Two's Company

Empire Eats Group's Howard Lo and Lim Hui Nan: Husband and wife bond over work

The husband-and-wife team who run restaurants Standing Sushi Bar and Tanuki Raw bond over work

Forgetting a wedding anniversary can have its consequences.

But, perhaps, it is forgivable when both husband and wife forget and are reminded of their special day only through social media.

"We celebrated our fifth anniversary in September, but we both forgot. It has been a very busy year," says American-born food and beverage entrepreneur Howard Lo, 41, laughing.

"Thank God for Facebook," his Singaporean wife, Ms Lim Hui Nan, 34, a former lawyer, chimes in.

Old photos of them had popped up on their Facebook feeds and it took them a while to realise that it was in fact their wedding anniversary.

Husband and wife run the Empire Eats Group, a restaurant group with 11 stand-alone restaurants and bars, and Liberty Spirits Asia, an alcohol distribution company that focuses on American craft spirits. Their companies employ about 100 full-time staff.

Familiar restaurants under the group's umbrella include Standing Sushi Bar, a casual traditional sushi bar chain with outlets in the Central Business District (CBD) and Queen Street; Tanuki Raw, an edgy and playful Japanese-inspired restaurant and cocktail bar with outlets in Orchard Central and the National Design Centre in Middle Road; and deep-dish pizza and sandwich bar-eatery The World Is Flat at Timbre+ at One North.

This year, they have been busy expanding. The World Is Flat opened at Changi Airport Terminal 1 in January, while a Kuala Lumpur outpost at Publika Mall, which they run with a Malaysian partner, opened in April.

In March, the couple also launched a new casual salmon donburi concept called Salmon Samurai, rebranding their two existing protein bowl and salad bars at Ocean Financial Centre in Raffles Place and 100AM mall in Tanjong Pagar, from Shinkansen outlets to Salmon Samurai ones.

Today, the couple will open a Salmon Samurai branch, which also serves beer and sake, on the ground floor of 100AM - it had to relocate from the mall's third floor to make way for a new anchor tenant.

They also opened ramen and sake bar Sumo Bar Happy in Waterloo Street in July.

Mr Lo, now a Singapore permanent resident, founded the first Standing Sushi Bar outlet in August 2009.

Inspired by the many standing sushi bars in Tokyo, he decided to open a similar concept for office workers in the CBD here with a start-up cost of about $150,000.

It was a tiny 550 sq ft space at the then OUB Centre, now One Raffles Place, that could pack in 35 standing customers.

At the time, the Los Angeles-born Orlando-raised entrepreneur, whose job brought him to Singapore in 2003, still held a day job as the regional manager for community and online support at tech firm Microsoft, but would double as the sushi bar's cashier, waiter and dishwasher.

He continued to work at Microsoft until 2012 when he left to focus on his food and beverage group full time.

Soon after the opening, he met Ms Lim, a regular diner at his restaurant back when she was working for a boutique intellectual property law firm at Chevron House.

They tied the knot in 2012 and have a 2½-year-old son and another child on the way. They live in an apartment in the Bras Basah district.

Sitting on the alfresco deck at their 120-seat Tanuki Raw restaurant at Orchard Central, the couple interact with an effortless familiarity that stems from living, working and playing together.

Mr Lo says: "There's little separation between work and home. A lot of people think it's a bad thing, that we should have boundaries, a code word for when we don't want to talk about work anymore."

They tried once to "not talk about work" - it lasted all of 20 minutes.

Even when they have "date night" once a fortnight, they find themselves unable to segregate work from personal and family life, as they often note details in new restaurants which are relevant to their own business.

Ms Lim, who left her job in 2014 to focus on her family and business, adds: "Do we really want to have a clear boundary? No. We bond over talking about work. We relish that."

Their roles in the group are "fluid", but in a nutshell, Mr Lo is the visionary, while Ms Lim is the executor.

Fights are inevitable. But when that happens, they have learnt to take a step back to evaluate the context and situation, often ending the row with their latest phrase, "Do you really need to win this battle?".

The first few years of the business were rocky, says Mr Lo. "In Singapore, it is expensive to fail and it is harder to take chances because it is such a landlord's market."

High rental at his now-defunct Standing Sushi Bar at OUB Centre ate heavily into his profit margins, while the 2011 tsunami and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident affected his business - no one wanted to eat sushi.

At the time, he had just opened two more Standing Sushi Bar outlets.

It was also at the same time that Mr Lo found out that his head chef had been stealing money and fired him.

He then decided to close the first Raffles Place outlet and ride out the slowdown with promotions for about six months until business started to pick up.

Alcohol distribution business Liberty Spirits Asia also came with huge challenges when Mr Lo started it in 2013 with two, now-silent, partners. It took a lot of convincing for boutique distilleries to stock with the start-up.

These days, the company distributes its craft spirits to about 30 bars and restaurants here.

In a cut-throat food and bar landscape that is constantly evolving with new trends, the couple view innovation as vital for success.

Ms Lim says: "It is important to innovate. It is a constant challenge to keep ourselves updated on what's trendy."

So what do they have lined up?

A new Standing Sushi Bar with robatayaki at Marina One, a Tanuki Raw Express at Changi Airport Terminal 3 and a new restaurant and bar in a hotel in Kuala Lumpur - all slated to open in the first half of next year. Tanuki Raw at Jewel Changi Airport is in the works for 2019.

Forgetting their anniversary next year might just be par for the course.

•Follow Rebecca Lynne Tan on Twitter @STrebeccatan

Howard Lo on Lim Hui Nan

She's a dragon lady

The charming Howard Lo, who starred in local reality television show Eye For A Guy 2 in 2005, is more reserved than you think.

An alumnus of The George Washington University, in Washington, DC, with a bachelor's degree in business and a master's degree in science and information systems, he confesses that his favourite job when he opened his first Standing Sushi Bar restaurant was that of being the dishwasher.

The younger of two children says: "I liked it because I wouldn't have to meet new people or engage with strangers. 'Hi, how's the food?' - none of that."

His father and stepmother run a furniture business in his hometown of Orlando, Florida.

He initially found Ms Lim Hui Nan's warmth and liveliness both magnetic and freaky - it was not something he was used to - but is now glad that she has helped him come out of his shell. He embraces their different approaches to problem solving.

Ms Lim, he says, adopts a more black-and-white stance to situations, while he has a more elastic view. "She is willing to poke the uncomfortable situations and questions a lot faster, and sometimes harder, than I would. I'm softer."

That said, he lets on that the first time his wife had to fire someone, she cried for a long time after that.

He insists there is no "good cop, bad cop" play in the way they handle staff matters. "But if you're going to be stereotypical, she's definitely a dragon lady. The team will love me and fear her, but together, we are a more complete boss and leader."

Lim Hui Nan on Howard Lo

He's caring and nurturing

Before Ms Lim Hui Nan joined her husband in the business, she struggled with his softer approach to execution and decision-making.

The affable National University of Singapore law graduate says: "When you're a paid employee, you look at things in figures. And as an employee, I just didn't understand the kind of stress he faced when it came to things like addressing under-performing staff or terminating people. Why would he waste all that time and effort?"

Her views, however, have changed since joining him in the business three years ago.

Says the middle child born to shipping industry parents: "I felt that we needed to be firmer. But I've seen how his caring and nurturing qualities have paid off, how staff respond to it with their loyalty."

Mr Lo's ability to communicate feedback in a positive and constructive manner, she says, is a soft life skill she hopes to acquire one day.

The cynic in her has made her question her more optimistic husband's mindset when it comes to sticking it out even though business is bad.

For instance, when business was less than optimal during Tanuki Raw's second year of operations, Mr Lo persevered even though she wanted to call it quits. She says: "It takes guts to do that, tenacity. And that's what has made me trust his vision, no matter how crazy. "

As a father, Mr Lo has been hands-on from the get-go. She says: "It was a difficult time for me as I grappled with being a new mum. It took a while for me to find my balance and Howard was supportive; he took over when I needed a break."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 04, 2017, with the headline Empire Eats Group's Howard Lo and Lim Hui Nan: Husband and wife bond over work. Subscribe