It’s a wrap: From ad man to sushi boss

Mr Omar Marks, the co-founder of make-your-own sushi chain Maki-San, is the most unlikely person to run a Japanese eatery. For starters, he does not like the taste of the seaweed used as a wrap for sushi. A copywriter by training, he also had absolutely no F&B experience. And hailing from India, he knew little about Japanese culture.

But that did not stop the entrepreneur in him. He dived head first into the market, setting up Maki-San in 2012 in Singapore to disrupt the sushi scene. Four years and six shops later, the business is chalking up a turnover of S$1 million a month as it prepares to expand globally.

When he was in his early 30s, Mr Marks quit his copywriting job because he felt that he had reached a point in his life where he wanted to do things his own way. Out of sheer gut feeling and trust in the concept, he and his former business partner created Maki-San, which allows customers to tailor their sushi to their liking. They did not even conduct market research prior to setting up shop.

“We were keen on the concept of ‘make-your-own’ and sushi is something well received by Singaporeans. In such a saturated sushi market, nobody was doing a DIY version of it, and it felt like an opportunity we can explore. So that is why we chose sushi,” Mr Marks said in an interview with TODAY.

“Because we are not F&B trained, we wanted to create a more casual brand. We are not F&B entrepreneurs or serial entrepreneurs who would get into ‘fine dining’ concepts. The casual concept would not require a lot of heavy recipes and kitchen preparations involved,” he said.

They took the gamble and set up the first Maki-San outlet in The Cathay with an initial S$250,000 for rental deposits and renovation, and another S$100,000 on branding and marketing. Boosted by its strong social media presence, it quickly became a hit with students and young adults who would flock to the restaurant for its fresh ingredients and unique concept. By the 15th month, the business broke even.

Maki-San has now grown to six outlets — at The Cathay, Cineleisure Orchard, I12 Katong, Bedok Mall, Compass One and NUS Science Drive 2 — turning over S$12 million in revenue annually. Its staff strength has also grown from just two to 50. Maki-San plans to open its seventh outlet in Pasir Ris this month, and another in Bukit Panjang in early February.
Mr Marks attributes part of the success of Maki-San to its strong focus on marketing and branding since Day 1. “Marketing and branding is not an expense. It is an investment in the brand. We get a lot of word of mouth because of the branding and marketing that we do from the packaging of the products to how we are on social media.”

“We are more of a lifestyle experience. It is not just a basic transaction: Give us money, here’s your food, thank you very much. There is a lot of investment in getting people to hang around longer, enjoy the experience here, and then share it online.”
The quirkiness of the food ingredients — unlike what you get from a traditional Japanese restaurant — is another strong selling point. Maki-San found its success through trial and error: It offered all sorts of ingredients on its menu, and ended up dropping flavours such as tandoori chicken and satay sauce while retaining chilli crab sauce, brown rice and soy wrap.

Maki-San has even captured the attention of Japanese customers, who are amazed at the creative approach to their traditional dish. “It’s really gratifying that we get queries even from individuals in Japan who said that our concept is interesting. If you think about Japanese cuisine, a lot is traditional food. Here we are playing with a whole bunch of ingredients,” said Mr Alvin Wong, who became a partner in Maki-San in late 2013.

Maki-San’s customers, who are young and keen to try new things, also play a big part in its success. “What worked out well was that the people who would participate in this kind of experiment would be the youth. They are more experimental and interested in trying out new concepts,” said Mr Marks

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With a strong footing at home, Maki-San is looking to expand abroad in the near future, with an initial focus on Southeast Asia. It is currently in talks to open outlets overseas but did not give specific details. It also plans to expand the make-your-own concept to other types of food. What the business stands for is fun, said Mr Marks.

“We always call ourselves a fun eating experience. We are not traditional Japanese, we don’t take ourselves too seriously and we have lots of fun. A lot of the ingredients are nowhere near Japanese,” he said.

Looking back at his daredevil decision to set up Maki-San despite being in completely unfamiliar territory, Mr Marks said: “The gamble came because of the very nature of us being creatives. It doesn’t have to be 100 per cent set in stone on how things are going to work out. You have to take a risk. If you over-research it, then you would not take the first step.”Source:http://www.todayonline.com/business/its-wrap-ad-man-sushi-boss

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