What Does It Take To Run An F&B Business? This Malaysian Couple Share Their Sushi Journey

Yamesushi is known for their sashimi cakes, sushi platters, unique gift boxes, and festive specials.

Cover image via Yamesushi (Provided to SAYS)

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Meet Lim and Vivian, the founders of Yamesushi, a small F&B business that specialises in Japanese cuisine

The couple started their entrepreneurship journey together in 2015, offering sushi at LRT stations, but had to close its physical locations due to the pandemic.

Now, it operates online, combining traditional sushi-making with creativity. Inspired by a customer's unusual request for a sashimi cake, Yamesushi now specialises in sashimi cakes, sushi platters, playful gift boxes, and festive orders.

Standing out from a sea of Japanese choices available in Malaysia, the brand is known for its unique and incredibly kawaii designs, all of which are created by Vivian

Speaking to SAYS, Vivian explained that she grew up loving to cook, just like her mum, and that Japanese cuisine is one of her favourites.

"If my mum decided to make sushi over the weekend, I'd be very excited the whole week and volunteer to do groceries and even wake up early to help!" Vivian exclaimed.

During her college years, Vivian worked part-time at a Japanese chain store during her summer breaks.

"You don't start out straight with food preparation, of course. I started with cleaning the trash, sweeping the floor, washing dishes, and cutting mountains of cucumber. Then, I eventually learned to handle more ingredients and how to prepare sushi rice, shape nigiri, and handle ingredients storage and all. It's not easy to work in a commercial kitchen, but that's where I learned my basics from," she explained.

So, when she and Lim decided to start a business together, Vivian knew it had to be Japanese food.

Vivian credits her stunning designs to her loving relationship with Lim

"I'd say our business very much started from our life. I started making cute bento simply because I wanted to pack lunch for Lim when we were dating, even before our business started," she said.

"Back then, there were no such things as reels, TikTok, and even YouTube was not very resourceful on how to make cute bento.

"So, I would download cute bento images from Google and spend a week thinking about how to make them, then spend another whole morning in the kitchen to trial and error," Vivian shared.

As an arts and crafts enthusiast, Vivian's inspiration for her sushi creations spark from everything around her.

"I love drawing, food styling, arranging flowers, interior designs — anything related to art. Sometimes, when I see a beautiful flower arrangement, I would capture it. When I see a beautiful setup, I would take my time to slowly admire and take some pictures.

"So, for example, on the first Parents' Day, we were thinking about what we could do. We thought, 'Hey, mums would love to receive a bouquet of flowers! So, why not make a bouquet of sashimi, since I usually arrange sashimi in roses!' So, once I have a concrete idea, I will refer back to my gallery on how the florist would arrange a real bouquet," said Vivian.

But Yamesushi's journey to success hasn't been all sunshine and sashimi roses

The couple started their business in 2016, serving takeout sushi at major LRT stations. The individually wrapped sushi was affordable and convenient for commuters to pick up and go.

Their business took a major hit in 2020, when the pandemic happened and MCO was in full swing.

Yamesushi's outlet at LRT Bangsar station.

Image via Yamesushi (Provided to SAYS)

"People were working from home, nobody was taking public transport, and everything was in chaos. We incurred huge losses, losses that we never expected. We lost almost everything. Our four years of hard work suddenly amounted to nothing; in fact, we were in deficit.

"Because our business used to be at LRT stations, where our target customers were corporates and interstate travelers. It was an immediate KO for us at that time," the couple shared.

At the time, Yamesushi was not available for online purchase and the brand didn't have much of an online presence.

Our sales dropped drastically, by nearly 80%. No sales but the commitments were still there.
Vivian & Lim

"It was so bad to the extent that we emptied out all our savings, exchanged all our currencies, restricted our daily spending to only RM10. We were literally surviving on roti canai so that we could pay off the rent and salaries," Vivian shared.

In their time of struggle, the couple found themselves at a crossroad. With no certainty of when MCO would end, Lim and Vivian debated shutting down all their outlets to cut their losses. But on the other hand, they worried that if life resumed as normal directly after they closed their outlets, they would lose out even more.

"We couldn't afford to make any wrong decisions at that time. And on top of our plates that were already full, Lim's mother was diagnosed with fourth stage cancer during the pandemic. The stress level was crazy, SO CRAZY. And not long after, my own body also collapsed and suffered from topical steroid withdrawal (TSW)," lamented Vivian as she recounted their biggest challenge as business owners.

But if there's one thing that pulled them through, it was the people who lifted them up

The Yamesushi team from the LRT outlets.

Image via Yamesushi (Provided to SAYS)

"The people — it is something you can't buy with money," said Vivian when asked what their biggest win has been.

When the couple decided to transition Yamesushi from a physical store to an online business, it was the people around them who helped. Vivian credits their parents, her brother, aunt, and close friends who loaned them money without hesitation.

"No matter how many ideas you have to sustain your company, you still need cash to keep it going. That's the reality," she said.

From a photographer friend who offered to shoot their food photos for their GrabFood menu for free, to their workers and customers who supported them throughout, Vivian is most grateful for the kindness of people.

"I remember when we first had our Instagram, whenever we posted something, I was surprised to see my friends sharing it on their stories and customers engaging positively.

"The community really pumped us with kind words, advice, and encouragement through handwritten notes, messages, reviews, and small gifts.

"The bond and relationships we gained during this entrepreneurial journey are just so special. And I believe if it wasn't for our entrepreneur journey, we wouldn't have been able to gain this BIG WIN in our life!" Vivian recounted.

After experiencing the fall and rise of our business, we are actually more grounded now. We are very clear on what we want and what we are doing, and that is to provide our best to the people around us by serving our best.
Vivian & Lim

Looking back at how their business started and its continued evolution, Vivian and Lim shared the stark difference between physical stores and online selling

Their startup capital was around RM400,000 in 2017, with the money spent purchasing new and secondhand kitchen equipment, machinery, renovations, rental deposits, and more.

When the business shifted online, the couple spent slightly more than RM40,000 to transform their business model.

"The popularity of social media and a more developed online platform ecosystem actually impacts how we do business in two aspects.

"The first aspect will be on the startup capital, whereby much less capital is needed to start an F&B business. We now have an option to start selling our food on delivery portals, and are thus able to avoid high rental costs in prime areas at the initial stage.

"The second aspect will be on marketing cost. There are many ways to advertise our product now, and it is cost-effective. For example, when we first posted our artwork online, we got very good exposure because many people were sharing it; we paid nothing in marketing fees. 

"Instead of capital, the product should be our priority concern nowadays," Lim remarked.

So, what's the key to success in the F&B industry? The couple believe there are three main things:

1. Venture into an industry that you are genuinely interested in and familiar with

The couple advised not to go into F&B simply because you heard the industry makes the most money. For longevity of the business, it should be something that you find personally interesting.

2. Be an involved business owner

While some say that day-to-day operations can be handled by others while owners focus on expansions and big picture ideas, Vivian and Lim believe that being hands-on in daily operations makes all the difference.

"The day-to-day operations are the most important fundamentals. The business owner's involvement is needed to solidify the company's ground. It not only ensures that the food quality is upheld, but also makes us more sensitive to customer preferences," Lim explains.

From left: Afiqah, Siti, Lim, Vivian, and Izzati. Many Yamesushi staff resigned when the business was struggling. Vivian and Lim note that this team stood by them until the end, when they closed their very last outlet.

Image via Yamesushi (Provided to SAYS)

3. Take good care of your staff

Quoting Richard Branson, the couple agree that if you "take good care of your staff, they will take good care of your business".

"It is true, especially in retail F&B businesses, which involve humans in every aspect. From store opening, food preparation, cooking, serving, until cleaning, and store closing," said Lim.

Vivian goes on to share about Akter and Sohag, two of their foreign workers, calling them one of their "key support systems".

"When Lim's mother was in critical condition, we had to go back and forth to the hospital and the kitchen doing orders every day. They told us, 'Boss can go take care of Mama, we can take care of the shop'," recounted Vivian.

"And when I was going through TSW, I couldn't go into work for months, and Lim had to go back and forth looking after me, his mother, and the shop. They also told us the same phrase for the second time. They knew I had seen many doctors and nothing worked. They even took the effort during their day off to look for medication in their Bangladeshi village and provided us with a doctor's contact.

"Without Akter and Sohag, who were really taking good care of all the orders, we might have lost many customers at that time when we weren't able to be involved," Vivian shared.

From the left: Vivian, Sohag, Akter, and Lim.

Image via Yamesushi (Provided to SAYS)

Riding out the highs and lows together, Vivian and Lim welcome those who are keen on venturing into the F&B industry to reach out to them for "non-sugar coated" advice

Visit their official website to order and be sure to follow Yamesushi on Instagram to check out their delicious creations.

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