When it comes to a foreign cuisine of choice for Singapore foodies, Japanese food more often than not emerges at the top of the popularity list.
It’s not difficult to figure out why – with an emphasis on the freshness of ingredients, and subtle flavours that will satiate any palette, Japanese restaurants are also in abundance here.
Out of all Japanese dishes, sushi is probably one of the most consumed, with the queues snaking outside joints like Genki Sushi, Sushi Express, and Itacho Sushi as a testament to its popularity.
Homegrown chain Maki-San, while not serving sushi in its most traditional form, has taken the dish and put a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) spin on it.
And this has proven successful, with 17 bustling outlets located all around Singapore currently.
What’s even more interesting is that the team is has just secured a franchisee deal in Japan – something co-founder and ‘Chief Maki Pusher’ Omar Marks (38) shared with me in an interview.
On the irony of the situation, Marks said candidly, “It tickles us a great deal – selling ice to the eskimos!”
But sans the overseas expansion, the chain has come a long way since its first outlet opened at the basement of The Cathay in 2012.
I had a quick chat with him, and found out more about how he traded his day job of writing ad copies to dabble in the volatile F&B industry.
Before Maki-San, He Almost Ended Up Selling Bubble Tea In India
A copywriter by trade, Marks’ pivot in his career path came after he realised that his passion in the job and industry was waning.
[It was] not sudden, I just reached a point where advertising did not excite me as much as it used to.
It was also around then that the entrepreneurial bug bit him, and Marks found the perfect opportunity to use the skills he honed over the years – by kick-starting a business.
“I decided to practice what we preached about branding and communications to see if I can convince even one guy to part with 10 bucks.”
But why the wild world of F&B?
Marks recalls the time when he helped his brother out at a food shack, and how much he “enjoyed the engagement and energy while interacting with customers”.
With that in mind, he started exploring the possibility of a few food concepts – “including…wait for it…bubble tea in India” – but it was only after a good friend of his came across DIY sushi in the United States that he got that quintessential ‘A-ha!’ moment.
“It just ticked off a lot of boxes for us. Unique, fun, interactive, and encouraged a lot of customer engagement.”
But there was a problem – he wasn’t exactly a Japanese food aficionado.
As blasphemous as it sounds, Marks even admitted in an interview with TODAY that doesn’t like the taste of the seaweed used to wrap sushi!
Regardless, he was fully convinced that they had a first-mover advantage in the local food scene, and wasted no time in turning the idea into reality.
In 2012, he launched Maki-San with an Art Director from the advertising agency that he worked in, with an initial $250,000 set down for rental deposits and renovation.
Maki-San’s first outlet rolled out at The Cathay at Dhoby Ghaut, but he admitted sheepishly that there was barely any strategy behind their choice of location.
[We opened there] largely because nothing else was available, and we did not know any better!
“On hindsight, it was actually a masterstroke as the students of the nearby SMU, SOTA, Kaplan, Lasalle and NAFA, amongst others, formed a loyal and steady patronage.”
“We Literally Made Things Up As We Went Along”
Soon, the team felt the brunt of the responsibilities that came with running a business.
Our biggest hurdle was our ignorance. We didn’t even know what we didn’t know!
Another challenge, he shared, was “making the mental switch” from being an employee to a boss, and the need to be responsible for every single aspect of the business – “right down to the table-cleaning detergent”.
“Aside from all this self doubt, we had all the practical issues that arise when you put newbies in charge of a completely new F&B concept – pure comedy gold!”
We literally made things up as we went along.
As compared to malls like Bugis Junction or even heartland malls like Serangoon’s NEX, The Cathay was (and is) a location with relatively lower footfall, and Marks knew that they “needed all the marketing help [they] could get”.
“Problem is: we had a non-existent marketing budget.”
All their capital had already been used up for securing the space, renovating the outlet, and designing and branding matters.
Just like their sushi, the team DIY-ed their public relations, reaching out to as many media outlets and bloggers as they could.
“We even rushed to explain the concept to any poor passerby who as much as glanced towards our store. We encouraged people to take pictures of our store and packaging and share them wherever they want.”
And it worked.
The brand quickly caught the attention of social media-savvy millennials who weren’t just attracted to the photogenic sushi and the boxes they came in, but also the fact that the rolls were fully customisable according to personal tastes.
“If I had to pick one avenue that worked best for us? Our patrons: through word-of-mouth or by sharing on social media.”
And as mentioned previously, their initially disadvantageous location evolved into one that helped them secure a steady flow of hungry students from universities and colleges nearby.
Even until now, their formula for choosing where to open a new outlet comes from the make up of the community in a particular area.
“For us, suburbs with a density of schools, universities and residences, as well as a sprinkling of office spaces work best.”
In a TODAY article published at end 2016, Maki-San was reported to chalk up an annual turnover of $12 million from its (then) 6 outlets.
Now, Maki-San’s 17 outlets push out around 5,000 maki rolls a day.
Around 100 Individuals Devoted Full-Time To The Business
At the moment, there are around 100 individuals (including franchisees and their teams) devoted full-time to running the business.
Recruiting the right staff is key to Marks, and there are a few traits he looks out for in applicants.
“Relevancy to the F&B trade is useful, but for me, a hunger to grow, a willingness to take on more, and the innate desire to improve are more crucial traits. The rest can be trained.”
The same level of strictness applies in the selection of franchisees to helm the Maki-San brand.
“We do prefer that they are Owners-Operators and not just Investors. This demonstrates that they will give our brand the TLC it needs.”
“We also try and spot a healthy regard for branding and marketing in our franchisees. That plays a major role in making Maki-San tick, hence should not be perceived as just an expense.”
Marks also reiterated how his ex-employers, regional communications company ‘The Alchemy Partnership’, became eventual business partners and played a great role in the success of Maki-San.
“They invested into Maki-San and really pushed creative content and customer engagement to make the brand popular in Singapore and beyond,” he shared.
Tapping On Food Delivery Partners To Expand Reach
With brick-and-mortar rapidly losing its appeal to consumers, even food places can take a hit if a shopping mall’s footfall plunges.
To counter that, F&B establishments are looking to event pop-ups and also food delivery services to keep their brand alive.
Marks shared that Maki-San used to engage solely with third-party delivery services (like Uber Eats, foodpanda, Deliveroo), but “were always keen on having [their] own delivery platform that lets [them] talk directly to customers and influence purchase”.
“It would allow us more control about how we represent ourselves online.”
This was when homegrown startup ODDLE came to the rescue.
Shop owners using the platform can get to customise their online ‘shopfronts’ as they wish, and even get full autonomy to manage their promotions, shopping carts, and directly liaise with their customers – exactly what the Maki-San team needed.
“When we came across ODDLE, we appreciated the simplicity, efficiency, and robustness of the platform.”
“We have a mix of delivery vendors currently but ODDLE is the only one we manage ourselves.”
“From usage patterns, it is clear that third-party vendors are best for individual and residential consumption. ODDLE, on the other hand, is popular among corporates and institutions with a bigger basket size per order.”
With delivery forming almost 25% of their revenue currently and the numbers growing as consumer habits evolve, Marks admits that their revenue would have “suffered badly” in the current climate if they didn’t adapt.
Re-Selling The Maki Back To The Japanese
But perhaps the part that got me the most intrigued was their intention to bring the brand to Japan, and sell the maki (albeit revamped) back to the Japanese.
Yes, the irony of taking a Japanese concept back to Japan is not lost on us!
“It tickles us a great deal. Selling ice to the eskimos! But the credit goes to our franchisee partners there. They were in town on some F&B research, saw our concept, and instantly fell in love.”
“What heartened us was that they liked the brand for just the right reason: that we were non-traditional.”
They thought it is just what the Japan market needed as ‘traditional’ was already done – and done well – a million times over.
Marks shared that the franchisee deal for Japan has already been concluded, and the first store (also the first Maki-San outside Singapore) is scheduled to open mid to end of this year.
He also revealed that at the moment, there are talks with potential franchisees ongoing in a couple of markets in SouthEast Asia.
“Surviving Itself Feels Like An Achievement”
To conclude the interview, I asked Marks about his proudest accomplishment for Maki-San to date.
“Surviving itself feels like an achievement,” he said humbly. “So many seasoned operators seem to struggle in this environment that I just count my blessings everyday.”
Another source of his pride comes from the Maki-San team – “I never saw myself leading such a great bunch of people.”
“[There is] a sprit of camaraderie and respect among those in Team Maki-San, irrespective of rank or hierarchy. There is also an air of openness and encouragement about the way we function that is refreshing to be part of.”