The age 27 is not an age you typically associate with owning a restaurant.
Yet, Gabriel Liong, together with his brother Mathieu, are the proud owners of Katto, a poke-bowl restaurant situated in the corner of Fusionopolis, right in the heart of Singapore’s second “Central Business District”.
Katto, which means “cut” in Japanese, is popular with the lunch crowd. These are people who would much prefer a healthier mix of locally-flavoured sashimi with Japanese rice over the typical unhealthy choices, like bak chor mee.
With prices at $7.90 for a Mini Size (rice or salad with one serving of fish and one serving of sides) and $12.90 for a Main Size (rice or salad with two servings of fish and two servings of sides), it’s not difficult to see why it is so popular.
$7.90 for sashimi?! SIGN ME UP!
I first heard of Katto when Katto decided to serve their own version of the “surround-sound effect” on me. Gabriel, who used to study in the National University of Singapore (NUS) had invited some of our mutual friends on his opening day — which caused all of them to post about it… on the same day… at the same time.
I tried it the next week.
Curious to know how Katto has fared since their opening, I reached out to Gabriel for an interview.
It turns out:
There was ONE significant change Gabriel and Mathieu made since Katto started… and that one decision has helped Katto grew their business even more.
That story is below.
Katto began as a combination of luck and strategy
Luck because their father owned a seafood supply business, and had suppliers persuading him to set up a restaurant.
Strategy because Gabriel and Mathieu saw the opportunity and took advantage of it.
Many people tend to ascribe everything to luck when they saw someone progress with a successful venture.
But luck is just that – luck.
Thousands of opportunities fall onto people’s laps every single day. Yet, these opportunities are mostly ignored.
So, luck is merely one factor. In fact, merely a small factor. Having luck, and using it wisely is a smarter decision not taken by many.
But Gabriel and Mathieu did.
It was two years ago when Mathieu decided to look into food trends out of curiosity. Then, they chanced upon the Poke craze which was going on the west coast of the US.
The Poke craze describes the Poke Bowl (not to be confused with a pokeball), a Hawaiian dish (resembling a deconstructed sushi) that consists of raw fish and salad (sometimes rice.)
Understanding that the trend could be combined with their expertise in fish supply, they pitched the idea of a restaurant to their suppliers… which was met with approval.
Soon after, the planning for Katto began.
Katto was incorporated in November 2015, but only opened shop in August 2016. The 10 months of “delay” was used for careful, deliberate planning.
The brothers knew from the start that they wanted to franchise the restaurant. So, they had to launch the store with that in mind.
To keep cooking to a minimum (as to keep costs lower), they decided upon only sashimi (no cooking needed). They hired a professional chef to help with the food planning and proportioning. They hired a branding consultant to create a consistent customer and brand experience – making it easier for future franchising.
All seems well.
They had a beautiful outlet. They had a great launch. They had a steady stream of customers.
Then, something threw a wrench in their sashimi-only plans.
“It was quite painful.”
Gabriel started noticing that groups of 10 people would walk into Katto… but leave without buying anything.
And this wasn’t a one-off incident. In fact, it was happening fairly frequently — at least 2 – 3 times a week. To Gabriel, that was literally a hundred dollars of revenue gone.
It was a painful feeling. He didn’t know what was happening.
Was it the food? Were there bad reviews? Was someone badmouthing Katto?
As it turns out – the reason was much, much simpler.
Katto is pure sashimi. And well… there are people who don’t eat sashimi.
Which means: in a group of 10 people, as long as there were 2 or 3 people who couldn’t or didn’t eat sashimi, the entire group would leave.
Should you betray your vision if it’s not working?
The brothers were in a predicament. Should they listen to their customers? Or focus on their vision?
Their vision was to set up a sashimi restaurant. A easy-to-prepare, easy-to-scale business.
Now, their plans looked like it was going in the dumps.
It was obvious something had to change – but they didn’t know whether they should. Should they just focus on customers that love sashimi? Or add something new to the menu?
It was a difficult decision to make.
Ultimately, they decided to listen.
The brothers realized that, as a consumers themselves, eating sashimi every day was not a viable option. Eventually, one would crave for cooked food.
So, they decided to start small.
“What if we just did something simple, something still easy to prepare but cooked? What if we added… yakitori chicken to the menu?”
It’s just an experiment, Mathieu reasoned. If it’s not popular, all they had to do was to take it off the menu. Gabriel was skeptical at first, but he relented.
They decided to add the yakitori chicken.
The results were astounding.
Customers LOVED it.
Not only did the large groups started staying… they got an even better deal.
Katto started getting repeat customers.
Customers, who used to think they couldn’t eat sashimi every day, started coming in regularly to have yakitori chicken.
And what was even better — they managed to find a solution to their “no cooking” mantra. They discovered that their combination oven, which was used previously to cook their rice and sides, could also be used to cook the yakitori chicken.
That was one of the best decisions the brothers ever made in their life.
Listening to customer feedback, Katto is now expanding to a 2nd location
Gabriel and Mathieu are already looking for a new location to set up the 2nd Katto branch.
But the takeaway is much simpler — listen to your customers.
Understand that you don’t have to implement everything your customer tells you to. But that doesn’t mean stop listening to them entirely, and insist that your opinion is right.
Learn to listen and tweak accordingly.
That one change could exponentially grow your business.