It 'felt like we managed to sell ice to the Eskimos': Singapore sushi chain Maki-San on venturing to Japan

SINGAPORE: “It’s something that we can safely predict won’t be a fad,” Mr Alvin Wong, partner of Singaporean DIY sushi chain Maki-San said on Friday (Jul 13), ahead of the business’ first major step outside Singapore.

It’s opening its first outlet overseas in Osaka on Saturday, with plans to expand to Tokyo in 2019.

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With interest from Russia, England, Indonesia, Philippines and more, Maki-San’s decision to venture into Japan – a market saturated with sushi chains – may turn heads.

Mr Wong and his partner, Mr Omar Marks, who co-founded the food chain, have been set on Japan ever since Maki-San’s new franchise owner, Mr Yamamoto Masayoshi, approached them. Mr Wong said it “felt like we managed to sell ice to the Eskimos”.

Mr Masayoshi said: “I was looking for unique concepts to bring to Japan when I came across this brand. Most sushi in Japan uses very traditional ingredients.” Maki-San stood out for using “special ingredients from around the world, not just typical Japanese ingredients”.

Left to right: Mr Alvin Wong. Mr Omar Marks, Mr Yamamoto Masayoshi (Maki-San Osaka project director) and Mr Hitoshi Yokota (Osaka franchise owner). 

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Maki-San has three defining features: untraditional ingredients, make-it-yourself sushi and loud, colourful marketing with an affinity for social media. 

In its brightly coloured stores, customers make their own rolls from ingredients including spicy chicken jerky and tempura mushrooms, and sit on pastel stools. The chain has enjoyed marked success with its concept, especially with a younger crowd, with 18 stores in Singapore.  

In most sushi restaurants in Japan, Mr Wong said, “everything is already pre-configured, you already know what to expect.” Maki-San is where  “consumers have the chance to customise their sushi to reflect their taste buds”. He is convinced that “it’s quite a safe bet.”

But he is not dismissing the risks. “It’s always a different market. Things that register with customers here may not register there,” Mr Wong said.

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To cater to the Japanese palette, Maki-San tweaked their menu and recipes. The menu at its Osaka outlet will have a menu that is about 80 per cent similar to the Singapore version. Following taste tests in Osaka, the company has developed a better sense of Japanese customers’ taste profiles, notably including an aversion to salted egg yolk and chimichurri.

Sushi chain Maki-San has become characterised by its bright, colourful packaging. (Photo: Alvin Wong)

Recipes for staple items will differ between countries too. The Japanese outlet’s sweet plum sauce, tartar sauce, and yuzu sesame sauce have been tweaked to reflect the differences in consumers’ taste profiles. The sweet plum sauce, for example, is sourer in Osaka.

“We’ve seen other shops that have gone through the fad-ish period. A couple months after they open, sales dip quite a bit.” Maki-San has avoided the trap in Singapore so far. Mr Wong believes the company has shown the concept has a lasting appeal.

He said, “We look at ourselves as a brand that’s here to stay.”


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