Austin Sushi Entrepreneur On a Roll Despite Down Economy

“There is no bad time to be an entrepreneur, assuming you have a market and a product that addresses a demand.”

Yuen Yung grew up in Chinatown in Manhattan. Sons of restaurant owners, he and his brother Peter worked as young boys in the family business, peeling shrimp and sweeping floors. “I guess we were the reason child labor laws were written,” he jokes.

The experience impacted the two young men differently. Peter grew up to be a sushi chef, but Yuen swore he would never work in the restaurant business again. He got his finance degree at McCombs, and became a certified public financial planner, a typical Type A focused on making money.

That focus wavered a bit as Yuen and Peter discussed where to go to lunch one day. “We were in the mood for good sushi, but just didn’t have time for a sit-down restaurant,” he recalls. As we talked about that experience, we came to realize there was a market opportunity.”

Seeing a chance to merge his restaurant background and his financial expertise, Yuen decided that his original pledge to stay out of the food business needed a redo. Thus began “How Do You Roll?,” a sushi bar dedicated to bringing the world sushi rolls without pretension.

Market research? Try talking to customers.

Speaking at ProductCamp Austin this week, he spoke about the challenges of being an entrepreneur in a down economy. One of those dilemmas is how to do market research without a marketing budget.

“What is wrong with just talking to your customers?” Yuen asked the audience. From the beginning, Yuen and Peter made it a point to ask questions of diners every day. “We just listened, and then we made changes, and let people know that we were responding to their suggestions. We still do that today.”

A recent entry on their blog site reflects this conversational approach to market input:

We’ve had many people ask about soy sauce in bottles instead of packets, and we’ve really given it a great deal of thought…We realize we are not going to be able to please everybody on this issue, but it mostly comes down to an issue of hygeine, although there are other factors…that we have taken into consideration when making this decision. The packets, although they are a pain to deal with, are more sanitary. You might ask why we have ponzu sauce available in bottles, and that is because our ponzu is a proprietary recipe, and it isn’t available in packets – if it were, we’d be using ponzu packets too.

Thanks, as always, for your comments, suggestions and support!

Remember simple business rules.

“Business is business, and a lot of the same principles apply regardless of your product,” he says. Yuen learned about cash flow while working alongside his mother in their restaurant.

“She would tell me, ‘We have to have enough cash coming in to pay our vendors every week.’ I didn’t have to learn that in school. You draw on everything you experience.”

“How Do You Roll?” has two locations in Austin, and several more franchise operations in the works. Yuen admits there is risk ahead, but he is optimistic about the firm’s outlook, even in a struggling economy.

“There is no bad time to be an entrepreneur, assuming you have a market and a product that addresses a demand,” he asserts. “Find the right opportunity and there will be an ROI.”

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