It is estimated that Lebanese consume about seven million pieces of sushi each year. Of those seven million, about 500,000 are ordered from Sushi Bento, the sushi delivery service established in July 2001. Revenues for the first year totaled $300,000. By 2003, that figure increased by over 33% to reach $400,000, and it is projected to hit the $500,000 mark by the end of 2004. Not bad for a company that started out with an initial investment of just $12,000.
“We realized that there was a gap in the market, for high quality, low budget sushi. So we thought, let’s eliminate everything that makes costs higher,” said Imad Abi Chaker, the general manager of Sushi Bento, who along with two other equal partners founded the business. The first part of the elimination process was to scrap the idea of a restaurant and the costs that come with it. The core business would lie in delivery.
“When I was studying in the US, I learned to eat sushi there. It’s not considered a luxury like it is here, so I got used to eating sushi – it was cheap,” explained Abi Chaker, who is also the general manager of his family owned food distribution company, ManyFood. “But when I came back here, I realized I was spending most my salary on sushi. It was my visa bill that gave me the idea to open Sushi Bento.”
Abi Chaker and his two partners began by picking a name: Abi Chaker wanted a Japanese word that was easy to pronounce and translated into ‘box,’ or ‘package,’ so ‘bento’ was chosen. Second came renting a small apartment in Ashrafieh. Using their initial capital of $4,000 each, they installed an industrial kitchen, and hired a chef (who is now Bento’s head chef). In the first three months, they made back their initial investment, and by the eighth month the partners plowed $38,000 back into the business, allowing them to shore up what until that point was a shaky delivery service.
To accommodate higher demand, the company relocated to larger premises, still in the Ashrafieh area, bought a bigger, 300m2 kitchen and hired more staff, taking the payroll to 25 employees. Despite a growing business, overheads were always kept at 20% of the monthly turnover.
Three years down the road, Sushi Bento has seen a rash of copycat operations popping up around the country. But, according to Abi Chaker, along with an increase in competition has come a surge in sushi’s popularity in Lebanon. “The competition is really helping more than hurting by creating a bigger market, so our numbers didn’t decrease,” explained Abi Chaker. “They helped us create an awareness of sushi and we are all benefiting from the [bigger] customer pie.”
Fighting off the competition is not a major concern because, said Abi Chaker, “Ashrafieh is expensive so it kept investors away.” Plus, it helps that Sushi Bento has a firmer grip on the market than most. Although no formal statistics on sushi exist in Lebanon, Abi Chaker estimates the market worth about $5 million, with Sushi Bento holding about 60% of the delivery market.
Not surprisingly, in a business that deals in raw fish, Abi Chaker claims that his major selling point is quality. Sushi Bento imports its fish directly from Japan and the Philippines, with the salmon obtained from local importers. Abi Chaker was quick to point out that Sushi Bento only buys Scottish salmon, as opposed to Norwegian salmon, as it is less fatty and of an altogether higher quality, even though it is about $3 to $4 more expensive per kilo. “We have the quality advantage and have managed to sustain a high quality product,” said Abi Chaker.
After the success of their initial venture – Sushi Bento saw its customer base increase by 500% – the next logical step was expansion. The company is now enjoying a growing franchise business, with the first branch already operating in Jal el Dib (another branch in the Palm Springs Village is owned by the Sushi Bento company).
“We try to get the first move advantage and reach underserved markets,” said Abi Chaker, adding that although he would rather not divulge the location, another franchise branch is expected to open in Lebanon very soon. He did, however, reveal that further franchises are in the works, not only in Lebanon but also in the region within the next 12 months.
“There is definitely more demand for our item, and the market is still underserved,” said Abi Chaker. “We’ve had many solicitations for franchises outside the country but have been reluctant to accept because of a lack of human resources to send out and train staff,” he continued, explaining that the current economic situation was also not the best climate in which to rush headlong into a hasty expansion program.
For now, however, Sushi Bento is concentrating on its budding catering business, which was introduced in 2003. Usually provided through another catering service, Sushi Bento sushi can now be found at all sorts of events, including dinner parties and weddings. Mostly operational during the summer months of June to September, the catering business makes up about 20% of the company’s yearly revenues.
And what of the challenges Sushi Bento has faced? Other than at first trying to convince Lebanese to eat raw fish, Abi Chaker said that the main obstacle they have come across is keeping up with the high demand. “Demand grew much faster than our production, that’s why we had to move to a bigger location.” Today, Sushi Bento delivers between 50 to 60 orders a day – that translates into about 1,000 pieces prepared daily.
Of the most in-demand raw fish treats, salmon ranks number one by far. In second place comes tuna, followed by the yellow tail. The most luxurious item on Sushi Bento’s menu is Unagi, or eel, which is also the most costly, ringing in at just under $4 per piece. “It’s the most rare type of fish [on the menu],” explained Abi Chaker, “and is less in-demand. It’s not a mass seller.” Another seafood delicacy is the fatty tuna, which is also very rare.
But above providing raw seafood right to your doorstep, Sushi Bento focuses on customer satisfaction. “One drawback [of a delivery service] is that we don’t see the reaction of the customers,” said Abi Chaker. So, to maintain good customer relations, 10 to 12 people are selected randomly each day and are asked for suggestions or comments on the Sushi Bento service. Luckily, none of the complaints have been too drastic so far. “We never, ever, had any complaint about quality – only about delays in delivering!” stressed Abi Chaker.
As for the future of sushi-eating in Lebanon, Abi Chaker has no qualms about sushi going belly-up. “Maybe it’s not as fashionable as it used to be,” said Abi Chaker, “but the sushi craze is here to stay.”