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Businessinsider - 8 days ago

A Miami restaurateur went from massive failure to running a $20 million sushi chain. Here s how he used market research, family-oriented leadership, and savvy partnership strategies to grow to 20 locations.

Abe Ng is the CEO and founder of a multimillion-dollar sushi franchise, Sushi Maki, which has over 20 locations throughout South Florida and won Whole Food s Supplier of the Year award. Ng shared with Business Insider what he learned from the colossal failure of his first venture, a gourmet burrito chain that quickly went under. Collaborating with other companies was vital to improving business, Ng said. He also explained how his family-oriented management style increased productivity and fostered loyalty, and how he adapted to food delivery apps to increase sales. Click here for more BI Prime stories. Abe Ng took a big risk opening a sushi franchise in Miami 19 years ago. It was uncharted territory for Japanese cuisine in South Florida, and Ng wasn t sure how well it would do. His confidence was already shaken from a previous failed venture in 1997, a gourmet burrito chain that quickly folded in under three years. Ng (pronounced ing ) already gave personal guarantees on leases for two locations in Miami for the burrito restaurant that was, in his words, a massive failure. Since he already signed the leases and his burrito chain folded, he looked at what kinds of restaurants would be successful in the neighborhood. He realized that a burrito chain wasn t doing well in a city already saturated with Mexican and Hispanic food, but his research showed that sushi was underrepresented. But he still feared his next venture would end the same way as the first. You think of all the consequences and what do you do if it fails? Go back to school? You think of all the downsides, Ng said. Ng said that he had no choice but to go ahead with something to fill the space that he leased. Because of his first failed venture, his funds were stretched thin. Our first logo was Microsoft Word Century Gothic Font. We couldn t afford a logo, Ng said. Ng opened the first Sushi Maki in the summer of 2000 and earned less than $1 million in revenue. He has since opened over 20 locations throughout South Florida, leading over 250 people, where Sushi Maki earned over $20 million this year. His company won a Whole Food s Supplier of the Year award and Ng personally received leadership awards, including a title from South Florida Business Journal as the Ultimate CEO, and a regional finalist for the Ernst Young s Entrepreneur of the Year. In an interview with Business Insider, Ng shared how he rebounded from his failures and how he grew his business to be one of the most recognizable sushi chains in Miami.SEE ALSO: A 32-year-old small business owner who works full time and manages her company by night explains how to run a company while working a 9-to-5 job READ MORE: Roaches, crickets, and superworms: How a 34-year-old capitalized on an SEO keyword to build a creepy-crawly $270,00-a-year side hustle Identify the market Miami has never had a considerable Asian population, so it makes sense that the city didn t have many sushi restaurants in the 90 s. According to a census report, the population of Asians living in the city was less than 1% in 2000. An underrepresented cuisine could stand out and do well, but it came with the risk that something new may not work out. Ng said there were a variety of cuisine options in Miami, except for sushi. He also researched that people were interested in new and ethnic food, along with healthy eating. Miami had a strong and stable economy at the turn of the millennium, the art scene was emerging, and the city, dubbed the gateway to the Americas, had Latin cuisine popping up, and the strong Cuban culture made it a top tourist destination. Sushi Maki used high-quality ingredients, had hands-on service, and offered a trendy dining experience, all of which Ng said brought customers back. In the winter of 2000, Ng opened another restaurant in Coral Gables, which was the second location he d originally leased for his burrito chain, and from there kept expanding. Ng said Sushi Maki was the first company to serve bubble tea to Miami, a popular East Asian drink that was absent in Miami. My wife and I were in LA visiting family and we saw bubble tea everywhere we thought, why not us? Ng said. We identify what is cool and fun and try to introduce it through our platform.

Collaboration and professionalism Sushi Maki s first big break came when a hotel ordered sushi for wholesale in 2002. Since it was one of the only sushi restaurants in Miami then, with a rising reputation in the community, event planners and hotels started asking Sushi Maki to cater. Whenever someone called for an order, I would immediately create an invoice and send an email on my Blackberry to confirm, Ng said. When we professionalize, that was when business skyrocketed. Apart from the restaurants, which were doing well, Ng realized catering was a great opportunity to further business. He also noticed more people were eating prepared food from supermarkets, so he wanted to sell branded sushi. He reached out to different supermarkets in Miami and targeted Whole Foods for its clientele. He eventually got a deal with Whole Foods to have a Sushi Maki store in every South Florida market. Sushi Maki started selling there in 2007, and because of the overwhelming success of sales, Whole Foods awarded the restaurant Supplier of the Year for the Florida region in 2018. Sushi Maki recently secured a long-term multi-year agreement with Whole Foods to continue being their supplier. Ng said it has given the business a lot of confidence and security. He also used non-traditional venues to sell sushi. He opened up stands in two universities, the University of Miami and Florida International University, two stadiums, a hospital, and in the Miami International Airport. Instead of serving the full restaurant menu, these stands had Sushi Maki storefronts that only sold sushi. The growth ahead for the food industry is non-traditional, forward thinking, and that means it is always going to be collaborative, Ng said. No one does it alone anymore. To be successful you have to be a good team player. It is a great investment.

Family-oriented leadership Every quarter of the year, Sushi Maki closes early on a weekday to hold a casual, fun gathering for over 250 employees. The company evaluates each location s sales performance and how to better themselves, but also has time for the staff to kick back, have fun, win cash prizes, and participate in the talent show. The gathering, which the company calls the Pow-Wow, is an important event that helps strengthen staff unity and makes employees feel part of the Sushi Maki family. This is also a chance for Ng to reward his staff members for their hard work. Business Insider went to the event and saw chefs, cashiers, accountants, and a member of the marketing team each winning $100 for exemplary work. The winner from the talent show won $500. Ng said the company loses over $50,000 in sales while restaurants are closed for the event. He said it is important they close on a working day instead of a holiday or weekend so that staff members can be with their loved ones. Always have the employees on your side and it comes down to them trusting you. Put their interest first, Ng said. My son says that the customers may always be right, but the employees will always be the most important.

Embrace disruption Ng worried that food delivery apps could cause a restaurant apocalypse. But leaning into delivery apps helped Sushi Maki increase its sales, Ng said. To make sure his restaurants won t die, he made the dining experience memorable for customers, an experience they would miss out on if consumers use delivery apps. Sushi Maki has dining rooms for celebratory events, and hosts chopstick lessons for the community. The experience, Ng said, differentiates them. We embrace digital apps, but you have to make it part of your business, not let it take over the business. Ng said. Let these third parties help grow our brand and make them want to come to our locations. Ng said embracing these kinds of threats and finding unconventional venues to sell their sushi helped grow the brand. And Ng wants Sushi Maki to be remembered for a long time. We want our brand to stand for something, Ng said. If Sushi Maki ceased to exist, we want people to really miss it.



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