Sumo Sushi & Bento emerges stronger


November 30, 2022 | By Rupkatha B

Okinawa in Japan happens to be a ‘blue zone’ – one of the five places globally that is home to world’s longest living populations. Besides genes and way of life, longevity of Okinawa residents has been linked to their diet. A key reason why Japanese cuisine has steadily gained popularity across the world. Mainly comprising vegetables, rice and seafood – now even vegan and plant-based ingredients – Japanese cuisine is considered not only healthy but also sustainable. A cuisine that “keeps evolving silently in new ways,” as aptly summarised by Eric C. Rath, a historian at the University of Kansas.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that a not-so-popular cuisine even two decades ago in our region, the Middle East, is now a firm favourite among diners. If anything, the increasing number of restaurants focused on sushi and ramen is a testament to the growing popularity of the Japanese cuisine. Fondness for sushi is nothing short of a revolution.

Amid deep competition and changing demographics and demands one restaurant chain has constantly evolved all the while resonating with its tribe. From the era of “why is this fish raw” to Emirati teens creating “we’re eating sushi” TikTok videos, this restaurant chain’s over two decades long journey in the region has been long and interesting. We’re talking about Sumo Sushi & Bento that emerged stronger from the pandemic.

“From 21 locations pre-pandemic we are currently at 10 units – 3 in Bahrain, 2 in Cyprus and the rest in Dubai (3 corporate and rest franchised units). That’s half of what we were pre-Covid,” Kailihiwa said. “While our franchisees have exited some markets, we’ve entered others such as Cyprus towards early 2021.”

What’s interesting is that the overall performance of the operating units has improved with many performing better than pre-Covid. Going forward Sumo Sushi and Bento’s strategy is to open corporate/own stores over franchised units. It makes one wonder if the strategy is based on the brand’s experience of owned stores emerging from the pandemic fitter and more agile.

But Kailihiwa quickly pointed out, “It was more about the location. Some mall-based, foot traffic reliant, dine-in locations didn’t perform well throughout the pandemic, although they were doing significant deliveries.” The restaurant chain has also decided to shrink the size of its units the sweet spot hovering somewhere around 1,500-2,000 sqft – “1,800 sqft works best in most areas,” Kailihiwa shared.

Brand strategy for 2023: “Not get hung up on long-term strategy”

What does 2023 look like for Sumo Sushi & Bento? Will it be opening more outlets, entering new markets or recording stronger year-on-year performance through the existing portfolio?

“Our overall strategy is not get hung up on the long-term strategy,” Kailihiwa responded. “2020 and Covid has taught us that we need to move quickly and be agile. We are also looking inward to improve our own performance, stay true to who we are and of course grow responsibly. We have discussions on-going to enter some exciting new regions as well as reopen corporate stores in previous territories that were shuttered. Forming meaningful collaborations and a focus on the community are also on the forefront of our strategy for 2023.”

While navigating through the pandemic Sumo Sushi & Bento learnt some interesting lessons that will also have a bearing on its future growth strategy. “In Oman we should have tweaked our menu as people like rice dishes and fried food. The attempt to go high-end didn’t work in Kuwait, and our restaurant shuttered pre-Covid. Now we are actively looking for a partner in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and considering re-entering Qatar following a ghost kitchen model.”

“Overall, our business has not changed that much, but it has become increasingly refined, more focused and driven. As we grew pre-2020 there was almost a boastful arrogance that came with that growth. Perhaps growing for the sake of growing not necessarily growth in the true spirit of our core values. We’ve learned the ultimate lesson during the pandemic: character is revealed when pressure is applied.

The full article has been published in the November edition of RetailME.

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