Almost two decades ago, in 2000, Sumo Sushi & Bento started as a single restaurant on Sheikh Zayed Road near Defence Roundabout – a common name for the first interchange on Sheikh Zayed Road – with 14 members. Four Dubai-based entrepreneurs who wanted to bring fresh fish to diners launched it to fulfil their dream of opening the first Japanese casual dining restaurant in the UAE.
“Through the first decade, we saw slow growth. We had three corporate units; Dubai Media City came up in 2004, Town Centre Jumeirah followed in 2006, while Jumeirah Lakes Towers (JLT) came up much later,” shared Julianne Holt-Kailihiwa, CEO, Sumo Sushi & Bento.
“Starting late 2000s, we chose the franchising route to accelerate our growth. Since the last couple of years, the Apparel Group has been a fantastic franchise partner, driving the growth of Sumo Sushi & Bento in the region. They have signed up for 20 Sumo Sushi & Bento units across the GCC. Of these, five branches are already open. Among the recent openings are at Bawadi Mall in Al Ain; Dalma Mall in Abu Dhabi; and one in Kuwait,” she added.
With franchising came a big difference in Sumo Sushi & Bento’s growth strategy. Traditionally, the Sumo Sushi & Bento units used to be in community malls or business hubs – like Town Centre Jumeirah and Dubai Media City. With the franchise partnership with Apparel Group and the latter’s relationship with different shopping malls, Sumo Sushi & Bento is now open in some great locations. It has exposed the brand to a broader community of people. Today the brand has three corporate units within the UAE along with several franchised outlets.
Alongside Apparel Group, Sumo Sushi & Bento has built other long-term franchise relationships over the last 12 years. It has a long-standing franchise partner in Bahrain with three units there. “Franchising has allowed the brand to expand more while minimising capital investment. We can rely on our franchise partner’s expertise and capital. Of course, there are some challenges, as every partner comes with their mindset and expectations from the partnership. If these expectations aren’t aligned, it can hurt the brand,” Holt-Kailihiwa observed. “But we have been fortunate to have good relationships with our franchise partners in the UAE and beyond.”
Recently, Sumo Sushi & Bento announced expansion into India. Along with India-based franchise consultancy, FranGlobal as its strategic franchise partner Sumo Sushi & Bento plans to open 30 new outlets across major cities in India within the next five years. “The first Sumo Sushi & Bento restaurant is scheduled to open in India by January 2020. Moreover, we also have plans to enter the US and Canada,” Holt-Kailihiwa revealed.
Alongside growth, Sumo Sushi & Bento boasts a high rate of repeat customers who must have reasons to come back and try something new every time. At the same time, the brand keeps a close eye on what customers generally like, adding such items on the menu regularly. Such constant menu refreshment requires creativity. “And creativity is one of our core values,” Holt-Kailihiwa emphasised. “It is even more crucial in a highly competitive market like the UAE where every other day a new restaurant comes up. In this market, Sumo Sushi & Bento has built a reputation of being that constant comfort place.”
“Particularly, since the launch of our mobile app in 2018, we have seen a phenomenal increase in customer loyalty. We now have a 50% active user rate,” she shared. “The app is extremely engaging while being mindful of not bombarding users with promotional messages. We engage with our customer smartly, wherein answering trivia questions can earn them instant rewards. We have a customer experience coordinator solely dedicated to managing customer relationship on the app.”
“Further, at the backend, we have built a system to operate our franchise model. In simple terms, we have built an intranet that holds our online franchise manuals and training videos. All the recipes are available online with information on calorie count, allergen notification and so on. We started this project two years ago, even before the Dubai Municipality’s ruling on the calorie count,” Holt-Kailihiwa elaborated.
“Over the years, alongside building our brand presence, we have heavily invested in our processes and people. We have some incredible stories of career progress. One of our dishwashers went on to become the restaurant manager and our chief innovation and technology officer started as a waiter in 2004. These are massive testimonies,” she concluded.