Heavyweight sushi

Sumo Sushi & Bento looks set to wrestle its rivals with plans for growth in the region, Asia and the Americas

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By  Lynne Nolan Published  May 31, 2006

|~|YOUSSEF.jpg|~|Youssef Awai Dakroub set up the first restaurant with his wife Wendy in 1999, which now offers sit-down service, delivery, and a corporate catering concept, Sumo-to-go, to meet the increasing demand for sushi. |~|With sushi becoming more and more popular in the Middle East, family-owned Sumo Sushi & Bento has grown rapidly since its first outlet was opened in 2000. With two branches already open in Dubai, and a third on the way, the company has now set its eye on expanding in the region Located on Sheikh Zayed Road Dubai and Dubai’s Media City, husband and wife team, Youssef and Wendy Awai Dakroub first decided to set up a sushi restaurant back in 1999, after being disappointed by the lack of Japanese restaurants in Dubai. “There were very few restaurants around and they were all expensive, so we decided to open a restaurant where the food was the same quality as a five-star restaurant, but the prices were not,” comments Wendy. Although Hawaii-born Wendy had some knowledge about seafood, neither of them had experience of working in the catering industry so they had to start from scratch, but the hard work has paid off. They are currently searching for interested franchisees in Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and Qatar, and the concept is also being franchised outside the region, with expansion plans for Asia and the Americas. The business has certainly come a long way from when the couple opened the doors of Sumo’s first outlet back in June 2000. “We sold one unagi bento at AED48 [US $13] on the first day. Now we sell over 200 bentos a day,” comments Youssef. The restaurant has helped fill the niche for affordable Japanese, not only serving sushi, but also bento. Referring to a Japanese meal that is packed into a partitioned lacquered box — which Youssef found hard to source — bento is usually filled with a ratio of four parts rice, three parts of the main dish, two parts vegetables and one part a serving of pickled vegetables. ||**|||~|SUMO.jpg|~|With two branches already open in Dubai, and a third on the way, the company has now set its eye on expanding in the region |~|The tuna lover’s bento, crunchy crazy roll, nigiri sushi combos, teriyaki chicken and barbeque beef bento are all popular orders from diners. And the couple are very proud of the success of both the sushi and the bento dishes, despite the high number of sushi outlets now open in Dubai. “Competition is good for us. We want to show customers how our sit-down service is different from others. However, we want people to try other outlets and then come back to ours,” says Wendy. However, Wendy is quick to point out a frequent misconception among the public about sushi. “We do not just serve fish. A lot of people think Japanese is only raw food. We also serve bentos, which consists of rice, meat or vegetables, and fried rice or noodles. Most people have never heard of bentos before, so it has become our signature dish.” The delivery service is also extremely busy at both outlets, as is Sumo-to-go, a corporate catering idea that started six months ago. The restaurant owners also received two accolades for their commitment to customer service last month from the Dubai Service Excellence Scheme — the first for high scoring new member, and the second for best service performance of an outlet. “We were surprised that we outperformed some of the big names and multinational chains in this category, but we are a family business so we try to focus on what we know best,” comments Youssef. Food safety is also a priority, particularly considering Dubai’s summer climate, with foods cooked well, and bentos stored in cool, dry locations. The staff have all been trained by Boecker Food Safety and the outlet follows guidelines set out by Dubai Municipality. Wendy also adds that they encourage clientele not to leave food sitting on the counter for too long before eating it. But, the success of the business, they say, has been assisted by them taking on different aspects of the day-to-day duties, as well as maintaining authenticity — which has attracted a wide clientele. “Youssef waits tables, gets into the hands-on side of the business, as opposed to other restaurant owners who would never do that. We make an effort to talk to everybody and ensure our customers are comfortable when they arrive and satisfied when they leave. It is very important to keep our reputation,” says Wendy. It has been easy for Youssef and Wendy to find food products locally, however, equipment, utensils and items such as the bento boxes are purchased from Japan for an authentic dining experience. The couple also employed most of their chefs and staff in Thailand, as not only can they recreate Japanese cuisine, but also, all of the chefs have been trained by Japanese chefs. The interior design of the restaurant also takes on an authentic theme, with Sumo minimalist pop art painted on the walls of the outlet, which was influenced by Wendy’s childhood, growing up in Hawaii. “Sumo is well-known because of the Japanese influence on the island. Some of the most celebrated wrestlers hail from Hawaii and so, when we were trying to figure out what to put on the walls, we decided to draw these figures,” says Wendy. Cold cooked rice dressed with vinegar and shaped into bite-sized pieces, topped with raw or cooked fish, or rolled with fish, egg or vegetables and wrapped in seaweed, sushi has exploded in popularity. Yet Sumo has not followed the conveyor belt style, preferring to offer table service instead. However, there have been challenges along the way, which is expected when family members work alongside each other 24/7. But, as casual dining fans themselves, Wendy and Youssef are aware of what consumers need and what others in the market are doing. “After a long day at work, the last thing we want is to dress up and go out. Most of the time, we just change into some shorts and flip-flops and head out to eat. There really needs to be more casual outlets, and less fast food outlets in the region,” Wendy adds. ||**||

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