With a host of awards under their belt, including Best Takeaway Chef in Britain 2019 and Takeaway of the Year 2020 East London, Felipe and business partner and wife Veronica are preparing to make a comeback with a bang after months in lockdown planning their next ventures.
Hi Felipe, thanks for catching up with us. So, tell us a little more about your background?
For more than fifteen years my wife Veronica and I had been developing Japanese restaurant concepts together, providing management, strategic planning, marketing and design. We have the knowledge and expertise to create and define restaurants, the brand positioning and expansion, from the initial idea through to the construction, start-up and beyond.
Everything started back in 1997; I was a commercial pilot when I fell in love at first sight with Veronica in a Sushi bar in Caracas-Venezuela. Veronica was working as a part time waitress while she was studying graphic design. To impress her, I decided to become a sushi encyclopaedia and visited her every week to show her my “sushi knowledge”, and my strategy worked! Today after 20 years together she is the love of my life, we have a sushi loving daughter and our life revolves around Japanese gastronomy. Some people know me as @Susherito, meaning the little sushi man in Spanish.
We might say we are a couple that knows the Japanese fine dining and casual restaurant industry with a proven record of successful concept development. We have also advised and eaten in different Nihon restaurants in cities around the world, including Chicago, Miami, California, Madrid, Barcelona, San Sebastian, Paris, Caracas, Santiago, San Juan, and of course, London.
That’s a lovely story! How did you come up with the concept for Sugoi JPN?
We were keen to create something different, unique, simple, but cool (which is what Sugoi means). The hospitality industry is aware that delivered food is an increasingly important feature of urban living, uptake is highest in the capital. Technology has been the catalyst, driving uptake via mobile platforms and digital marketing with full-service delivery platforms opening new channels.
As a result, we decided to bet on the dark delivery kitchens to try our crazy cool idea, and we found one in Bethnal Green, which we shared. The kitchen was located down an alley under a railway arch which was coincidental, considering our concept was inspired by Piss Alley (Tokyo).
We opened the business and the immediate reaction was not what we had hoped for. It took a while to get orders, with only a couple a day and although the feedback was very positive, we knew we had to invest in marketing to survive and I decided to quit my job in order to give the business my full attention.
So, we introduced ourselves to our friendly neighbours, one of which was Old Street Brewery. We shared some NoriTacos with them, and they shared some fantastic beer with us. There was a natural synergy and we just clicked.
They did not want to deal with chefs, kitchens, food, menus, and all the issues that come with back of house, so we took care of it for them. They had a kitchen and we had a restaurant floor. It was a win-win relationship and because we have the same vision, ethos and values, everything just flowed. In time, we did the same thing with Renegade London Wine and then Mother Kelly’s where we invested in a food truck to serve our unique NoriTacos direct to customers.
The delivery business represents a high % of our revenue, some of it comes from our street food “venues”, however third-party apps help us to reach new potential customers directly. Those customers then become regulars and loyal followers, helping us to spread the word and increase brand exposure.
What makes your menu so unique? I can’t imagine there’s many Latin-American Japanese restaurants out there.
When we arrived in London five years ago, we realised that the Japanese food market was saturated, there are concepts suited to any budget, style, time, etc. You could find a fast food chain, fine dining, small family and traditional spots, different fusions, food stalls in a street market, even under a rock you could find a sushi concept!
So, we decided to be different, to be cool, and we gave sushi a vibrant and hardcore Latin twist. As a result of our travels and experiences with food, we were able to come up with the cool idea of NoriTacos, a Japanese-Latin street food fusion. It took us over a year to achieve key product deliverables; maintaining the crunch without cracking, standing upright – so holding fillings in place – and maintaining texture, whilst being filled with moist ingredients to allow at least half an hour for delivery. I must say, that’s very unique!
How did you feel when we went into lockdown? What did you do with the time?
It was very difficult because at the beginning of 2020, we secured a partnership with a national department store on Oxford Street, and we were planning to take over their rooftop this summer – a dream come true! So when Covid-19 hit, we ended up without our Bethnal Green kitchen and without the rooftop. It was devastating – our dream vanished!
We had business in different countries, where crisis is normal living, and so we had some experience in terms of how to deal with it. So we took a break and analysed everything. We knew we had to adapt and bravely change strategy quickly and we knew that whatever we would go on to do would be a risk, but it’s all about believing in yourself, your concept and aiming for the best.
Tell us about your franchise opportunity – how did the idea come about?
The hospitality industry has hugely been impacted by Covid-19 and it’s all about supporting each other during this crisis and getting through it together.
Most restaurants that closed were pivoting their business to delivery and takeaway, however to continue to generate profit, this is almost impossible. Whilst we were closed, we thought about this issue and how we could get around it and we decided on an exciting partnership.
As so many people know already, owning your own business is not always a piece of cake. It’s very rewarding, but it involves more of your time, energy and dedication. So we wanted to give entrepreneurs an opportunity to run their own delivery kitchen, and professionals who would like to maximise their restaurants or delivery/takeaway business, by adding a successful and multi award-winning concept to it.
We do the training, we give them the right to use our brand, we teach them our know how, etc. Their venue does not need to have our branding, it will work just with online presence. It will help others to make it happen through maximising their structure (rent, staff, etc) and it will help us to expand our brand at the same time in a professional way. The whole idea is to be able to run a multi-concept kitchen where entrepreneurs can manage their concept and ours simultaneously in the same venue.
We are quite proud of what we have accomplished over the past two years. As you read through this interview, you’ll see why we say, “This is not just a company, it’s a concept!” and we would love to work with more partners to expand this cool concept.
We don’t want to be thought of as someone who only sells ‘franchises’. That isn’t our intention. We’ve designed this business as if we are going to grow together.
You’ve won a host of awards, have a great brand and are at the forefront when it comes to innovation, where do you hope to see the business in 5 years?
We cannot express how grateful we are for all the kind words we have received from the titans and experts of the hospitality industry. Personalities like Ainsley Harriott, Sarah Willingham, Graham Corfield and James Hacon all loved our concept and product at The British Takeaway Awards last year. We have also been awarded the Best Takeaway of the year in East London, amongst others. We just cannot believe it. We are very proud, honoured, and we will continue to be humble doing what we love to do.
With regards to the future, our plan at the moment is develop a controlled small expansion, with ten more kitchens opening in London. After that we can think about opening internationally, maybe in the Middle East, who knows! Things can change so quickly, as we have seen with Covid-19, so it’s about being flexible, and having the capability to adapt to drastic changes quickly and calmly.
Also we would like to think that in the future our nori shells could be available in retail stores and supermarkets so our customers can make their own noritacos at home.
What advice would you pass on to other catering businesses who are feeling disheartened about the hospitality industry during Covid-19?
Do not see this as a crisis, but an opportunity! Be positive and open your mind and think outside the box. Everyone is starting from scratch, take advantage of it and make this new start work for you.