Imagine a restaurant that uses virtual and augmented reality to connect you to the creators of that tea cup you’re eyeing. Or consider the possibilities of a restaurant subscription service that offers things like flexible happy hour deals. “What if we take it further and turn the subscriptions into NFTs? How can we use technology to create more useful retail and dining experiences?”
Howard Lo has just spent the last two minutes throwing out ideas for the future of the many F&B establishments under his Empire Eats Group with the fervour of a Shark Tank contestant, and it is becoming clear that this bubbling excitement is responsible for the continued strength of his flagship restaurant, Tanuki Raw.
Since its launch in 2012, the casual, Japanese-inspired eatery has expanded to include four outlets across the island. For its 10th anniversary, Lo introduced retail-in-restaurant concept Middle Ground by Tanuki Raw to its outlet at the National Design Centre. It peddles a curated mix of “everyday items done creatively that will give you a little jolt of pleasure when you use them” — from international lifestyle brands like Nendo House from Japan, Areaware from the US and Karst from Sydney. Customers can shop online from their seats and collect their purchases at the end of the meal.
For people on the ground, it’s like being a theatre actor every night. They’re getting food, putting on a welcoming face, improvising for hospitality and maintaining this consistently. People burn out fast.
“I was worried at first because the additional space used to be run in partnership with [Hong Kong lifestyle brand] Kapok,” Lo admits. After Kapok pulled out because of pandemic-related pressures, he had to decide if he was ready to venture into the retail space. But like any good entrepreneur, he knew that there would never be a better time than the present.
“It’s important to keep diversifying — not just to protect ourselves from any more global disasters, but to stay happy and excited. Otherwise, the daily grind will consume you. If even a small sliver of those pie-in-the-sky ideas can become reality, that’s something.”
Diversification is a sound strategy for a business to keep growing, but today’s consumers demand breadth over depth in their experiences. Though he loathes using the word “community”, Lo agrees that “destination restaurants” are no longer just places that serve good nosh.
“There are a lot of restaurants that people want to ‘join’ as a community because of their cachet — the attitude and the lifestyle they connote. So they’re buying into the idea that your meal is an admission ticket to that, and they keep returning to keep that access,” he observes. “Restaurants are also taking on more of a personality. It shows in the way they communicate on social media.”
The community of Empire Eats Group, which Lo runs with his wife Lim Hui Nan, includes Standing Sushi Bar, Salmon Samurai, The Secret Mermaid, Shinsora, Black Dot Sweet Provisions, The World is Flat and the now-defunct Sumo Bar Happy, is “playful, not so serious, and very sincere”.
Lo says: “The scene back in 2014 and 2015 was so serious, and everyone was trying to communicate the quality of their ingredients, and the passion and efforts of their culinary and hospitality teams. And the customers were serious too. They would study the menu and do all this research. While we are serious about quality, we’re not serious about how people should interpret us.”
Lo’s biggest takeaway after spending 12 years in F&B is that staff welfare is the key to business longevity.
“It sounds simple, but one of the hardest things to do is to keep staff motivated, engaged, and healthy. For people on the ground, it’s like being a theatre actor every night. They’re getting food, putting on a welcoming face, improvising for hospitality and maintaining this consistently. People burn out fast,” he notes. The added stress of the pandemic didn’t help. Frequent Covid-19 tests and impatient, ignorant customers can batter even the most psychologically resilient.
“The older generation also used to, wrongfully, brag to their juniors about the long hours and terrible working conditions like it was a badge of honour. That’s not healthy,” presses Lo. “So it’s important that we focus on being communicative and transparent with one another. We’re even looking at four-day work weeks.”
Given the fierce competition for staff in Singapore, it’s also a shrewd move to attract more workers. “This will also translate intangibly into better service and, thus, better sales.”
Much of Lo’s success can be credited to his go-getting ways. Black Dot Sweet Provisions, the group’s latest brand, was a circuit-breaker venture galvanised by the nation’s ferocious thirst for bubble tea.
Before the pandemic, there were plans to expand to Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur. Lo is also considering bringing Tanuki Raw to Seattle when the time is right. But expansion of the Empire isn’t one of his indicators for success. “It might be weird, but I would define success as being the person who others can rely on to provide comfort and happiness.”
Even as the definition of a new normal continues to be this nebulous, half-hearted ideal, the Group and its obstinately un-serious concepts remain much-needed ports in a storm. So no, Howard, we don’t think it’s weird at all.