May Update

Hello everyone!  It’s been awhile since I’ve written about what is going on with Standing Sushi Bar.  Aside from the entries about various promotions and menus that we are trying out I feel like I haven’t gotten a chance to talk about the other things that are happening.  I suppose a big reason for this is, like any small business, when the owner gets busy certain things go on hiatus.

On the personal front I left my career of 14 years – I used to be a… I don’t know, community manager, platform evangelist, software tester for Microsoft and now I’m focused on building my own business.  I thought there would be a month of having a good break but surprisingly opportunities came a-knocking and I’m working on a few different projects.  One of the hardest things is to focus!  Too many ideas, too little discipline to handle them all, and too many video games still to be played.

Indonesia

The first branch in Indonesia (Standing Sushi Bar at La Piazza) opened on January 15.  We’re in the midst of finding a location for the second branch.  Exciting!  It’s crazy to think of simply how much larger Indonesia (and Jakarta) is compared to the tiny confine of Singapore.  Certainly a prime location in Jakarta would be awesome but there are so many cities that are underserved by Japanese restaurants that the potential is great.  Factor in significantly lower costs for rent, wages, and setup and you can see why so many businesses are trying to move into the country.

nueve-ssb-25
Look ma! So much space at Standing Sushi Bar La Piazza!

Singapore

I don’t know whether I can credit our Monday promotion, feng shui, or some random thing I did on the internet (bookings through Chope? Loyalty built through Perx?)  but it’s as if folks have started stumbling into the 8 Queen Street restaurant.  Business is up significantly (I hope this doesn’t jinx anything!) so that’s definitely great, especially after a hard 2011.

Maybe it’s cause I yelled at the air-conditioning people and finally got them to fix it?  Hmm.

Over at Standing Sushi Bar Marina Bay Link Mall things have been chugging along nicely.  We introduced new dinner sets and that has helped bring in more customers outside of the Raffles Place lunch hour crowd.  I’ve been working on trying to get delivery started but it has been much harder than expected.  Short of building a web ordering platform from the ground up, most of the solutions out there are tailored for the US market.  There’s lots of room for growth over there (read: anything outside of lunch hours) and I’m excited about the upcoming opening of Marina Bay Financial Centre Tower 3… since it will bring in a ton of DBS Bank employees and it will be the biggest office tower in Singapore.  On the flip side it is also going to bring in more competition with something like 11+ new restaurants, including a food court.

Expansion

Grow, grow, grow!  I’m looking for new spaces to open Standing Sushi Bar in Singapore (and if anyone wants to talk about other countries, I’m open to it!).  I was keen on the upcoming UE Biz Hub but not keen enough to sign at the rent they wanted. I’m hesitant about the amount of office crowd at Changi Business Park that is willing to spend on lunch at a price point above $8.  With the opening of the Changi City Point mall and the upcoming UE Biz Hub, I feel like there will be a glut of restaurants all competing for the same type of customer… which is fine for an area like Raffles Place but possibly not for Changi Business Park.  It will be interesting to see how these malls evolve.

New Concept

In a “spin-off” to Standing Sushi Bar (can you spin a restaurant off like a sitcom?) I’ve been working on a new food concept.  I’ve almost settled on the first location for it, but since discussions with realtors and landlords can change at the drop of a hat, I can’t y where yet.  I’m excited but also nervous about how fast this one is moving along.

May should be an interesting month!

Back in time

Facebook is switching every company’s page to the “Timeline” version that it applies to individuals.  I’m actually a big fan of Timeline so I don’t mind the change that is coming.  I know there are many folks that have not taken to the Timeline view.  I wonder if it will somehow change the interaction between a business and Facebook users; I think Timeline’s design makes people want to share and engage more.

Anyway, I’ve been looking at the preview of Standing Sushi Bar’s timeline, and I flashed back to when we first opened.  Our manager (and my good friend) Coral posted this:

“Opening willl be fantastical! with dancing beauty queens and chefs that speak swiss german! Please if you must bring your children know that we do not have anywhere to put them.”

Standing Sushi Bar Japanese Restaurant in Singapore

Standing Sushi Bar at Raffles Place

I kind of miss that small spot!  I definitely don’t miss the rent.

Smartphones in a restaurant

The LA Times ran an article titled “When diners’ eyes feast on their cellphones”  It’s true how people now have their smartphone as an additional companion at the dining table – maintaining conversations with friends not at the restaurant, checking Twitter and Facebook updates, and taking pictures of all the food.

Excerpt:
“Ding. Bzzzt. Bap. Beep. That's the sound of conversation in restaurants these days. Where cellphones once posed a nuisance as people chatted loudly into them during meals, they now present a whole new set of etiquette issues as entire tables disappear into the Internet via small glowing screens.

Like an analog world-munching Pac-Man, the modern cellphone has morphed into instant messenger, mailbox, camera, flashlight, computer, map, dictionary, newspaper, personal assistant and social media portal. And as such its use at the table has become so prevalent that "restaurants are now forced to incorporate how to deal with them into the sequence of service and table maintenance," says Eric Rosenfeld, the general manager of the lush trattoria Il Covo, in Mid-City L.A., which has begun offering diners small plates to hold their phones in order to shield them from potential spills and dinner debris.”

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

2011 at a glance

Channel News Asia did a series of interviews with various business folks about how their 2011 went and what lessons they learned.  Loh Lik Peng, Tracy Philips, and others are featured.

I was also interviewed about the year:

What have I learned this year?
2011 was a turbulent yet overall successful year for Standing Sushi Bar. We went through a lot of hard times – closing the original branch after evaluating the future potential of the location, feeling the impact from the Japanese tsunami that made diners fearful of eating Japanese food, and removing staff that were detrimental to the business. Thankfully the latter half of 2011 had many more positives. Existing staff stepped up into expanded roles, customers returned (with positive feedback), and a franchisee is helping us expand to Jakarta, Indonesia.
With all this change, there was a lot of time spent planning and thinking about how to increase the business. One of the biggest lessons was that planning and thinking is great but ultimately you need to take action. Think about what your end goal with a project is, and once you have enough of an idea to move towards the goal, just take action. Frequently we get stuck trying to make sure everything is perfect and instead of doing anything we become paralyzed with analysis or the fear that the execution won’t go well. In a big company you have the luxury of time and money to do analysis. In a small business, it’s all about action.


Who contributed to my successes?
I think with any company, big or small, it’s going to be your staff that are the main contributors to success. For Standing Sushi Bar it was having the crew take initiative to get us through the difficult period after the Japan tragedy and the departure of our original head chef. Aside from the staff, I found it supportive to talk with other restaurant owners. I was able to tell them issues I was facing, learn about what problems they had, and then we brainstormed different solutions together. I think having a network of people that are undergoing similar experiences helps you stay focused and persevere.


What mistakes did I make, and what did I learn from them?
A small business takes a lot of energy and willpower, and to be honest sometimes I just feel tired. I end up not responding to an e-mail that may have led to a big private booking, ignore a PR request, or more commonly take a step back from getting involved in the day-to-day operations. I think it’s impossible to be “always on” but you do have to be cognizant that when you’re not there (mentally or physically) then your business isn’t moving forward.

Anthony Bourdain and Singapore

Of all the television food hosts out there, I’ve always enjoyed Anthony Bourdain the most.  He comes across as funny, sincere, and sarcastic… never taking anything too seriously but conveying information in an entertaining way to the viewer.

He recently made a third trip to Singapore where he got down to what he does best – eating and talking.

Anthony Bourdain’s layover in Singapore

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.

October 29 Dinner

Hi all, Standing Sushi Bar at 8 Queen Street will be hosting a private birthday party tonight during dinner, so we will be closed to the general public.

Sorry for any inconvenience caused!  We will be back to regular operating hours tomorrow.  Have a good weekend!

National Environmental Agency responsiveness

An amusing thing just happened – a NEA officer came to our restaurant because someone reported we had cats in the restaurant.  This was based on the previous blog entry which I had also posted on Facebook.

Two items I note from this:

1) I thought it was obvious that I was just being playful by posting these two cats up. They’re my cats living at home.  In my kitchen.  Not in the restaurant.  I do not seriously have these cats trying out our fish before we serve the fish to customers. But hey, aren’t they cute cats? Smile

2) On the positive side, I think it’s cool that the National Environmental Agency is so responsive.  They received a complaint and followed up within 4 days (I posted it on October 13 so not sure when they actually received the complaint) by sending an inspector to the restaurant.  That should make us all feel more secure about food safety and hygiene in Singapore. 

Quality Control Team

Terror and Sumo

Meet the quality control team from Standing Sushi Bar. Terror and Sumo declare the fish A-OK! Currently perched on one of our sushi cases in storage.

Lend me a hand

Found this video online of a machine with a sensitive hand.  Perhaps hand-made and machine-made will soon be the same thing.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fBcfpeiM-lg&w=448&h=252&hd=1]

American Sushi

I travel to the US regularly, mainly to Seattle, Orlando, and New York, and I make it a point to see what the various Japanese restaurants on this side of the ocean are like.  You never know where your next good idea might come from!  This week I’ve been in both New York and Orlando and have eaten at three sushi bars.

One observation is that the menus here are loaded with all kinds of fusion sushi rolls and significantly less traditional nigiri.  I have a feeling that the diners are primarily ordering these rolls versus the straightforward nigiri or sashimi.  I feel that’s the case as you can tell the fish quality is not good; it’s mushy and in the thawing process (frozen for a long time) the water has permeated the fish. So it ends up with a limp feel and bland taste.  Which is unfortunate for the traditional sushi lover but if the majority of customers are ordering fusion sushi, then I can see why the restaurant would want to save money and invest in the rolls.  Coated with sauce, deep fried, and full of garnish means that the fish taste is lost amongst all the ingredients.

Fusion sushi roll

Don’t get me wrong, I think fusion sushi rolls are fun and have been thinking about adding some to our menu.  Maybe have an experimental period where people can send in suggestions.

There aren’t many Japanese restaurants in Singapore that offer up fusion sushi.  The two that leap to mind would be Kinki and Sun and Moon.  Any others?

Is GroupOn poised for collapse?

Interesting guest post by Rocky Agrawal for TechCrunch with his thoughts on why GroupOn is poised for collapse.

“Imagine you’re a small business owner. You have to choose between two propositions:

  1. You can pay $62,500 for marketing. You’ll get a whole lot of customers coming through your door. No guarantees if they will ever come back, but they’ll come once.
  2. I’ll pay you $21,000. You get $7,000 in about 5 days, another $7,000 in 30 days and the remainder in 60 days. In exchange, you’ll give my customers cheap products for the next year.

I’ve been working on local for a long time and I know it’s hard to get small businesses to spend money on advertising. Really hard. Even getting $200 a month ($2,400 a year) is a high hurdle to meet.” – read the rest of his commentary

Hopefully (and if anyone cares, haha) when I get some more time I’ll write my thoughts and experience with GroupOn and the various daily deal sites.  Singapore is saturated with them – over 20+ at my last count.  There has got to be a shakeout happening soon… how many discounted spa deals do we really need flooding our inboxes?

Our food is safe!

I went to the different branches to put up this sign today:

“To our cherished diners,

We have suspended our usage of fish and food items from Japan due to the uncertainty of the supply. Our fresh ingredients are sourced from Australia, Norway,
Indonesia, and America.

Rest assured that food safety continues to be our top priority.

eat@standingsushibar.com

I suppose it’s not a surprise that business has been significantly impacted by what’s happening in Japan. I hope letting the public know where we are sourcing our food from assuages fears.

I have a feeling it won’t.

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.