SME Spotlight

Quite exciting (for me). This past Wednesday, May 27, we were featured on the SME Spotlight section of The Straits Times. It feels great to see the past few years of work getting recognized.

Let's hope things keep growing!

Read the article and learn more about how Standing Sushi Bar started, what some of the challenges were along the way, and what some of the future plans are.

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!

Late night ramblings

I can’t believe that Standing Sushi Bar is coming up to its 3 year anniversary.  Where has the time gone?  I can still remember the opening day jitters at OUB Centre.  When was that… back on August 19, 2009?  I was still a Microsoft employee back then with no idea what running a restaurant would entail.

Almost three years later I sit at my desk late at night with a whisky in hand and I think… “Damn, I thought this was going to be easier.”  And I laugh.

The business has lurched from crisis to crisis over and over again.  I have a feeling that anyone in business feels the same about their operation.  There are successes along the way but there’s only a few days of being able to take a breather before something happens to make you want to nip at that whisky bottle again.

At some point I’m going to have to write an anti-entrepreneur post.  You know how university commencement speakers like to make that joke, “Don’t leave!  Stay in school!”  It’s the same thing.  If you’re in a solid corporate job then let me yell out, “Enjoy it!  Heck, milk it!”  Trust me, the “stress” of building a PowerPoint deck because some Vice-President from the overseas headquarters is coming for a visit pales in comparison to figuring out where to find money to pay your staff (note – this was at the early stages of the restaurant, it’s stable now… just in case potential staff are reading this!!).

I like that word… lurched.  I think lots of people like to look back and say they had a plan, they had this map in their mind that took their business from point A to point B.  It reminds me of something I read once; how all super-successful people that get involved with charities think the answer to solving the issue (world hunger, lack of education, etc.) is related to whatever field their expertise is in.

I had a plan too, but that plan obviously didn’t go to… plan.  If it had these words would be written by a corporate communications person who reports to a PR manager who has to e-mail me for my opinions since I would be sipping a margarita while lying in a hammock swinging in the Maldives.  Okay, just kidding, I like writing on the blog.  I just figured that I’d have office staff by now, but I still can’t seem to justify it.

So yes, lurched.  Fumbled, bounced, crashed, whatever words you want to use.  And I don’t mean it in a bad way.  Some stuff works, lots of things don’t.  It’s like those racing video games where you can smack the car into the sides but ultimately you’re always going forward.

So how is that Monday promotion working out?

We have run the 2 SGD Monday promotion for 2 weeks now, and for those of you who come to this blog to see a little “behind the scenes” action, I figured I would let you know how the promotion is going and why I decided to hold it.

It’s no secret in the food and beverage industry that the first half of the week is notoriously slow.  At 8 Queen Street our Monday lunches tend to be popular but dinner is quiet.  I’ve been thinking about how to convince people to come to the restaurant on a Monday night, increase the awareness of Standing Sushi Bar, and spur some of the alcohol sales.

For awhile I was fixated on the idea of 1 SGD oysters.  Personally I love raw oysters and I’ve been to a couple restaurants (notably Cocotte and Seafood Paradise at the Flyer) that were running 1 SGD oyster promotions to draw in a crowd.

Alas I wasn’t able to find an oyster supplier that made it feasible to offer 1 SGD oysters.  Now I realize why these other restaurants had strict rules and only a limited time for the promotion.  At a buck an oyster the loss per oyster is pretty high.

Oh, in case you’re not sure why a restaurant would have such a promotion it’s to get people in the door and then make up for the loss on the promotional item by encouraging the customers to order other non-promotion items.

I shouldn’t have fixated so much on oysters and it was an obvious face-slap moment when I realized that instead of looking for oysters why not just use one of our existing items for the promotion? I thought about which item; admittedly I was a little worried about using salmon sashimi since it’s one of our most popular items, why offer it at such a promotional price?

I decided that instead of being tentative, we should dive in and really aim for giving the customer what they would want.  I tried to put myself in the customer mindset – would 2 dollar salmon sashimi and 1 dollar sake be something I would make a trip for?  Yes!  (Sidenote – I think it’s getting harder and harder to view things through the lens of the customer versus that of a restaurant owner).

To the results!  Definitely exceeded my expectations… of course we’ve only had two Mondays with the promotion so far so we’ll see how it evolves, but currently it’s boosted the sales by 55% compared to the average of previous Mondays.  Guest feedback has been positive, so all in all I think this has worked out well.

Now to brainstorm what we should offer on Tuesdays…

So much for social media in China

Earlier this week a re-run of the show Clickability was aired.  I was a guest on the episode talking about how I use social media to reach out to diners and interested folks for the restaurant.

I just arrived in Beijing where they have blocked access to Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare.  That makes it a little difficult to see what people are saying and whether people are sending requests my way.

Thankfully there are many ways to get around this (VPN, remote desktop, etc.) so it’s not too big of an issue but it’s definitely an unnecessary hassle.

This brings to light one big issue that small businesses need to factor in if they’re going to regularly engage with their customers via these social media channels… is only 1 person in the company able to do it?

At Standing Sushi Bar it’s only me that is handling the Facebook page, the Twitter account, etc.  I started them all because I enjoyed using these tools and talking with people.  Over time it evolved into a big part of how I get feedback as well as business inquiries.  The problem is if I don’t have access to the sites then people end up not getting responses (at least not quickly) and that can lead to dissatisfaction.

Add this to the list of “things to work on…” when we get bigger. Smile

Night Festival 2011

Voyage Night Festival 2011 is taking place this weekend in the Bras Basah area. It’s a collection of exhibits, performances, and installations being held on the museum grounds as well as the SMU campus.  I believe admission to the museums (SAM at 8Q, Singapore Art Museum, National Museum, Peranakan Museum) are free during this period.

Standing Sushi Bar at 8QSAM will also be open until midnight on August 26 and 27 as well as September 2 and 3.  Come get a little culture!

Standing Sushi Bar in the blogosphere

I use blogsearch.google.com to keep on top of what folks are saying about Standing Sushi Bar.  It’s a great tool to find out what people are thinking and how their experience at the restaurant was.  Plus it’s simple to use; I just type in “Standing Sushi Bar” (including the quotes) and if anyone has written about the restaurant, I’ll see it.  Plus they include a date filter so I can see which our the newest entries.

Here are some recent reviews:

Sparklette – “Standing Sushi Bar‘s high quality, fresh and affordable Japanese food has stood the test of time, the standard remaining consistent over repeat visits to the different outlets.”

爱makan – “Attentive and prompt service, easeful atmosphere, economical sets menu and gratifying grubs. Tell me who in the right mind won’t be back for more?”

My World – “If you are looking for somewhere to eat fantasticly fresh seafood, this is the place to go.”

Blurting – “We also ordered fried Yakiudon which was one of the best I've ever had… just when I thought dinner was over, a mixed sushi platter was served. The sushi was good - fresh fish with small amount of rice underneath. The California roll was delicious.”

What’s cookin’ at the sushi bar

Hello dear little sushi blog.  I feel like I’ve neglected you.  What can I say, it has been busy times.  We have been undergoing a lot of change at Standing Sushi Bar.  New menus, new chefs, new ideas.  Multiply it all times 2 since the two branches are essentially different restaurants.

I won’t sugarcoat; things are currently difficult.  Just as the Marina Bay Link Mall branch was clawing its way to success, the flurry of recent news about Japan has affected it again.  The 8 Queen Street location is still hurting from when the Japan incident first happened in March.

SSB-Food-Web-22

Since business is a little slow I have been thinking about how to bring in more customers, especially to the 8 Queen Street location.  Two things I considered were price point and ease of getting the food.  Certainly lowering the price should broaden the customer base and making the ordering process less intimidating should help.  That was the reasoning behind the introduction of the sets during dinner and lowering the starting price to 13 SGD.

I’ve also been thinking about the awareness of the restaurant. Standing Sushi Bar has been in the news and major publications on a regular basis, so I feel like people have at least heard the name.  However awareness of the name is very different from an understanding of what we offer and why a diner should come in. That is something I need to work on – hammering it into people’s minds that we have high-quality food at a very affordable price and one of the largest sake selections in Singapore.

One tiring yet interesting activity that I did recently was putting flyers on the door of every HDB flat in the Queen street area.  Door-to-door walking, I felt like an MP making their rounds.  I used to really dislike flyers but I have to admit that for reaching out to people directly around you, flyers are effective.  And have you met the folks that potter around at home in the middle of a weekday?  Quirky and welcoming.  I was worried they would mistake me for a loan shark runner splashing paint on their door; I was surprised that some people would come to the door and take the flyer and then chat with me about the restaurant.

The next thing I want to focus on is getting the sake bar started.  Currently people are in the dining section but the bar area is under-utilized.  One issue is that we close early at 8 Queen Street; a drinking spot needs to be open later.  Chicken & egg – if there is no one drinking at the bar, do I want to keep it open late?  Or do I need to keep it open late in order to get people to start drinking at the bar?

Chinmi

Those appetizers above go quite well with sake, by the way!

Over at Marina Bay Link Mall we’re also revamping the menu, particularly for dinner.  We need to add more cooked food… the tricky thing is that the open kitchen there is very small and we have to ensure that we don’t smoke out the restaurant.

Finally (thank you Li-En and Sufen who have helped brainstorm this) we are working on starting a delivery service for the Marina Bay Financial Centre, One Raffles Quay, and One Marina Boulevard buildings.  Hopefully I can get that running soon.

How a small Singapore business is impacted by what’s happening in Japan

Let me start by saying that what happened / is happening in Japan is a tragedy. The impact outside of Japan is never going to compare what the people are going through there.  We all understand that and hopefully are helping in any way that we can.

This entry is about how what’s happening in Japan has affected my local Singapore restaurant.

Customers are worried about food from Japan. There is a fear that food has been exposed to the radiation that is leaking from the Fukushima reactors. Regardless whether a restaurant is actually getting its food from Japan, the “mass” are lumping anything associated with Japanese food as potentially dangerous.

Our sales have dropped by half.  From what I’ve heard, many Japanese restaurants are experiencing the same.  Despite daily checks by the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore and the minimized usage of food from Japan, people are still scared.  I can kind of understand it.

These are some of the thoughts I’ve had the past week:

  • Food supply. We used to get a lot of our fish and ingredients from Japan. Now we’re faced with a situation where people don’t want to eat food from Japan. Do I immediately stop serving food from there?  Even though it’s still deemed safe?
    • What I’ve decided – I was very worried about screwing over our suppliers who are providing food from Japan; we’ve been buying things from them for over a year and I’m sure they’re just as worried as I am about the situation. However this is a business and I can’t keep buying ingredients that no one will want to eat.  Instead, we contacted the suppliers to see what foodstuffs they had on hand which originated before the quake. For the items that we could stockpile (i.e. freeze and keep), we bought as much as possible. It’s a small gesture but hopefully it helps the suppliers have a little breathing room as they figure out what to do next.
    • For everything we can’t stockpile, we have switched to non-Japan items.
  • Communication – I feel weird about broadcasting “No food from Japan served here!”  I feel that’s simply feeding the irrational fear which is preventing people from eating at Japanese restaurants.  At the same time, I recognize that however irrational a fear may be, if a large amount of the population is feeling it, I better address it.  This blog entry is kind of an attempt at that.  A weak one, admittedly.
  • Former staff – Kawa-san and some close friends of mine that have helped with the sushi bar are living in Japan. We (here in S’pore) were all worried about how they were coping. It was also interesting and really nice to see customers ask us about how they were doing.
  • Fundraising for Japan – I’m thinking of how SSB can do more. I think it’s so, so, so good of restaurants such as Inagiku, Kuriya, and others pledging to donate part of their sales towards helping Japan. I wish I could do the same with SSB but fact-of-the-matter is we’re just not in a financial position where we can do it. I am brainstorming if we can do a special event to help raise money rather than a straight percentage of sales. That might be more feasible. In the meanwhile we have collection tins from the Japanese Association (which will be donated to the Red Cross) at each of our outlets.  FYI here is a list of organizations that one can contribute to towards helping Japan.
  • Staffing – Finally last month we hired enough people to be at full strength for each restaurant. Yet now the restaurants are much less busy. I guess this is a good time for a lot of the staff to finally take some days off – when we were short-handed many of them were working crazy hours.
  • Future – The tragedy in Japan is going to have long-term impact. Supplier prices are going to go up, the amount of customers dining may drop, and who knows what other news might come out of Japan.

Action items

During this trip away, there was a lot of time to think about what could be done to improve the sushi bar. 40 hours of sitting still on an airplane forces the brain to wander.

Quick list of what I will be working on:

  • Loyalty cards – this has always been on the “to-do” list, but I originally wanted to do something much greater.  Some type of loyalty program that analyzes what each customer is ordering and personalizes the benefits that they would get from repeated visits. Alas this would have involved a complicated computer system so it will have to go on the back burner for now.  Instead I should just do a straightforward card with rewards every few steps of the way.
  • Set Menus – When I spoke at Barcamp.sg last year, one of the points I made was that customers are “lazy.” (I say this with love!) They get overwhelmed with the number of choices on the menu.  What I plan to do is create multi-course set menus that are separate from our main menu listing.  Hopefully that eases the burden of choice.
  • Search Engine Optimization – Well, I’ve been working on this already. If you type in “sushi singapore” or “singapore sushi” we show up on the first page in Google. Only the second page on Bing (come on Microsoft!!). This is important as it’s one of the top ways people will discover the restaurant.
  • Deeper cost analysis – I need to get a more accurate view of how much each item we sell costs. Everything is fluctuating and with the crisis in Japan I’m sure our suppliers will be increasing their prices.  With deeper analysis I can see which items I can absorb the increase on and which ones will unfortunately have to be increased.
  • Marketing – Ultimately I need to get people into the restaurants.  I feel we have a good base of regulars but I need to figure out how to reach all the folks in Singapore that haven’t tried us out yet.  I do not believe the group-purchasing deals are the solution.
    I also need to get over this jet lag and sleep properly.

Check-in and review

It has been awhile since I’ve updated. Travels to Taiwan, Japan, the US, and elsewhere have left me feeling loopy and while I wish I was one of those people that can be productive on the road, I’m the type to watch movies for the whole flight.

The sushi bar is going through exciting times. More about that later. I wanted to do a “status report” for myself. Currently in my main corporate job, we’re going through the annual review process.  Since Standing Sushi Bar has been open since August 19, I thought it’d be fitting to review what has happened.

I don’t think I made a list of goals (at least not on paper) when the restaurant first opened, so these are just areas I’m thinking about at the moment.

Customer Interaction

My idea was to create a sushi bar where the diners and the chefs get to know each other.  This would lead to personalized sushi (i.e. the chef knows if you prefer less rice, enjoy a certain fish, etc.) and an opportunity for the diner to learn about new types of sushi based on recommendations from the chef or staff.

Grade: B
For the folks that dine regularly and speak with Roy, the interaction and experience is great. We could do a better job at connecting with the first-time customers and the lunch crowd.  The latter is difficult because it’s fast-paced and noisy but there are certainly opportunities.

Food Quality / Reputation

Sushi is a mainstream, popular dish in Singapore. However the quality range is limited. You either get the conveyor belt sushi which is priced cheap or for consistently high quality you have to pay a bomb at the top restaurants. I felt there was opportunity to offer the high-quality sushi at prices closer to those of the conveyor belt sushi chains – making up the cost difference with the volume of Raffles Place.

Grade: A
In the F&B industry there’s a notion that goes, “If only 1 out of 10 customers complain, you’re doing a fantastic job.” Thank goodness our complaints are less than that since I have a meltdown when I receive one. I put on my Sherlock Holmes cap and start grilling the team about what may have happened. Handling complaints in that manner isn’t productive.

I’m glad that our compliments far outnumber complaints. I’m also happy that the food reviews (8 Days, New Paper, My Paper, etc.) were positive.  I also think the community votes for Top 10 Sushi and Top 10 Sashimi on Hungrygowhere are also a testament to Standing Sushi Bar’s quality.

Service

I wanted a casual, friendly, welcoming place – and the service team play a big part of that.  This might sound like one of the most-obvious statements ever but guess what, good service is hard!

Grade: C+
There are two issues.  One – we’re frequently understaffed. I think there was one week when we were at full strength. Ah, what glorious short-lived relief. The bigger issue is #2 – minimal training program. I think the folks working at Standing Sushi Bar are great, but basically I’ve been relying on their initiative and thinking to handle service issues.  That’s generally fine but providing training and coaching would make our service even better. Further training on the menu items, specific points of service, etc.

Outreach / Marketing / Awareness

Basically – has the target customer base heard about Standing Sushi Bar and do they think about the restaurant in a positive way?

Grade: B-
I’ve done what I’m comfortable with and enjoy – using the internet. We’ve got our Facebook fan page, Twitter account, website, and this blog. That has definitely resulted in general awareness about the restaurant and has been a great channel for feedback and interaction.

But is it really hitting the eyeballs of the target customer base? Remember – Standing Sushi Bar sits in the heart of Raffles Place.  Our bread and butter diner is the PMEB working in the nearby vicinity (within 2 square blocks), of which a good amount are lawyers and finance industry types. Many of whom are barred from using social networking websites in their office.

There’s definitely room for improvement. Flyer distribution, targeted promotions, partnerships with other commercial entities that hit the right customer base… those are a few things I can think of off the top of my head.

The jet lag is kicking in now and my head is going foggy, so that’s all for today! Anyone have suggestions on other categories to review the restaurant on?

Letter of indemnity for NS deferment application

Just an FYI for employers in Singapore who are going through the National Service  Deferment application process – when the employee fills out the NS Deferment application (MyDeferment application) from www.ns.sg, it states that the employer must fax, within 3 days, the following:

- Letter From Employer
- Letter of indemnity
- Contract details; if any

I think most employers will be puzzled, wondering why they need to send a letter of indemnity with a request for deferment. Searching online did not reveal any information related to NS.

I called the NS office and asked them what I was supposed to put in the letter of indemnity.  Their answer: “No need.”

So there you go – if you’re wondering what to do for the letter of indemnity, don’t worry. You don’t need to submit it.

Singapore’s Top 10 Sushi!

Am very happy and excited that Standing Sushi Bar is listed as one of Singapore’s Top 10 Sushi places on HungryGoWhere!

HungryGoWhere 

I think this is cool on a variety of fronts. 

The main reason is that it’s a validation of the sushi we serve.  The rice, the fish, the quality of ingredients, and of course the skills of the chefs!  Led by Roy, our head chef, they’re helping me meet my goal of bringing high-quality sushi at affordable prices.  Kudos and a bonus is coming the chefs’ way! :)

SSB is a small sushi shop in Raffles Place – another Japanese restaurant in a sea of sushi & sashimi.   Japanese food is incredibly popular in Singapore and one can find a Japanese menu on almost every block.  To go from being an unknown restaurant six months ago to being listed alongside Singapore’s mainstay sushi bars is, well, an awesome feeling.

I’ve had a user account with Hungrygowhere since their inception.  Chipped in reviews on restaurants around my neighborhood and places that drove me to give praise or warning to others.  The internet is rife with food bloggers, food articles, reviews, etc. and it’s great to have a portal that has enough critical mass to gauge community sentiment toward a restaurant.  It’s interesting to now have the perspective of a restaurant owner being reviewed as well as a diner who contributes reviews.  Certainly an open community review system like HGW has its drawbacks (some of which I have ideas on how can be ameliorated – I should send in feedback!) but overall having an organized space for a collection of mass opinions is a positive!

In Summary: YAY!  Standing Sushi Bar is one of Singapore’s Top 10 sushi bars!

Vote for your favorite Singapore sushi bar at Hungrygowhere!

Healthy sushi start

It’s a new year and that means millions of people around the world have vowed that they will begin eating healthier.  Goodbye greasy Kentucky Fried Chicken, hello raw, natural fish!

Standing Sushi Bar sushi set

Excerpt from the “Nutrition” section of the Wikipedia article on sushi:

“The main ingredients of traditional Japanese sushi, raw fish and rice, are naturally low in fat, high in protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals…

Most seafood is naturally low in fat; and what fat is found in it is generally rich in unsaturated Omega-3 fat. Since sushi is often served raw, no cooking fat is introduced during its preparation…

Fish, tofu, seafood, egg, and many other sushi fillings contain high levels of protein…

Vitamins and minerals are found in much of the seafood and vegetables used for sushi... The gari and nori used to make sushi are both rich in nutrients. Other vegetables wrapped within the sushi also offer various vitamins and minerals.”

Interested in how many calories are in each piece of sushi?  SushiFAQ has information on that.  Make sure you click on the “Sushi items” and “Sashimi items” tabs rather than only the roll information.

Some stats:

  • Tako (octopus) has the most protein per ounce (8.5g per oz)
  • Monkfish liver has the highest fat per ounce (5g).  Unsurprising since monkfish liver has similar taste and texture to foie gras (which has 14g of fat per oz). Note that the fat in these fish are typically the healthy Omega-3 kind.
  • Yellowtail & Tuna both have 6.6g of protein per ounce and only 1.5g of fat.
  • Lowest calorie pieces are ikura (salmon roe) and mirugai (geoduck)

Of course we have all the above at Standing Sushi Bar.  Get the new year off to a healthy start and eat some sushi!

Are you standing yet?

Happy New Year!

It’s a busy time for us on New Year’s Eve.  Turns out people like the big sushi platters, so we have a full schedule preparing the food and (in the Raffles Place area) running around to the various office towers to deliver.  Too bad we didn’t announce these platters earlier!

2009 has been a rough but positive year.  I think being naive has helped in the creation of Standing Sushi Bar.  In other words, if I knew then what I know now, would I still have plunged into the restaurant business?  It’s a few months past opening and with many lessons learned, I’m ready to go! go! go! in the new year. Big plans, big dreams. And lots and lots of sushi to eat.

Happy new year, everyone!  May 2010 have us standing!

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Ba360Dz1sQ]

Empires

The owners of Donut Empire dropped by the restaurant yesterday and gave us a box full of assorted donuts.  I was chatting with them, asking about how they started up and how their business was doing.  They certainly are an empire – with outlets in Singapore and Malaysia and soon in Indonesia, Dubai, and further afield.  Amazing to think about how quickly they’ve grown after only starting in 2009.

DSCF0378
(With Steven and Joy from Donut Empire)

Quite nice of them – they had read on this blog (I think – or maybe it was on Twitter?) that I liked the smell of the donuts that drift into the sushi bar.  While one might not think the two go together, after eating some healthy sushi, an indulgence in sinful foods is called for!

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about our neighbors at the B1 level of OUB Centre.  There has been a lot of churn lately.  A yakitori place moved out, Boost Juice shifted to the yakitori place’s location, Famous Amos moved upstairs, a new food shop (I hear it’s a salad joint) is under construction… and Sakae is still the big kid on the block.

It’s nice to be down there in OUB Centre.  I suppose like any other workplace as people are in close proximity, they get to know each other.  Since we’re the last shop open each night, everyone else walks by on their way out.  I’m not there all the time so not as many folks know me, but Roy, Coral, Kawa-san, and the others are all quite friendly with the neighboring people.

It’s funny; we’re all competing for a piece of the same pie. As easily as a customer could come to Standing Sushi Bar, they could go to Freddie’s Burger.  Or the food court.  Anywhere!  But nicely, instead of feeling like a competitive place, it feels more like a community.  I like that.

A birthday meal

(Written on Saturday)

This is going to sound self-indulgent and promotional but it’s my birthday and I shall do what I want!

Typically I try to avoid eating in the restaurant. I feel it’s strange if I’m wearing our sushi bar t-shirt, eating the food, and not paying for it.  The ‘business’-guy in me thinks about how if I eat it, well, I’m losing money since it’s less sushi for me to sell.  I usually end up eating the leftover take-away after we have closed.

Anyway, I was at the restaurant in the afternoon, and it had been a somewhat stressful day.  I decided, “Hey! It’s my birthday, and I want to eat my own sushi freshly made.”  So I did.

I asked for the hotate (scallop) aburi with mentai sauce that people have been raving about, anago, ika, kanpachi (we only have this sporadically – hard to get!), salmon belly, salmon aburi with yuzu mayo, and mentaiko.

I stood, I ate.  It was a feast.

And I’m going to declare it: It was good.  Seriously good. As in some of the best sushi I have ever had.  The kanpachi (wild yellowtail) was ‘crunchy’ – it’s like you could feel the strength it has from swimming free rather than being farmed. Anago had a cleaner and lighter taste than unagi (saltwater eel versus freshwater eel), and the sauces Roy used for the aburi sushi were awesome.

I’ve kept on top of reviews and comments about the restaurant. I’m happy that people are saying lots of positive things.  Now that I’ve tried it out myself, I’m really pleased with how things have turned out.

Can we do things better?  Of course we can.  I think we nailed the core concept though.  High-quality sushi, easygoing place.

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 

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.

The standing sushi bar to start them all

It’s finally here.  Opening day!  The lack of sleep and frenetic work that has defined the past couple weeks has left me in a state of mind where I can’t quite believe what’s happening.

It was a little over a year ago when I was in Tokyo and went to my first standing sushi bar (Uogashi Nihon-Ichi). I had been in Japan for about a week, eating my way around Nagoya, Shirakawa, and Tokyo when I chanced upon this eatery in Shibuya.  A couple blocks past the world’s busiest Starbucks and along the same street as a Mcdonalds.

Uogashi Nihon-Ichi standing sushi bar shibuya

A friend of mine was just in Tokyo and went to the exact same sushi bar. I hadn’t taken photos of it so was very pleased she sent these to me.

stand and eat!

There are a lot of reasons why this sushi bar resonated with me. I’ve been laying here in bed thinking about that April. It was a nice time, I was with a nice girl, and I love sushi.