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Interview with Sean Khoo from Sushi Tei

Hey Sean,

Thank you for taking the time to get involved with the interview today. As we discussed, I enjoy getting to know more about other people’s entrepreneurial journeys.

To briefly explain that we met at the co-working office in Penang and had chatted a number of times before I even knew what you did. I found out from our mutual friend Dee Dee that you were the owner of one of my favorite restaurants, Sushi Tei.

Penang really is a small world!

We share a common interest too in our love for shopping, much to our wives’ dislike. Although both of us have taken different approaches to reduce this habit (you can read my stopping shopping challenge here).

I was keen to understand more about your business and how you ended up in the F&B business. So, let’s jump into the first question Sean.

Interview with Sean Khoo

1. Can you give me some background information on where you grew up and early life, education, and first jobs?

I was born and raised in Penang and I am the youngest of 3 boys, there is a big age gap between me and my 2 elder brothers, about 10 years and 13 years respectively.

There is a funny story about why I was born so late, my mother has always wanted to have a girl as her last child so that she can have someone to play with when my brothers leave home to Australia to pursue their studies overseas but unfortunately faith is playing a prank on my mum’s family plan and here I am.

My childhood is similar to many middle-class families in Penang, there is not much to worry about and the atmosphere in the family has always been warm and peaceful.

I always thought that my dad has a weird profession, he was working in a bank one day and the next he is a politician while mum is a full-time homemaker. I was educated until form 5 in a Chinese public school in Penang until 17 and by 18 I was sent to Newcastle, Australia for Year 12 with a hope to get into any University there.

I only started really studying when I figured out that my parents have sacrificed their hard-earned savings to get my ass over to Australia.

I was a lazy student when I was in Penang because life was too good. I only started really studying when I figured out that my parents have sacrificed their hard-earned savings to get my ass over to Australia. I thought I should at least put in an effort plus at that time, I was probably one of the very few Asians in Newcastle so essentially I didn’t have any friends so I started putting my mind on studying.

I got a pretty decent score and was accepted into the University of New South Wales to study accounting major in accounting and finance. I had no idea at that time but business and accounting is always a safe bet for Asian and plus the fact that I am not smart enough to be an engineer or a doctor.

Miraculously I graduated with barely up to par Honors in Accounting and I came back to Malaysia to search for my first job. After a short stint in a public listed company, I started my proper working career as an auditor with KPMG and was there for almost 5 years.

2. We briefly talked about the transition from employee to entrepreneur. I am interested in finding out what the motivation and trigger for this shift in mindset was?

I think after 5 years in Auditing I started to think about what is next for me in terms of career development, while I do enjoy the work in auditing, the financial reward and career advancement did not appeal to me.

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do and how I am going to do it but the major motivation of that time was monetary, I just wanted to find a way to make money. I was very fortunate at that time when I was 29, I was young and I don’t have much financial commitment and this has allowed me to make that drastic shift.

I stumbled into the world of advertising through a friend of mine who eventually became my future partner in event management.

While I was learning the ropes in event management, I managed to know a lot of people in the outdoor advertising fraternity and realized at that time, outdoor advertising is in demand, so shortly after 2 years, I started my outdoor agency-Moonlit Outdoor Sdn Bhd and have been doing that until the present day.

3. What made you decide to go into the F&B industry? In particular, what made you choose Japanese cuisine?

A good friend of mine obtained the franchising rights for Sushi Tei Malaysia and I went to the opening of the first Sushi Tei outlet in Malaysia, I found the food to be of great quality at a good price point.

I casually mentioned to my friend that if he ever wanted to branch out to the Northern region, I would be keen to help him operate Sushi Tei Northern Region.

So fast forward 2 years from that conversation, I received a call from him saying that Sushi Tei is expanding and asking me whether I am still interested.

I was fortunate to meet by accident my current business partner who agreed to bankroll me to operate Sushi Tei together.

At that time, I was cash strapped at that time after a failed business venture and I was fortunate to meet by accident my current business partner who agreed to bankroll me to operate Sushi Tei together.

Japanese cuisine is a relatively young cuisine in South East Asia and it’s a very well-received cuisine currently among Asian’s palate with its variety and healthier offerings.

Sushi Tei Penang

4. As you know, I am a huge fan of Sushi Tei and eat there most weeks. Can you give us an idea of the setup and scale of the business?

Thank you for always supporting us, Adam!

Currently, there are 11 Sushi Tei Outlets in Malaysia with 4 in the Northern Region (3 in Penang and 1 in Perak), 7 in the Central Region (7 in Selangor and Kuala Lumpur), and 1 in Sabah.

We have been running Sushi Tei Northern Region for the past 10 years and Sushi Tei Gurney Plaza is our first Flagship outlet, then Sunway Carnival, Queensbay Mall, and Ipoh Parade to follow. Prior to Covid, we have close to 150 staff in our kitchen, service, and admin combined.

5. How much did you know about Japanese food before starting Sushi Tei? Do you have much input on the types of dishes on the menu?

This is slightly embarrassing as I don’t take any raw food so sashimi is out for me (WHAT? that’s one of the best dishes, Sean!), I don’t have a lot of knowledge on Japanese food before starting Sushi Tei.

However I do know the value of a good brand like Sushi Tei, Sushi Tei was founded in Singapore and has been a successful brand for the past 30 years.

Throughout the years, Sushi Tei has been upholding the brand’s tagline of “a good deal of sushi” and has curated an excellent menu catering to consumers looking for quality food at a great price point.

My Sushi Tei dinner

One of my favorite meals at Sushi Tei, which of course is sashimi 😉 – Adam

6. 2020 has been a challenging year for hospitality, how has it been for you and how have you adapted to the conditions?

2020 has been very challenging for all industries but more so in the retail and hospitality industries, Sushi Tei has not been spared from the COVID 19 pandemic.

In the month of March 2020, in an effort to curb the spread of COVID 19, the Malaysian Government implemented the Movement Control Order to lock down the country and restrict the movement of its people.

The 2 months MCO period is one of the most challenging periods in my entrepreneur life as we have never encountered anything like this before. We are uncertain of the impact of the pandemic and that worry turns into fear as our outlet sales plummeted.

As a business owner, we worry not only about the business continuity of Sushi Tei but we worry for our staff as their livelihood depends on Sushi Tei surviving the crisis.

We quickly regrouped and held an emergency meeting with all of our staff, briefing them on the situation and the cost-cutting measures we were going to implement in an effort to ride out this crisis.

We are very fortunate that we have a great group of people in Sushi Tei helping us throughout this tough period.

7. What’s in store (literally) going forward for you and Sushi Tei?

As we are right in the middle of a 3rd wave, there is nothing much we can do at the moment as there is so much fear in the general population. We can only hope for a fast recovery with the government imposing lockdown in certain red zone states.

At the moment, we are rolling out mobile ordering in our outlets so that customers can order their dishes with their own mobile device with minimal contact and they don’t have to wait for their orders to be taken.

Thanks Sean for your time today, this has been super valuable and I look forward to grabbing some Sushi Tei later this week!

You can check out Sushi Tei’s Penang Facebook page here and the main Malaysian Sushi Tei website

Adam Author

About the LifeHacker Guy

Hi, I'm Adam the founder of the LifeHacker Guy.

I have a First Class Honours degree in Sports Science from Brighton University, specialising in exercise physiology and nutrition. In my youth I was a competitive Triathlete and long-distance runner placing top 10 in most triathlon races I completed.

Since suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, I moved into web development, after a couple of years I then moved onto developing a number of online businesses. I've recently taken a sabbatical and I'm now looking to make big changes in my life, hopefully this may resonate with you - join me in my journey!

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