Taking the reins of an F&B restaurant in Singapore is no easy feat – much less an F&B empire. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to stand out from the crowded, vibrant Singapore food scene – and Howard Lo of the Empire Eats Restaurant Group clearly has a winning strategy. His F&B concepts have clear, unique focus mostly centered around Japanese fusion food as well as Singapore’s perennial favorite – salmon!
If you are a die-hard Japanese cuisine lover, you will most definitely be familiar with the F&B brands under Howard’s empire: Standing Sushi Bar, Tanuki Raw, Shinkansen and Salmon Samurai.
Led by his love for salmon sashimi and simplicity of a specific craft, Howard opened Standing Sushi Bar – the very first of the lot – serving deliciously fresh, handmade sushi with healthy, high-quality sashimi. He then went on to open doors to Tanuki Raw, a destination dining concept where patrons can wind down and chat leisurely with friends over Japanese fusion food, in particular oysters, donburis and cocktails.
On the other hand, Shinkansen and Salmon Samurai are healthy, quick-serve concepts that you can turn to daily – especially if you’re a fan of Japanese bowls (and onsen eggs). Choose from Shinkansen’s customisable salad bowls with proteins like Yakiniku Beef, Yuzu Chicken Thigh, Yuzu Salmon, Salmon Sashimi atop soba, udon, brown sushi rice or greens. If you’re a undisputed fan of salmon sashimi, opt for Salmon Samurai’s bowls like Salmon Sashimi ($9.90) or Mala Mentaiko ($9.90) to spice it up – deliciously paired it with your choice of yuzu ume rice, udon, ramen, soba or greens.
“It’s a regular thing to be indulging in food, alcohol and a sedentary lifestyle,” Howard admits. “Over time, you can feel your body and mind not being at its optimum, and you want to change that. But it can be difficult to put together a healthy meal.” We spoke to him on how he built his F&B empire from scratch, the challenges he faced, the future of healthy food and his love for salmon.
1. Tell us about yourself, as the founder of Salmon Samurai.
I’m a dad of two kids (age 5 and 2) and I’ve lived in Singapore since 2003 and married to my Singaporean wife, Nan. I’m originally from the US and spent 14 years working at the computer software company, Microsoft. I started my first restaurant in 2009 and that has grown to become the Empire Eats Restaurant Group which includes Standing Sushi Bar, Tanuki Raw, Salmon Samurai, and The Secret Mermaid.
2. Why did you start Salmon Samurai?
I’ve always loved salmon, especially after living in Seattle for 5 years. The Pacific Northwest area of the US is crazy for salmon; each year the major supermarkets send helicopters to Alaska to see who can be the first one to bring the famed Copper River salmon to Seattle at the start of the salmon season.
Certainly my enjoyment of salmon sashimi contributed to the opening of Standing Sushi Bar, and from there it was seeing all the different ways salmon be prepared. In 2017 I was thinking about how popular salmon is in Singapore, and also saw this increasing trend of simplicity, as more and more specialized shops opened.
I wanted a straightforward clear concept – salmon prepared in various ways on top of bowls that the customer can customize. We decided to really commit to it by putting salmon in the name to make it clear that’s where our focus was. Looking for chicken, beef, or pork, please see our name!
3. How did you start the business?
I first started in 2009; in August 2009 I opened Standing Sushi Bar at the basement of OUB Centre which is now One Raffles Place. The original idea came about in early 2008 after I spent a couple weeks in Japan and had all kinds of great meals but the simplicity and artfulness of their standing sushi bars are what stuck with me. I felt in Singapore there was either the conveyor belt sushi or high-end traditional sushi at the time, so if I could offer some consistently good quality at approachable prices then the folks working in the business district looking for a quick, healthy lunch would be interested. I used my own savings to start the outlet; it was in the neighborhood of 200k.
4. What were your biggest challenges launching your business?
As much as I love sushi, I didn’t know how to actually make it myself, so I had to just be comfortable knowing that I would have to rely on others for a critical component of the restaurant. I knew that I wanted to make this a multi-location business though, so I told myself that I wouldn’t be able to be hands-on once we expanded so I would have to get used to the idea of relying on chefs.
Also just getting used to the mental shift from being an employee with a very secure job into one where you’re the owner and everything is coming out of your pocket. It’s a lot different managing a department’s budget as an employee versus managing a business’s budget where it’s all your own money.
5. How is it different from your other F&B businesses Tanuki Raw and Standing Sushi Bar?
Salmon Samurai is a quick-serve concept; it’s meant to be a healthy, relatively fast dining experience that is focused on the food and that you can have on a regular basis. For Tanuki Raw, it’s more destinational dining, where you might spend a couple hours having cocktails and food while leisurely chatting with friends.
6. Describe what Salmon Samurai stands for.
For the salmon lovers. Fresh salmon, filleted at the shop and prepared in a variety of ways. We get whole Norwegian salmon in and our chefs slice it into sashimi blocks at our restaurant. This is as fresh as salmon can be in Singapore; we don’t use a central kitchen and process offsite.
7. Why healthy food?
One can feel when they’re not at their optimum, and for a lot of lifestyles it’s a regular thing to be indulging in food, alcohol, and a sedentary lifestyle. Over time you can feel your body and mind not being at its optimum, and you want to change that, but it can be difficult to put together a healthy meal. We are one of the options where you can quickly and easily get a healthy bowl. Personally as we had opened cocktail bars and some of the rich, indulgent food at Tanuki Raw, I also became interested and crave for a healthier balance.
8. What do you envision the future of healthy food to be in Singapore?
It’s an interesting question, especially during this circuit breaker period. Related to health I think would be the provenance of food – with this scare of possibly having borders shut to trade there was a lot of interest in the farming work that is happening in Singapore and the availability of vegetables, eggs, etc. So you’ll see people take a stronger interest in the food supply chain and tracing products back to their source, even more than what is currently happening.
9. What are the future plans for Salmon Samurai?
We’d certainly like to expand Salmon Samurai; salmon is one of those wonderfoods that provide so many great health benefits, and we’ve created many complementary sides and toppings to go with it. In the future it would be great to partner with some key salmon fisheries so that we have an even deeper relationship with our supply, and if possible bring in different types of salmon.
10. What is one advice or tip you would give to those who want to start an F&B business?
Know your numbers, strip out emotions, leave a little room for gut feel.
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Jolene lives for avo toasts, yoga and is a little more OCD than she cares to admit. She never fails to start her day with morning coffee and is very partial to flat whites. She is obsessed with interiors and homeware, and is currently taking her RYT 200h yoga teacher training course as an aspiring ashtangi.