From Microsoft To Standing Sushi Bar: Tech Is Never Out Of The Way

Standing Sushi Bar has evolved into one of the most talked about sushi bars known for its quality food at an affordable price. Now, owner Howard Lo has also kickstarted Tanuki Raw in the heart of Orchard Road, providing Japanese food lovers a wide selection of raw oysters, sashimi, and even cocktails! Besides food, he has also delved into bringing American Craft Spirits to Asia with Liberty Spirits Asia, which was co-founded by both Howard Lo and Tyler Hendrie. With 3 growing F&B operations in his hands, who would have thought Howard was actually an IT expert working with Microsoft before taking the plunge into becoming the successful restaurateur he is today.

We met up with Howard for a short chat, as he gladly enlightened us on his life after Microsoft.

Q: I read an article you wrote about how difficult it is to bring a team in F&B together.  I would like to find out more what are the current measures you take to ensure your team is well-connected?

What are some of the advice you can give to business owners?

A closely bonded team is extremely important. Having a platform for efficient communication is one way. For instance, Whatsapp Chat Groups can be used to convey information. Team bonding meals help as well. Empower your managers by letting them take charge of getting the team together. Daily morale-boosting is also essential for employees to develop a sense of ownership to the restaurant.

For us, we are about to have a corporate snap chat account for customers and team members to follow as we go around the various branches to let people know how big the business has grown and what the others are doing.

2. In April, you wrote about how uberification is happening everywhere in Singapore. I can’t agree more, it is almost like the age of platforms. Apart from using the platforms like UberEATS and Deliveroo, you have your own website for ordering too. What is the biggest difference between such platforms and your own ordering website?

Currently, UberEATS is bringing a lot more traffic as compared to Deliveroo (around 150% more sales). For operations wise, there are actually quite a few issues. But since many of the people in Singapore are using it already, UberEATS have a large customer database.

As for pricing, it’s around the same for both Deliveroo and UberEATS. It is useful for us as we could ride on their marketing efforts, then eventually hop it on and get sales in. I guess it’s an easy path to increase sales (chuckles).  

With Oddle however, it offers us a greater flexibility and it helps in bringing in sales through corporate orders. That helps because the cost of getting a large order is relatively lower. It is also easier for us to manually update the menu ourselves unlike Deliveroo and UberEATS as menus are under their control. However, we would have to handle logistics ourselves. Though we receive more of corporate orders, the potential increase in sales ranges between 25-30% on good days. 

 3. After working for Microsoft for 14 years, it must be a big transition to move out of the Tech scene to be part of the F&B industry. In fact, the knowledge needed for both industries are almost totally different. Can you share more on your journey during this period of time?

When I first had my job in the F&B industry as a teenager, I’ve always been interested in hotels and restaurants. I like to explore different business ideas. When I visited Japan back in 2008, I came across a standing sushi bar, and I immediately felt that the concept might work in Singapore. The affordable price point and consistent quality could in fact come hand in hand. Back then, many people liked sushi but there were not many choices. When the economic crisis happened, there were no more raises and no more promotions, and my company started laying off people so operating my own F&B business was just a backup plan. Initially, the idea was really a standing sushi bar, but we figured that people didn’t like to stand. My advice for aspiring business owners is when your business idea is so unique, it could be a danger as people might not understand your idea, or it could just be a fad. Consumers are geared more towards casual restaurant chains. If you start something that is just a fad, it could just die down when the press stops covering it.

4. Are you currently involved in the operations for all three companies (Liberty Spirits Asia, Tanuki Raw and Standing Sushi Bar)? How do you usually manage your time?

For the first ten months, I didn’t have a nanny for my kid. Then, we finally got him a daycare and it definitely helped me understand the importance of time. It was pretty hard for me to focus on work when there’s a baby screaming. Now that I know the value of time, I typically break down my time and schedule hours to focus on my different companies. Some people can actually get a lot of productive work done in short periods of time. Most people, including myself, don’t specially plan out my schedule beforehand and tend to procrastinate as a result. So for me, it’s better to do a 30 minute burst of work.

There is one technique that I’m currently trying: the Pomodoro technique. I would try to time myself and do 10 minutes of productive focusing for each session.

F&B entrepreneurship may seem like a tough road to trek, but Howard has proved that the combination of creativity and foresight might be the ideal concoction in managing your F&B operation!