IT may have charted many firsts in the Japanese restaurant scene in Singapore, but restaurant group RE&S Holdings is not quite resting on its laurels yet. On the contrary, it has many plans on the cards: to add restaurant concepts, grow its network of quick-service dining options and enhance existing food and beverage outlets.
And with the additional funds through its upcoming listing on the Singapore Exchange's Catalist board on Nov 22, the group is looking to use the extra firepower for quicker expansion through joint ventures or alliances with strategic partners, both local and overseas.
RE&S owns and runs 77 outlets and 20 brands including the likes of Wadori Yakitori, a kiosk that serves Japanese-style skewered grilled meats such as pork and eel; Shabu Ichi, a Hokkaido style hot pot restaurant; and Kuriya Japanese Market, for which fresh seafood is air-flown from Japan three times a week.
John Yek, managing director of RE&S, recalls that a favourite food he had in his childhood was a simple one: rice with duck sauce. "That's how Singaporeans in the seventies and sixties grew up," he says. "But the eighties was a period of transition." The population was becoming more affluent and spending more lavishly, including on F&B. "But lifestyle dining didn't exist. Or very few existed."
In the 1990s, establishments that served Japanese food catered mainly to Japanese expatriates living in Singapore as well as the moneyed due to their price point. "Japanese restaurants those days were small, dark, dingy," says Mr Yek. "And when you go in, you will be given a menu that you can't understand." These were often written in Japanese or Romanised English, he adds.
Mr Yek, then a lawyer, and Hiroshi Tatara, an engineer who had moved from Japan to Singapore in 1976, saw that Singapore was hungry for fresh culinary experiences and Japanese food was largely inaccessible. They started designing menus with pictures and descriptions in English. What RE&S did was to give the mass market Japanese cuisine before they knew they wanted it.
In 1990, they opened their first fine-dining restaurant at Furama Hotel which, according to Mr Yek, failed and closed down. Their next one, by the name of Fiesta Japanese restaurant, opened in 1992, and became one of Singapore's first conveyor-belt restaurants. In 2003, it rebranded to become Ichiban Sushi.
This was followed by a spread of restaurants and ventures whose concepts marked various "firsts" on the island, Mr Yek says. Shokutsu Ten, for instance was one of the first Japanese food streets and Kuishin Bo was one of the first Japanese buffet restaurants.
"For our growth strategy," says Mr Yek, "We have three pillars."
Firstly, RE&S wants to expand existing concepts, being keenly aware that Singaporean customers' expectations have grown. "We are well travelled, we are sophisticated customers. We know Japan... It is not restricted to some niche market," says Mr Yek.
Furthermore, convenience and food delivery services in Singapore are growing more popular. RE&S plans to grow its network of quick-service dining options and retail shops, and use marketing channels like supermarkets.
The second pillar is to rack up growth through acquisitions, joint ventures and strategic alliances. "It took us thirty years to get here. Will it take us another thirty years to get another 20 brands? The answer is no," says Mr Yek.
"You can find this value between the companies. You can speed up your developmental process, because they have something developed already. They may have a brand. You may have certain resources that they don't have."
The third pillar is to enhance existing restaurants and retail stores to amplify the customer's dining experience.
"You'll find the tables are a little bit bigger at Ichiban Boshi, at Ichiban Sushi, a bit smaller," Mr Yek says. He goes on to point out that the passageways of Ichiban Sushi are narrower than Ichiban Boshi. "It creates a different dining experience."
He associates the subtleties of corridors, tables and general details of the atmosphere with the themes attributed to various restaurants or their "moods".
"People wear different things, do different things, eat different things, so they go to different restaurants, because of their different moods. And we try to separate our concepts. The two closest concepts I can think of that may cause a little bit of confusion in this case should be Ichiban Boshi and Ichiban Sushi. A lot of people say, both also got conveyor belt what, so what's the difference?"
According to the preliminary offer document that RE&S had lodged, an F&B outlet is typically refurbished every three to five years.
RE&S also plays around with its concepts. "We are able to mix and match the concepts because they are modular," says Mr Yek. Calling them "new hybrid concepts", he gives an example of the Japanese food alley, which houses all its convenience brands, such as Ichiban Bento and Gokoku Japanese Bakery.
Carrying multi-concepts also enhances the group's resilience. For customers who want to spend less, RE&S' 20 restaurant concepts, which span a spectrum of price points, offer options. For those who worry about radioactive raw fish, Mr Yek says: "We also serve chicken."
Asked about dealing with rumours that raw fish from Japan is radioactive, Mr Yek says it is about addressing misperceptions. It could, after all, be fish from a part of Japan unaffected by radiation.
Ultimately the buffet of choices RE&S offers for the customer helps it to be a "people business", a company ethos that Mr Yek emphasises repeatedly. "Without our people we won't be here. That's our philosophy."
He adds: "If a customer comes to one of our restaurants today, our purpose is to get this customer to come back tomorrow. It is not to get as much as we can from this customer today. That's how we think."