Singapore sushi king dreams of opening shop in Pyongyang



Singapore’s sushi king dreams of opening a shop in an unlikely place as he looks to expand his huge chain of conveyor-belt sushi restaurants: Pyongyang.

Douglas Foo, 37, owner of Sakae Sushi, Singapore’s largest sushi chain, would probably make most Japanese blush with his zeal to bring Japanese cuisine to unusual places like North Korea, but Foo sees the isolated country as an unexploited market with big potential.

“It’s a market (where) you really get your first-mover advantage. There’s almost no competition to speak of,” said Foo, chief executive officer of Apex-Pal International Ltd., which operates the sushi chain.

“We are targeting the top people, top executives of state-owned enterprises, foreign expatriate communities and the humanitarian NGOs” based in Pyongyang. “These people will want nice places to dine.”

Unfortunately, his plan stalled after North Korea’s nuclear test last October led the U.N. Security Council to slap trade, travel and other sanctions on the hermit state.

Foo, who was in Pyongyang to meet potential business partners on the day the test was carried out, remains undaunted.

“Actually, we were hoping for sometime next year, but because of the situation, now we may have to shelve it for little while. But ultimately we are still very interested to go ahead with the plans.”

His sushi chain has grown to 50 outlets, including 36 shops in Singapore. Most of his rivals in the city-state operate fewer than 10.

“We hope to be reaching our 100 mark within these two years. We should be heading toward 500 in the medium term,” he said.

His sleek, high-tech sushi chain serves sushi, sashimi and other delicacies on small colored plates that zip by on conveyor belts. Most dishes are priced at 1.90 Singapore dollars (147 yen) each. Customers place orders electronically on interactive computer menus.

Foo speaks with passion about sushi, which he believes fits well with Singaporeans’ love for Japanese cuisine and the rising interest in health foods.

The restaurant chain has spread overseas to Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and China. Foo is also eyeing Russia, the Middle East and South Africa.

“I love sashimi and sushi and I have a deep interest in the whole Japanese culture,” Foo said in a recent interview at Hibiki, his more upmarket Japanese restaurant in downtown Singapore.

“We hope to build Sakae Sushi into a global brand, and so we have to be everywhere on the globe. North Korea is part of this globe,” he said in a private wood-paneled dining room lined floor to ceiling with fine sake.

“We are in talks with many parties in Moscow; we might be moving forward very quickly in markets like this. We have got people that we talk to even in South Africa, the Middle East. We are very open to try to bring our concept to all these places.”

Last year, the company had an annual turnover of S$52 million and a pretax profit of S$4.7 million.

Foo had his first taste of sushi in the 1990s while on a date. His first impression of sushi?

“Very small, and very expensive!” he said.

When he opened his first outlet in Singapore in 1997, Japanese food hadn’t caught on.

“Generally, the perception of Japanese food was ‘expensive and raw.’ Sushi was only popular for certain groups of people. There was the majority who were not really exposed to this delicacy.”

Foo’s goal is to make good sushi at affordable prices.

Although his plan to open a branch in North Korea has hit a snag because of U.N. sanctions, Foo is going ahead with plans to open a North Korean restaurant in Singapore, probably a first for the country.

It will offer North Korean dishes served in tiny gold-colored bowls by talented North Koreans who will also entertain guests with traditional songs and dances.

“North Korean food is very interesting. The country has not had the opportunity to experience the outside medical advancement, so Koreans depend on food to keep their health, using certain roots and plants.”

In the meantime, Foo remains optimistic about the prospects for his first restaurant in North Korea.

“The sanctions would definitely affect everybody and that’s why we decided to delay and not to rush into it, because sometimes these things will be blown over after a certain period of time. During the cooling-off, that’s the time we can do the entry.

“But the advantage that we have today is that we already have established relations. We have a network with people there, as compared to other companies who want to try to go there. Our partners have visited us and they have seen what we do, so the bond is there.”

He became attracted to North Korea when he went there as part of a business mission from Singapore in 2001.

Unlike Japanese businesspeople who are hampered by the government’s policy toward North Korea, Foo thinks Singaporeans have the edge because they face fewer restrictions.