Running a business with a spouse is no mean feat, but Howard Lo and Lim Hui Nan is making it work.
The couple currently heads a string of brands and restaurants since Howard founded Empire Eats Group in 2009.
The Group operates a diverse collection of F&B concepts that range from restaurants, cocktail bars, airport kiosks, to fast casual dining.
They count Tanuki Raw, Salmon Samurai, Standing Sushi Bar, The Secret Mermaid, Sumo Bar Happy, Shinkansen, The World is Flat and Black Dot Sweet Provisions as some of the brands in their portfolio.
They also run Liberty Spirits Asia, an alcohol distribution company that focuses on American craft spirits.
With a decade worth of entrepreneurial experience building a culinary empire, Vulcan Post got Howard to shed some advice on how he built the business from scratch.
The Couple Met Through Food
Howard first came to Singapore in 2003 for his job. He was the regional manager for community and online support at tech firm Microsoft back then.
Inspired by the many standing sushi bars in Tokyo, he decided to open a similar concept for office workers in the CBD here.
The restaurant was a tiny 550 sq ft space at the then-OUB Centre (now One Raffles Place) that could house 35 standing customers.
Howard was still working full-time at Microsoft then, but he would double up as the sushi bar’s cashier, waiter and dishwasher.
If you find Howard vaguely familiar, he was actually one of the contestants featured in a local dating reality television show “Eye For A Guy” back in 2005.
The tech evangelist-turned-F&B owner continued to work at Microsoft until 2012, before finally quitting to focus on his business.
His wife, Hui Nan, was a regular customer at Raffles Place’s Standing Sushi Bar, which was near her old workplace. She used to work for a boutique intellectual property law firm at Chevron House.
On why she frequented the place, Hui Nan reasoned that she loved the service there.
Furthermore, they were pretty much the only joint open for dinner at Raffles Place until 10pm and serves alcohol, so she would head over almost every night for dinner or drinks after work.
That was how Howard and Hui Nan got acquainted with each other. They eventually tied the knot in 2012 and now have two children together.
Balancing Work And Marriage
The duo bonded over food and work and even on date nights, they would be busy taking notes at new restaurants for their business.
Their roles in the group are complementary of each other — Howard is the visionary, while Hui Nan is the executor.
You can look at it two ways — we’re either very lucky that we work together, love each other and talk about anything and everything all the time; or that it is very unhealthy that we integrate work into our lives.
But I don’t feel like we’re missing out even though we don’t separate work from personal.– Howard Lo, in a 2017 interview with The Straits Times
“If we try to think about what are the unique things about a couple working together is injecting a little bit of “couple personality” into work,” said Howard in a separate interview with Set The Tables.
“It helps keep the balance and romance alive. Take the time to recognise that you are doing something special with your spouse,” he added.
Although fights are inevitable, they have learnt to take a step back to evaluate the context and situation while questioning if there really is a need to win this ‘battle’.
For this entrepreneurial couple, being in the business together is the glue that keeps their relationship together.
Hui Nan even left her job as a lawyer in 2014 to focus on her family and the business.
Growing A Culinary Empire
Over the years, Empire Eats Group expanded its umbrella to include familiar names such as Tanuki Raw, an edgy and playful Japanese-inspired restaurant and cocktail bar.
The first outlet opened in 2012 at Orchard Central, and its truffle yakiniku donburi received an overwhelming response.
He later started a healthy fusion-Japanese bowl concept called Shinkansen in 2013, with its first outlet in Raffles Place.
In January 2017, the Group opened their now-defunct Changi Airport Terminal 1 outlet of sandwich bar-eatery The World is Flat.
These days, you can find their gourmet sandwiches at its Jewel Changi Airport and National Design Centre outlets.
In March 2017, the couple also launched a new casual salmon donburi concept called Salmon Samurai, rebranding their two Shinkansen outlets at Ocean Financial Centre in Raffles Place and 100AM mall in Tanjong Pagar.
They also opened the now-defunct Waterloo Street outlet of ramen and sake bar Sumo Bar Happy in July 2017. Today, they are located at National Design Centre along with Tanuki Raw.
Manoeuvring The Challenges
According to Howard, the first few years were rocky as “in Singapore, it is expensive to fail and it is harder to take chances because it is such a landlord’s market.”
High rental costs at his now-defunct Standing Sushi Bar outlet at OUB Centre ate heavily into his profit margins.
Moreover, the 2011 tsunami and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident dealt a hit to his business as people avoided sushi.
At the time, he had just opened two new Standing Sushi Bar outlets.
He then made the painful decision to close down the first Raffles Place outlet and weather the slowdown with promotions for about half a year until business started picking up.
Alcohol distribution business Liberty Spirits Asia also came with huge challenges when he started it in 2013 with another partner.
Liberty currently distributes craft spirits to bars and restaurants in Singapore, but in the early days, they had a hard time convincing boutique distilleries to stock with them.
This venture later paved the way for The Secret Mermaid, a restaurant bar that serves cocktails using the same craft whiskies, gins, vodkas and other spirits that Liberty brings in.
Pandemic Forced A Pivot Online
When Covid-19 hit, business was drastically affected as they had two outlets in Changi Airport, and four outlets in the CBD that see most of their customers from the office crowd.
As many people were forced to work from home, they could no longer rely on food delivery firms for business as these platforms have a limited delivery radius.
They quickly turned to islandwide delivery — a couple of weeks before the circuit breaker kicked in.
Customers were placing orders from Yishun, Bukit Batok, Sengkang, and other spots that we had never reached before. It gives us insight into future neighbourhoods for expansion.
With people craving variety during the circuit breaker period and with food being one of the few escapes from the monotony of the day, we created additional virtual brands to attract customers.– Howard Lo, founder and co-owner of Empire Eats Group
These virtual brands included Sumo Bar Happy, The World is Flat, and Shinkansen.
Customers can place orders directly on the websites and enjoy gourmet sandwiches, boba tea, protein bowls and more conveniently delivered to their doorsteps.
Identifying An Opportunity To Launch A New Sweets Brand
At the same time, the Group also saw a burgeoning demand for bubble tea and other sweet treats.
“We noticed the cravings people — myself included — had for sweets. When the government decided bubble tea couldn’t be sold anymore unless it was paired with food, it gave us the opportunity to grow our Black Dot Sweet Provisions brand,” said Howard.
They started with bubble tea in the transit-side of Changi Airport Terminal 3 and decided to offer it for islandwide delivery with their food.
Since then, they have expanded the sweets selection to include American-style pies and mammoth cookies.
To run the delivery operations, we trained our service team to monitor the orders, coordinate with the kitchens on food preparation, liaise with the delivery riders, and communicate with the customers.
We built our own tools and software to organise the logistics and we would continue to improve it every day.– Howard Lo, founder and co-owner of Empire Eats Group
They were doing so well, said Howard, adding that they receive 300 orders a day. In terms of revenue, they generated “over S$1 million per month” across the entire group.
The boost in numbers made them confident that they were able to avoid laying off all their workers.
Surviving A Cut-Throat Industry
It was clear that the pandemic exposed gaps in many industries, but what exactly was the pivotal moment for his business?
One of the biggest realisations was how much of our workforce were not technically skilled. Many had barely used computers, let alone have familiarity with spreadsheets or email.
Some of our senior citizen employees were literally shaking in worry when they had to use the computer. Hailing from a software background, I have not thought about how, for many people, a smartphone and messaging programme are all they need.– Howard Lo, founder and co-owner of Empire Eats Group
The pandemic has accelerated the use of technology in the F&B industry, therefore it’s critical that each team member becomes familiar with digital tools.
Technology is set to play an increasingly larger role in the restaurant industry and the F&B workforce needs to evolve with digitalisation.
Moreover, F&B operates on paper-thin margins and only the tough ones survive. Sharing a few words for budding F&B entrepreneurs, he said:
The F&B business is brutal with numbers, and everything is a physical cost. You want to serve more customers? Spend money on more furniture and a bigger place.
The F&B business is locally-driven, dependent on manpower, and very much a brick-and-mortar business. It requires your physical presence and daily attention.
As a people-intensive industry – it is all about interacting and understanding people’s needs.
Food is a critical piece of the business, however as a restauranteur, it becomes just one segment of the overall business, which grows further from your direct responsibility as your organisation grows.– Howard Lo, founder and co-owner of Empire Eats Group
Featured Image Credit: Love and Bravery / Tanuki Raw’s Facebook page