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Sushi chain rolls out slowly

Fresh sushi arrives by rail at the Genki Sushi restaurant in Phnom Penh.
Fresh sushi arrives by rail at the Genki Sushi restaurant in Phnom Penh. Sahiba Chawdhary

Sushi chain rolls out slowly

Food orders at Genki Sushi in the capital’s BKK1 neighbourhood are placed on an iPad mini tablet and transmitted wirelessly to the kitchen, where the items are prepared and then delivered to the customer’s table by a high-speed rail line. The technology-enabled restaurant chain, which opened its first outlet in Cambodia in December 2016, puts a digital spin on the traditional Japanese kaiten-zushi, or conveyor-belt sushi restaurant.

The concept has driven the Japanese chain’s overseas expansion and is expected to carry it further as it seeks to extend its foothold in Southeast Asia, with plans announced last month to enlarge its overseas restaurant portfolio from the current 166 to 250 by the end of next year.

The manager of the chain’s lone Cambodian outlet says he too is gearing up for expansion, though he admits the restaurant has struggled to fill tables and the novelty of express-train sushi has been slow to catch on with Cambodian customers. At lunchtime on a weekday last week, less than a dozen people could be seen eating, with most of the restaurant’s booths vacant.

“We’re not very busy,” said Hun Chhorvan. “We’ve been slowly growing, but most of our patrons are foreigners.”

A big part of the problem, he suggests, is the location. Genki Sushi has been a huge success in Japan and other markets, where the chain has snapped up nearly 300 high-traffic locations – mostly in malls and shopping plazas. But when the company first arrived in the Cambodian market it found its first choice of location, a slot in Aeon Mall’s food court, fully booked.

Having already committed to the market, Genki Sushi decided on a stand-alone restaurant, leasing a spacious two-storey building in one of the capital’s most expensive neighbourhoods.

For those who have tried it, Genki Sushi offers delicious high-quality food. The restaurant has good reviews and its own fan following on social media. However, the BKK1 outlet has struggled to attract new customers, particularly the rising Cambodian middle class.

“This is a good location, but most people think the cost here will be too high because we are in an expensive neighbourhood,” he said, adding that limited parking was also an issue.

Chhorvan said while the Cambodian outlet was the first to open a VIP room, which can seat a couple dozen customers, the concept appears to have fizzled as the few guests who tried the upstairs space appeared disappointed to discover that the sushi express train does not deliver to it.

The digital ordering system and express train has drawn customers, Chhorvan insists, but he said automation has not reduced the restaurant’s overheads as people might expect.

“We want to give the customer fast, good food,” he said. “This doesn’t deduct the cost of labour, though.”

Genki Sushi currently employs more than 30 staff, who prepare food, clean tables and assist with order items too big or precarious to be delivered by the high-speed train.

“We used to have around 40 staff, but we had to cut down because business traffic here is not high,” Chhorvan said.Meanwhile, Genki Sushi has secured a second location inside the future Aeon II Mall, which is scheduled to open in mid-2018. Chhorvan said he expects the mall outlet to draw higher foot traffic and increase brand recognition, which should send more customers to the BKK1 restaurant.

“I think the traffic will be double [at the Aeon Mall II location],” he explained. “And the new location should mean good things for this branch.”

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