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Columnist and Restaurant Reviewer Riccha Grrover in an exclusive review of  NoriTacos from brand Sugoi JPN and in conversation with the entrepreneur of award-winning food concept Felipe Preece for Asian Lite International. 

Felipe Preece

Initially based out of a small dark kitchen under a railway arch in Bethnal Green, and catering to a local pub via a food truck, Sugoi JPN (known for its unique NoriTacos) is now working on a new franchise expansion initiative and plans to launch 10 sites in 12 months during a global pandemic, with two sites already open in South Wimbledon and Palmers Green.

Sugoi JPN is inspired by Tokyo’s ‘Piss Alley’ street food market and Latin America’s street food stalls. A hybrid between Japanese nori and Mexican tacos, the brand prides itself on championing NoriTacos, a crispy seaweed tempura shell shaped like a taco and packed with sushi rice and Japanese-Latin toppings. The secret recipe took a year to develop with particular attention to its structure in order to create the ideal street-food dish that is easy to eat on the go.

For more than fifteen years Felipe and his wife Veronica had been developing Japanese restaurant concepts together providing management, strategic planning, marketing and design and have a proven record of successful concept development. 

They have both advised and eaten in different Nihon restaurants around the world including Chicago, Miami, California, Madrid, Barcelona, San Sebastian, Paris, Caracas, Santiago, San Juan, and of course, London. They were the creators and founders of SushiOlé (Madrid 2004-2008), Sushi House (Mallorca 2008-2010), Japo Express (Mallorca 2010-2011), Oh! Sushi (Miami 2011-2012).

In 2012 they came to London and following their working stunts with Aqua, Hakkasan and SSP they self-funded Sugoi JPN and within two years became an award-winning brand.

RG- When did you set up Sugoi JPN and what inspired you towards it?

FP- When we arrived in London five years ago, we realised that the Japanese food market was saturated so we were keen to create something different, unique, simple, but cool (which is what Sugoi means). The hospitality industry is aware that delivered food is an increasingly important feature of urban living, uptake is highest in the capital. Technology has been the catalyst, driving uptake via mobile platforms and digital marketing with full-service delivery platforms opening new channels. As a result, we decided to bet on the dark delivery kitchens to try our crazy cool idea, and we found one in Bethnal Green, which we shared. The kitchen was located down an alley under a railway arch which was coincidental, considering our concept was inspired by Piss Alley (Tokyo).

RG-Tell us about the concept of NoriTacos and what cuisine is it? 

FP- We are combining the best of Latin and Japanese, traditions, culture and flavours to get a new intense street food and delivery concept: noritacos.  These are 100% fresh & fun, in other words:  Eating Japanese – Living Latino.

Nori is the Japanese name for edible seaweed which is primarily used as an ingredient to wrap sushi. Taco is the traditional Mexican dish consisting of a corn or wheat tortilla folded or rolled around a filling.

If we combine the two words, Nori + Taco, we get, Noritaco: A crispy seaweed tempura shell with Japanese-Latin fusion fillings.

RG- Tell us about your journey as an entrepreneur who’s aiming for expansion as the FnB industry is still reeling under the post lockdown impact? 

FP- For more than fifteen years my wife Veronica and I had been developing Japanese restaurants concepts together, providing management, strategic planning, marketing and design. We have the knowledge and expertise to create and define restaurants, the brand positioning and expansion, from the initial idea through to the construction, start-up and beyond. 

We are professionals who know the Japanese fine dining and casual restaurant industry, with a proven track record of successful concept development.  We have also advised and eaten in different Nihon restaurants at cities around the world including Chicago, Miami, California, Madrid, Barcelona, San Sebastian, Paris, Caracas, Santiago, San Juan, and of course, London.

We are also the creators and founders of SushiOlé (Madrid 2004-2008), Sushi House (Mallorca 2008-2010), Japo Express (Mallorca 2010-2011), Oh! Sushi (Miami 2011-2012) and Arepita Sliders (2019 – Currently).

The hospitality industry has hugely been impacted by Covid-19 and it’s all about supporting each other during this crisis and getting through it together.

Most restaurants that closed were pivoting their business to delivery and takeaway, however to continue to generate profit, this is almost impossible. Whilst we were closed, we thought about this issue and how we could get around it and we decided on an exciting partnership.

As so many people know already, owning your own business is not always a piece of cake. It’s very rewarding, but it involves more of your time, energy and dedication. So we wanted to give entrepreneurs an opportunity to run their own delivery kitchen, and professionals who would like to maximise their restaurants or delivery/takeaway business, by adding a successful and multi award-winning concept to it.

We do the training, we give them the right to use our brand, we teach them our know how, etc. Their venue does not need to have our branding, it will work just with online presence. It will help others to make it happen through maximizing their structure (rent, staff, etc) and it will help us to expand our brand at the same time in a professional way. The whole idea is to be able to run a multi-concept kitchen where entrepreneurs can manage their concept and ours simultaneously in the same venue.

We are quite proud of what we have accomplished over the past two years. As you read through this interview, you’ll see why we say, “This is not just a company, it’s a concept!” and we would love to work with more partners to expand this cool concept.

We don’t want to be thought of as someone who only sells ‘franchises’. That isn’t our intention. We’ve designed this business as if we are going to grow together.

RG- Tell us about your current locations, range of menu options? Do you cater to vegan and vegetarians? Where are your current franchises/outlets? 

FP- We are delighted with the response of our partnership idea! We have received hundreds of proposals that are currently being taking into consideration, however, we would like to develop a small and controlled expansion. For the moment we have two Sugoi JPN sites open; the first one started trading at the beginning of August in South Wimbledon and it is working wonderfully, better than we expected. The second one opened at the end of August in Palmers Green and it is part of an Italian restaurant that closed to become a multi-concept dark kitchen – it is also working very well.

We are currently in negotiation to open more Sugoi JPN sites in East London and there are a couple of good potential opportunities in the Central area as well. Simultaneously we are launching a new concept of franchise partners inspired by Venezuelan food which has been adapted to meet the needs of the modern consumer during the pandemic. The concept is called Arepita Sliders and the first kitchen opened on September 17th in Tooting Broadway.

Our concept was designed to meet the growing demands of the vegan and gluten-free consumer market as well as online delivery. Our forward-thinking team are also on a mission to tackle one of the biggest challenges we are facing as a global community; food waste.

Both concepts offer options to suit a wide range of palates and dietary requirements.

RG- What are future plans for Sugoi JPN? Does your menu have specials or seasonal dishes or is it the same menu across venues through the year? 

FP- With regards to the future, our plan is to develop a controlled small expansion, with ten more kitchens opening in London. After that we can think about opening internationally, maybe in the Middle East, who knows! Things can change so quickly, as we have seen with Covid-19, so it’s about being flexible, and having the capability to adapt to drastic changes quickly and calmly.

Also, we would like to think that in the future our nori shells could be available in retail stores and supermarkets so our customers can make their own noritacos at home.

We are constantly adapting our menu on a seasonal basis to keep up with the latest trends and we do launch cool limited time only dishes, so yes, we have some special dishes once in a while.

RG- What kind of a meal can diners look forward to when they order a meal from your outlet? What’s the kind of vibe you wanted to create with your menu? 

FP- We offer a very unique menu. We are a very positive, original, humble brand, and that is our aim, not to be recognised as the best ones, or be in the top 10, we just want to keep it cool, relaxed, friendly, and connect with our customers.

RG- What have been your high points that keep you motivated to be in the food business? What would you say are the challenges involved in FnB start-ups? 

FP- Without a doubt, our motivation is the personal satisfaction we feel when we see our guests smile after trying our food and they leave happy.

With regards to the challenges, definitely the lack of passion in the industry, but also the level of initial investment. However, when we speak about street food, there are not as many high risks if we compare it with a brick and mortar restaurant in a local high street that comes with rent and cost pressures, as well as maybe needing refurbing, equipment, an army of staff, etc. You can start your business and develop your concept at a considerably lower risk. I would advise collecting and analysing feedback, improving the logistics, operations, etc before you go and invest half million in a restaurant and realise that you made a mistake – it will save you a lot of time, effort and money.

However, the revenue is proportional-you won’t make as much money at the beginning as you could in a restaurant, but it can be more profitable.

RG- What would you say is the reason of the continued success of your NoriTacos offerings? 

FP-Just three words – we are Sugoi!

RG-Any words of advice or inspiration to budding enthusiasts for setting up their own food brand?

FP- Without passion your game is going to be over sooner or later, that is the most important thing. You need to be human, we are dealing with people, not with numbers. This is hospitality and if you don’t have the enthusiasm and love for it, people will notice it.  Remember, happiness brings success, not money!

And with the pandemic situation we are currently in, do not see this as a crisis, but an opportunity! Be positive and open your mind and think outside the box. Everyone is starting from scratch, take advantage of it and make this new start work for you.

Sugoi is a Japanese superlative, is an exclamation linked to the positive admiration of talent or power, very used in Japan to describe something that is wonderful or incredible (Cool-Awesome). JPN is the acronym or the international abbreviation for the country of the rising sun. It could be interpreted as the incredible power of Japan, its cuisine, but with a happy Latin twist in the case of their food concept.

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