HK diners enjoy raw deal

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 January, 2008, 12:00am

Japanese restaurant owners predict a bright future for their business as an increasing number of local customers are keen on the cuisine

Sushi is taking the world by storm and it's no surprise that the Japanese cuisine is booming in Hong Kong.

From high-end hotel restaurants to affordably priced chains, local diners can enjoy an unrivalled level of choice.

According to Genki Sushi Hong Kong executive director Martin Lee, the sushi business has burgeoned over the past few years thanks to a range of factors.

'Local diners are lot more educated about sushi and the price has also become affordable,' Mr Lee said.

Genki operates 27 mass-market outlets, in addition to Sen-ryo, a premium, high-class conveyor-belt sushi chain with five local outlets.

Although the company added 10 Genki stores last year, two more are slated to open this month - with more likely in the longer term.

According to Ricky Cheng, the director of Itamae Sushi and Itacho Sushi, the Hong Kong market has room not only to expand current brands, but also to absorb new operators.

Mr Cheng pointed to the increase in the age range of sushi consumers and the ensuing increase in numbers of customers as a driver of the current boom.

'In the past, the age range was from 10 to 60, but now, the age range [runs] from six to 80, [so the] market has increased,' he said.

As a result, expansion is almost inevitable, with opportunities to be found in almost any location.

'It doesn't matter if it's in a shopping mall or in a housing estate, it's possible to open a new sushi restaurant if the flow of customers and the rent is balanced in direct proportion,' Mr Cheng said.

That said, the brand on offer can impact the choice of location.

'Our Sen-ryo brand is more for entertainment areas and commercial centres, while Genki is in local real estate and the New Territories, so there are still different ways to grow the business,' Mr Lee said.

He also noted that hygiene and cleanliness were priorities in a business specialising in supremely fresh produce from Japan and elsewhere.

As a result, Genki now employs state-of-the-art technology in the shape of a pioneering Sushi Monitoring Freshness Checker, to be found at every Sen-ryo outlet.

By removing sushi plates from the conveyor belt after a predetermined period of time, this more than ticks health and safety boxes and reassures consumers.

Pricing also impacts this market.

'We've always had a price advantage, as our Japanese partner is the principal owner and our buying partner, giving us an advantage on the supply chain side,' Mr Lee said.

Last but not least, customer education is key.

'Our restaurants have a lot of different types of fish, but whether the consumer can differentiate between the items on the conveyor belt is something we need to work on,' Mr Lee said.

'Consumers need to learn more about what they are eating and how to enjoy it.'

The quality of materials and the skills of master sushi makers are also vital, in Mr Cheng's opinion.

He noted that master sushi makers with original Japanese skills, matched with fresh, high-quality food and lower cost, helped attract customers.

Other pluses include tip-top customer service and environments appropriate to specific locations and clientele.

Despite the rosy picture and the economic upsurge, the industry does face certain challenges in the forms of increased rents, overheads and rising food costs.

'The relationship between rents and customer flow is very important to our industry,' Mr Cheng explained.

In order to remain competitive, Itamae specialises in offering special dishes, in addition to focusing on expansion to new locations and attracting a wider customer base.

'If a restaurant can increase its market share, it will be very successful as [this is] the most difficult and skilful element,' Mr Cheng said

Today, rapid market growth also points to the continuous need to develop and train skilled labour, with vacancies to be found not only at management level, but also for frontline and backstage staff.

Genki's solution to this has been to boost its training resources, in the form of management and soft-skills training.

The chain has a sushi-master programme, which is devoted to improving sushi knowledge and technical skills.

The company has expanded its workforce by a third, although Mr Lee noted that due to the strong competition in Hong Kong for talented restaurant employees hiring still remained a big challenge to overcome.

However, thanks to a healthy market, local enthusiasm and a steady food and beverage industry, the sushi business is likely to grow even bigger in the years to come and, at the same time, to become increasingly competitive.

Mr Cheng said: 'To grow in strength in this industry, you need be enthusiastic, aggressive and sensitive to the market, so that your brand can last longer and your market share will increase.'


Itacho the highest rank of the master sushi chef who, aside from making sushi, has to train juniors and manage a sushi bar

Itahana refers to the senior sushi chef

Itamae refers to the junior sushi chef

Sali the generic term for cooked and seasoned sticky rice, which is the base of sushi and is served cold

Neda describes the food, raw or cooked, placed on top of sali

Tsumami Japanese version of tapas or side dishes that usually use ingredients such as soybeans, jellyfish and salmon roe served without rice

Key players

Regional manager

Shop manager

Shop supervisor

Master sushi chef

Senior sushi chef

Junior sushi chef