A few weeks in…

September 13, 2009 at 8:11 pm 10 comments

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.


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.


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.


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!


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.


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 


Entry filed under: General, Marketing, Starting-up.

Sushi pins Shonen Knife – Sushi Bar

10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. euniqueflair  |  September 13, 2009 at 11:52 pm

    i’m digging the bar layout and the fresh sashimi. 😀

  • 2. ADsolutE  |  September 14, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    nice layout

    would love to try in the near future

    all the best in breaking even and start making profits soon

  • 3. His Food Blog  |  September 14, 2009 at 11:27 pm

    Interesting reading the trial and error + observation – I guess its the whole process and operations that what makes having your own food establishment tiring, but at the same time interesting + fruitful.

    And looks like an awesome crowd you have during lunchtime 😀

  • 4. arianec  |  September 15, 2009 at 10:31 pm

    hey howard, congrats on the bar. your sushi was good.. but i think service is still lacking. i know this is your first food venture, but service has to be up to standard esp since you do have service charge 🙂

  • 5. monsteress  |  September 16, 2009 at 9:40 am

    i loved this entry (the only one i’ve read) – I loved the whole learning curve thing you described… a friend sent me this website and since i am part of the raffles place lunch crowd, i will check it out one day!

    anyway, as for the female crowd, all i can say is that we make our lunch plans for the week pretty early (lunch is a very important hour of our day)… and we wouldn’t decide to go to a place that we don’t know about… So i’m guessing business will improve as people find out about the place. 🙂 Good luck!

  • 6. ~Pink Miu Miu~  |  September 19, 2009 at 11:07 pm

    Hey Howard, recog and erm saw u juz now at the bar and kinda shy to go in lol.. anyway will pop in and try the next time..the fOOd looks yummy.. the salmon above looks awesome yeah 😛

  • 7. g  |  October 1, 2009 at 10:55 am

    A menu with pictures will really help for those of us who aren’t quite savvy with the terms.. I found that that was one of the reasons I walked away on my first ‘visit’ – it was after lunch hours and the lunch sets were over so the prices also turned me away a little bit.

    With that said, I am always in the area after yoga and itching for a healthy bite and I am determined to pay you a visit! The food lowdown on your blog definitely helped.

    All the best with your biz, hope to see a few more outlets open around SIN someday 😉

  • 8. stand4sushi  |  October 4, 2009 at 5:28 pm

    Hey everyone, thanks for the feedback!

    @arianec – Is there a specific aspect about the service you would like improved? There are a few things I’m looking at in the service area such as making sure people’s tea are refilled, having the staff be more knowledgeable about the menu, and trying to keep queues at the register down to a minimum. We’ve tried out different processes for order-taking and food delivery, but during lunch time it devolves into chaos. 🙂 But yes, I agree we need to work on the service aspect.

    @g – I hear you about the menu with pictures. I’m thinking about how to redesign our menus (the ones on the countertops) with more pictures. The difficulty is we have a lot of different items on the menu and we’re constrained to one page. I have a feeling a multi-page menu wouldn’t work at SSB. Maybe I should take the approach of putting pictures and only our most popular items on our black glassboard and then do a full-listing with more text on the countertop menus.

  • […] for Small Businesses’. Although Howard Lo, the main man and proprietor, said in a blog post ‘I don’t care about that’ in reference to social media marketing, it is really hard to believe. The various use of social […]

  • […] for Small Businesses’. Although Howard Lo, the main man and proprietor, said in a blog post ‘I don’t care about that’ in reference to social media marketing, it is really hard to […]


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Standing Sushi Bar

Join us at our branches in Singapore's fast-paced Raffles Place business district or unwind in our flagship branch located in the Bras Basah Arts & Historic neighborhood. High-quality, healthy, affordable dining. Open at Marina Bay Link Mall and 8 Queen Street!



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