal from the bank (i.e. what they will subsidize) before committing. 

- TARGET YOUR PROMOTION

Wait a couple weeks and see where you think you need help. For example, at the sushi bar we get a healthy lunch crowd – there’s no need for me to run a promotion to increase customers during lunch time. However we get few customers during the late afternoon and happy hour times. So with Standard Chartered I created a promotion that targets the happy hour crowd.

 

From sushi to Peking duck

It has been awhile since I’ve written an informative entry on this blog. Straying a bit from my goal of sharing information for others who are interested in starting a small business or taking a step into the food & beverage industry.

I have a few topics lined up. Waiting for some time to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) and write. It’s surprising how taxing the sushi bar and Microsoft both can be. I’m on an airplane now, winging my way to Beijing for a week full of meetings as well as presentations at a customer conference. Perhaps with a little luck I won’t have to go the whole time without sushi and I’ll stumble upon a Japanese restaurant in the Chinese capital.

I think it’s a good sign that even though I literally eat sushi for multiple meals a day, I often still find myself craving it. My own personal “Super Size Me” substituting greasy Mcdonalds for fresh raw fish.

A haiku:

Three months of sushi
Fish and rice play in my mind
All the time, happy

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While I’m gone from the sushi bar, we’re implementing some changes to the menu. More sets! More variety! The lunch sets have proven to be popular so we’ll offer additional ones as well as the option to add on some sashimi. That is my goal! For everyone to fall in love with sashimi! Much as Microsoft has touted a PC on every desktop (that was their old vision), I shall make it my mission to put sashimi in every person’s stomach.

We’re also changing the glass boards to feature our specials that come in from Japan a few times a week. Currently our glass board and the printed menu display the same information. Customers have had to ask the chef what the specials were and during the lunch rush it’s hard to communicate. Re-designing the printed menu in conjunction with the glass boards will allow us to constantly display what new items we have. I’m excited about this; I feel people will enjoy seeing so many new types of sea creatures and sushi. It should be fun for the curious and adventurous diners! (One special that we just got… wagyu beef! A thick slice placed on a small bed of sushi rice and then lightly flamed… HEAVEN).

Basically I’m thinking about how to encourage folks to try out new dishes. People are happy and comfortable with salmon (sake), tuna (maguro), eel (unagi), prawn (ebi), and yellowtail (Hamachi), but there is a world of fish out there to explore. I will admit that some are an acquired taste. :) (Cod fish sperm, anyone? We had it two weeks ago).

Speaking of adventurous dining, my plane is about to land. And if there’s one culture that eats even more variety than the Japanese, it’s probably the Chinese. :)

A few weeks in…

It amuses me.  Every day I wake up (if I’ve slept) and am amazed that the sushi bar is still open.  I wonder if entrepreneurship is supposed to feel like lightly managed chaos. Nudge here, massage there, point the ship in the right direction, and then hold on while it sails through a hurricane.

It is certainly exciting.

The rush to get the store open on August 19 was crazy. The week leading up to it, while I was in Seattle, was one of the most tiring of my life. 8:30 am – 8:00 pm meetings and work dinners for Microsoft and then phone calls about the sushi bar coming in overnight (time zone difference).

Bellevue, WA

I thought once the store opened I would feel tremendous relief. A moment to pause and think, “Wow! The store is for real now!”

That relief lasted for a little less than 30 seconds.  And then an exponential increase in stress followed.

It’s probably common for every new business owner to go through this – when I’m in the sushi bar, as I look around, what gets my attention are the operations and processes that can be improved. I gloss over what is going well.  “Did we give that person a napkin? How long have they been waiting for their food? Can they understand the menu? Do they know we have a lunch set? Why are we running out of miso soup bowls? Are there enough soy sauce packets for the takeaway? Are we tracking orders properly?” Etc.

Salmon Belly Sushi

A positive customer experience is everything. Some of they key things that make up the customer experience are:
- Quality (freshness of the fish, authentic ingredients, etc.)
- Taste (does the high-quality stuff combine to make a great taste)
- Price (do people consider us expensive? cheap? I’m aiming for good value)
- Service (do they feel welcome at the restaurant? Taken care of?)

Highest priority for me is quality – specifically the quality of the fish and the ingredients we use for the sushi rice.  If we can nail the quality, taste will follow automatically – when it comes to sushi you’re getting the flavor of that fresh fish.  Sure, our chef Roy has created original sauces that complement the fish very well but at the end of the day it’s all about how fresh that fish is.

I suppose I’ll write this stream-of-consciousness as various memories pop into my mind.

It’s ‘amusing to think about opening day.  For reasons I don’t remember, I had decided not to have any printed menu.  I thought we’d use the big black glassboards as our menu.  So we wrote all the different sushi on the board as well as our cooked food items.

Glass menuboard

You know what that led to?  Utter confusion. Imagine a glassboard just full of text – and not even English text at that.  We used a lot of the Japanese names (i.e. maguro for tuna) and it was probably overwhelming for customers to come in and see all those foreign words on the board.

Quick learning – people like pictures and people need a menu to hold and focus on.  On that first day it was confusing enough for new customers to stand and eat. I’d watch them stand outside, look at our menuboard, scratch their head, realize there are no seats, and then walk off.  I guess I went over the line in how much change a diner can accept.

So I booted up trusty Excel and whipped up a menu and threw some pictures on the back of it explaining what nigiri, gunkan, donburi, etc. are.  That helped alleviate a lot of confusion.  (Note – these menus are temporary, we’re getting some nicer ones made up as soon as we settle on our regular sushi offerings).

Recommendation: Find a good copy / printing shop and become friends with the owner. A new business is going to be printing out all kinds of things at the start. Flyers, menus, ordering sheets, etc.  Sadly throwing a lot of those away as things get tweaked and re-printing becomes necessary.

Marketing

In our “Web 2.0” (or are we already in 3.0?) world a recent buzz phrase is “social media marketing.” Twitter, Facebook, blogging, user-generated content (reviews, blog entries, Digg likes, etc.) all combine to create an online reputation for any entity, be it a person or business.

I don’t really care about that. :)  But! I do enjoy using aforementioned tools as a way to hear from people as well as share my thoughts and experiences on what is going on.

I’m active on Twitter, have a Facebook fan page, and you’re reading the blog.  Also happy that if someone searches for ‘standing sushi bar’ on the internet, the restaurant shows up in the top few links.  What’s funny is while I have these interactive web elements going on, the traditional website is neglected. It’s at www.standingsushibar.com but is still under construction; right now it’s pretty much an information dump.

Anyway, when the restaurant opened, I did a Twitter promotion where if someone said they were from Twitter while paying, they would get a 20% discount (that promotion has since ended!  But I’m trying to brainstorm some new ones that would be interesting to the Twitter crowd). Surprisingly that got a lot of traction.  I didn’t keep count, but there would be at least 5 customers a day that mentioned the promotion… and interestingly some of the people weren’t even Twitter users.  They were told by someone on Twitter about the discount though.

Facebook Fanpage 

I also did a similar promotion telling people to mention the Facebook page, but few customers did.  Twitter definitely spread the word more.

What I particularly liked was one Saturday late afternoon when a guy came in and ordered sushi.  He was the only customer at that time, so we started chatting.  Asked him what he was doing in the Raffles Place area on a weekend – he said he had heard about the restaurant from the internet and while his girlfriend was out shopping on Orchard he thought he’d come and check it out.

That was awesome to hear.  A new customer who heard about us on the internet (whether it was blog, Twitter, or Facebook is irrelevant) and thought it interesting enough that they would go to the normally quiet Raffles Place area on a Saturday to eat at the restaurant.

Traditional marketing

Before I trumpet the success of internet marketing, it pales in comparison to good, old-fashioned, basic tactics. (Note – this is in the context of a standalone restaurant… if you were a major corporation certainly internet marketing is scalable cost-effective way to reach people).

One of the issues I faced was we were throwing a lot of choices at the customer. They would see the glass menu board, see all the different types of sushi we have, and simply feel overwhelmed.  So we created lunch sets.  I figured for many people they can choose from these 3 sets (instead of creating their own via a la carte ordering) and also save some money as our sets are cheaper than ordering per piece.

Set A: 7 pieces nigiri, some maki, and miso soup (12.80 SGD)
Set B: 3 handrolls and miso soup (9.80 SGD)
Set C: Special donburi and miso soup (11.80 SGD)
(Items in set change on a daily basis depending on chefs’ whims)

Sushi set
(Photo of our lunch set from jiatlormee.blogspot.com)

Customers who came into Standing Sushi Bar would see our lunch sets highlighted on the menu.  Definitely our most popular order.  It’s affordable, you get variety, and it’s GOOD.  (And I’m not just saying that as the owner, haha)

Problem is that most potential customers in that area don’t walk in and take a look at the menu. As they walk by they see the mass of text on the menuboards, the colorful fish, no chairs, and decide that they are not going to give us a try.  That makes me sad.

Solution:

Lunch signboard
(Coral writing the lunch specials) 

I bought a signboard, wrote the lunch specials on it, and put it in the OUB Centre hallway… so all the customers walking by can see we offer these lunch specials.

Result: We doubled our lunch crowd.

I don’t consider us having started any true marketing campaign yet. We haven’t distributed flyers (aside from opening day – right in front of the shop) and we haven’t looked into paid advertising yet.  I’d like to give our operations some time to improve and then I’ll explore how we can reach out to more folks.

Finances

Every business boils down to this – does it make money?

In the first week, we didn’t.  I thought I had prepared myself for this. Plenty of people told me that it takes months for a restaurant to have a profitable or even break-even day.  So I went in thinking, “Ok, let me set my expectations that it will take us time to grow our customer base and we will lose money until then.”

I don’t like losing money.  I think you all can relate to that thought.

So as “mentally prepared” as I thought I was… OUCH.  Rent. Salary. Fish. Cleaning supplies. Pens for the wait staff. Order sheets. Signboard. Uniforms. Phone bill. Internet bill. Electricity bill. Insurance. Etc., etc. I have never spent so much money in such a short time frame.  It makes me think about how I could have run off to a beach in Vietnam and lived the rest of my life out drinking Sai Gon beer and eating pho.

Thankfully things have turned around!

The “losing money” phase was a lot of pressure, and I’d caution anyone in the same situation to avoid making snap decisions or statements based on reaction to dollars being lost.  Long-term healthy gain versus short-term scorched-earth profits.

Fortune Cat
Please help our fortunes grow, standing sushi cat!

Competition

I shall save this topic for another day. I’m surprised that the word that comes to mind when I think about competition is – Fun.  Of course, if I end up out of business because of competitors, I certainly won’t be using that word again.

Customers

As expected, the majority of people eating at the restaurant are Raffles Place professional types.  I mentioned in the 8 Days review that during lunch we’re about 80% men (I think cause they don’t have any concerns about standing and eating).  Every few days or so the demographic flips and we’re all of a sudden full of women.  I have yet to discern the Raffles Place traffic pattern.

This past Monday night we had 10 women eating dinner and only 1 guy!

We’re getting a nice mix of folks.  Originally the whole idea was based on fast-paced lunch crowd, but we are getting a lot of people coming in for drinks in the early evening and then selling out all our dinners!  I actually find this amazing.  For 2 weeks we have had full reservations each night for dinner.  (Admittedly we only have 12 chairs… we started with 8 and have bought more chairs because of the popularity of omakase dinner).  I really couldn’t believe it when this past Saturday we had a full house. Everything else in Raffles Place is closed on Saturday night except us, so the folks eating there on a Saturday are purposely seeking us out.

One of the cool things about the layout of the restaurant (it looks like a bar), is it seems to encourage people to be more open and chatty. It’s fun to watch different groups of customers start talking with each other, and I have certainly met a lot of people at the restaurant.

My favorite customer feedback has been from folks who have never had sushi (or sashimi) before or haven’t had really fresh sashimi.  To their friends, I’d like to say thank you for introducing them to a whole new world of cuisine!!

And speaking of cuisine, it’s Sunday night, I was feeling lazy, and my pizza has just been delivered.  So time to eat in front of the television and take a break from sushi bar thoughts.

Oh… and to all of you that have been to Standing Sushi Bar during these first few weeks of operations: Domo arogato!

Lunch Crowd 

Larger than life logo

During opening week it was a pleasant surprise to get various “Congratulations!” bouquets and messages.  I’d be standing in the restaurant and all of a sudden flowers would show up.  This must be what a girl being wooed feels like. :)

Bright yellow flowers, roses, trumpet-looking petals, all kinds of floral arrangements! One of the bouquets even had apples.

Earlier this week, one of the most bizarre opening day presents showed up.  Courtesy of “Shantika Industries.”

Standing Sushi Bar logo

DSCF0243

I have to applaud Shan and Tika for their creativity.

Shan and Shane 

Speaking of Shan, here he is at Standing Sushi Bar along with Shane (one of his repeat visits).

The restaurant has been open a week now. After I get some sleep I’d like to write down my thoughts on how it went.  Let’s just say I am 3 kg lighter now.

Everyone, eat sushi!

Day 1

It has been a hectic couple days. I’m about to head to SSB for Day 3 but was just browsing through some of the pictures from our opening day.

Pre-opening 
In the morning… pre-opening calm.

Coral
Coral and I. She’s been an instrumental part in all of this… from early February when we were watching TV and she asked me, “Whatever happened to your sushi bar idea? Maybe you should look for available spaces again.” Now she’s the manager!

Lights 
Our very small sign at the top right of the shopfront. It’s a long wooden panel with nothing on the left. Might want to put more stuff up or maybe should leave it as a minimalist sign.

SakaeMgr 
Sakae Sushi is across the hall from us. I chatted with their manager, Doreen, and took her on a tour of Standing Sushi Bar. We have stuff they don’t have, they have stuff we don’t have. We shall do customer exchange and make OUB Centre the new sushi haven!

Kawasan otoro 
Time to get the fish ready! Kawasan prepares a big block of otoro… cutting it into the smaller pieces (netta) that are in the sushi display cases. Mmm… melt-in-your mouth fatty tuna belly.

Rayne 
Rayne is camera shy. I had to snap this one when he turned his head back. He was probably thinking, “As the owner, do you want to take my picture or do you want me to prepare the fish so that we can actually have something for the customers to eat?”

Roy 
Roy has been working in the Japanese restaurant industry for 20+ years. Here he is reassuring me that we will be fine. Peace!

DSCF0194 
A few of our lovely staff: Nicolette, Taryn, and Charlene.  Don’t they just want to make you smile? I have no idea why but every time I say anything to Charlene, she bursts out laughing. Even if it’s along the lines of, “One of you has to play dishwasher for the day since our machine isn’t usable yet.” On a sidenote, Nicolette, Taryn, Roy and Coral have tattoos. This was apparently an unspoken job requirement I was looking for.

Hokkaido Crab 
One of our opening week specials… Hokkaido crab. Massive!

Twitter 
That’s me on my laptop using TweetDeck.

Flowers 
Flower bouquets congratulating us begin to arrive. As my friend Bernard mentioned, he had never seen one guy get so many flowers. I did feel a little funny my name was on the bouquets.

Potato salad 
One of Roy’s specials. I was skeptical at first… potato salad?? But then I ate it. Awesome.

Back of sushi bar 
Behind the sushi bar right before we open.

Elizabeth
Our crew went out to pass out some flyers 30 minutes before opening. This nice young lady got one of the flyers, said she wanted some lunch, and asked if she could eat now. So yes… our first customer was 10 minutes before official opening time. That is a good sign! Thank you Elizabeth for being the first brave soul to eat at Standing Sushi Bar! (though technically I think she got customized take-away so she didn’t eat it there…)

Leon and Jonathan 
The next two customers – from the Microsoft crew! Leon and Jonathan. The latter bringing a little street cred into the shop with his gang sign.

Tamago 
Note the tamago nigiri on the right. It’s one of Kawa-san’s specials. I guarantee you will not have any tamago like it in all of Singapore. Must try.

Serene
Serene dramatically eats in the early evening. One of our first dinner customers!

Sushi action 
Kawa-san begins the sushi action

Handroll and tea 
Handroll anyone? Oh, just a small mention – we have free hot green tea and water for all, so just ask!

Twitterverse
Twitterverse is represented! @amandaxr, their friend, and @alkanphel are standing!

Janice
Janice presents me with the fortune cat. All shops need one of these!

P1000012
Hello fortune cat. I shall nickname you “standing sushi cat.” I am glad you don’t like smoking.

Crowd
Look at how relaxed people are while they are standing and eating. :)  (on a sidenote, I was looking at the line of people outside Sakae yesterday and thinking to myself that the amount of time they’re standing in line to wait to get a seat, they could be standing and eating already…)

DSCF0218 
Shane has been a loyal repeat customer. In the span of 2 days he has eaten 3 times at the restaurant! (And I don’t force him to do that as a condition of our friendship).

DSCF0220 
Friends! Including picky eater Peishan who I was glad to see eat inari and tamago happily. Maybe one day she’ll try out the fish. On an unrelated note, I think Jussi should shave his beard.

DSCF0219 
Long-term planning – we’re already hoping for the next generation of sushi lovers to join us!

And that, friends and neighbors, was day 1.

Wow, this is harder than expected!

5:50 in the morning.  Went to sleep a little past midnight and woke up at 3 am. Maybe it’s from the jet lag… a week in Seattle trying to adjust to Pacific time only managed to screw up my internal body clock now that I’m back in Singapore. I don’t think it’s the jet lag though, I think it’s the sushi bar.

After a month of delays, we’re FINALLY looking at an opening date. It was going to be August 20, but amusingly enough, that falls on the first day of the 7th month.  Hungry Ghost Festival.  Singapore is still a land of traditions and customs, and belief is that opening a new business (particularly F&B) during the 7th month is a bad, bad thing to do.

Okay. I’m not one for such practices but the folks dining at the restaurant may be. I received many unsolicited comments today about the dangers of the August 20 opening date that I’m convinced we need to open on August 19.

There is a lot to do in the next 36 hours. Top on the list – get that food shop license! Without the license my restaurant is just a showroom for people to admire.  We passed the inspection last week, but I still need to submit some paperwork. Spent 2 hours today at their office waiting in line only to be told that I need a copy of Kawa-san’s (our Japanese chef) employment pass. This wasn’t listed on the items that are required for submission. So it’s back to the NEA I go later this morning.

What else… we need to contact all the suppliers we have earmarked to order our fish and foodstuffs from. Then pray that they’re able to live up to what they say in terms of delivery times. Quality we’ve already determined, but when dealing with things like fresh fish and air cargo you never know when things get held up through customs.

Zooey Deschanel 
Random photo of one of my favorite actresses – Zooey Deschanel. I love you. Come stand and eat at my sushi bar if you’re ever here in Singapore. You’ll enjoy it. We will eat salmon nigiri and drink cold sake together. Wait, are you vegetarian?

At some point I need to buy a ton of Coke, 7 Up, and Ice Green Tea. And their “Light” versions.

The Point-of-Sale people will come later today to finish the installation of the machines and hook it up to the computer system. It would be difficult to actually earn money on this venture if I’m unable to take cash and credit cards.

Uniforms and shirts are arriving today. I hope they fit.

Construction hoarding needs to be removed tonight and touch-up work inside the shop needs to be completed.

The take-away people weren’t able to complete our bags on time so I need to figure out what to do for a temporary solution.

No one knows how to use the credit card machine. :)

The chefs have been discussing all the specials and customizations we can do. True beauty of a sushi bar… every piece you order can be customized. Just talk to the chef since he’s right in front of you.  This is leading to minor havoc with creating a static menu. Where do we list the items that we’ll have daily? Where will we put the frequent specials and seasonal items?  All of this needs to get written on the glass boards.  Our printed menus keep changing.

Only one person knows how to operate the dishwasher. (So far – and by operate I mean adjust all the cleaning solutions that have to be poured into the machine so it can work its magic… cleans dishes in only 2 minutes!)

Kitchen equipment people are coming later today to collect a big fat check from me.

We need to buy more paper towels, sponges, and cleaning supplies. Keeping the restaurant clean eats through these materials with a quickness. (I love that line - ‘with a quickness’ – it was from Herbert Kornfeld’s column in The Onion… go read it).

I need to buy a first aid kit in case someone impales themselves on one of our sushi knives.

Printing out flyers for opening day would be a good thing to do. Arranging someone to distribute them would also help.

Similar to the menu, we need to finalize the ordering sheet which is what the chefs will use to keep track of who ordered what.

Did I mention I need to buy a safe?  And re-confirm it fits in the space I want to put it.

The illustrator who is decorating our long wall is a little behind. Need to figure out when he can put his work up. I’m excited to see what he’s going to unveil.

I need to fill out the extra insurance paperwork and submit a cheque.

Tonight and tomorrow morning we’ll continue with staff training.

People keep telling me to prepare a press kit. Need to organize some photographs of our food, the interior, bios of the chefs, concept, menu, etc.

Figure out what the heck this bill I got from some Australian bank is about… I think it’s the link for American Express when they credit my account for card transactions. But we had negotiated no setup cost…

It’s time to submit salaries and use the CPF system soon.  The directions are confusing.

Enough procrastinating. Might as well start the day. I don’t think I’ll fall back asleep.

I am looking forward to a donut from Donut Empire (across from my sushi restaurant).

killer ice cream

Sushi Haikus 7, 8, 9, and 10

Just because I’m in the US doesn’t mean more sushi haikus aren’t going up on the hoardings!  Well, that is if the manager Coral is putting them up.  We had a temporary National Day sushi appreciation poster.

#7
Pink marbled tuna
Sunshine orange ikura
Pearl white hamachi

#8
Come, taste our sake
Shimmery pink salmon or
A glass of rice wine

#9
At night I drink beer
Sake, shochu, yuzu too
And enjoy sushi

#10
What else can be more
Elegantly delicious
Than sushi, my  friend

Pacific Northwest

Did you know in the span of a year, a tuna can swim back-and-forth across the Pacific Ocean multiple times?

I, however, take one plane trip from Singapore to Seattle and am left feeling dazed and battered. Similar to fish after they’re caught, spending 17 hours in a freezing metal tube jam-packed with other people is soul-crushing.

So here I am in the Pacific Northwest.  Needed to come for my regular corporate job.

With about 9 days until the opening of the sushi bar, thoughts of fish, restaurant management, and all-things-related are dominating my mind. I wish I could run off to the quieter parts of Washington state, sit in the sun, and watch salmon skipping upstream.

Being here in Seattle could be good. I suppose it’s important for me to get used to delegation and letting the sushi bar’s manager deal with issues.

I have to admit slight disappointment. I liken it to running a 4 x 100 relay.  I’ve carried the baton the first 3 legs and right before the finish I pass it off rather than seeing it all the way through.

As much as I can, I don’t want the sushi bar to interfere with my regular job.  I’d feel bad if I slacked so… here I am.  Haha, I also need the money from work to fund this little sushi dream.

Almost there…