In the somewhat saturated London food scene, differentiating your business can be difficult. Street food, in particular, is alive with innovation, making it hard for new businesses to establish a memorable niche. Felipe Preece has managed to the almost impossible, though: coming up with a new, or at least extremely rare, fusion of foods and flavours.
When he arrived in London four years ago, Felipe realised that the Japanese food (which his background is in) market was saturated with fast-food chains, fine dining establishments, small family-run restaurants, and street food stalls. “So we decided to be different,” he explains. “We wanted to give sushi a Latin twist, a hardcore one, and came up with the cool idea of ‘NoriTacos’, a Japanese-Latin street food fusion.”
It transpires that being a pioneer is painstaking work, though, as it took him over a year to develop what is now Sugoi JPN’s, of which he is the founder and director, crunchy tempura nori shell recipe. “We had to pay extreme attention to achieving key product deliverables,” he says, “keeping the crunch without cracking, standing upright holding fillings in place, and maintaining texture while being filled with wet ingredients to allow at least 30 minutes travel time for delivery.”
The ‘we’ he constantly mentions refers to Felipe’s wife Veronica, with whom he has been developing Japanese restaurant concepts for 15 years. The couple met back in 1997. Felipe was a commercial pilot who happily recalls that he “fell in love at first sight” when he chanced upon Veronica in a sushi bar in Caracas, Venezuela. “She was working as a part-time waitress while studying graphic design,” he remembers. “To impress her, I decided to become a sushi encyclopedia and visited her every week to show her my ‘sushi knowledge’… and my strategy worked! Today, after 20 years together, she is the love of my life, we have a sushi-loving daughter, and our life revolves around Japanese gastronomy.
“Some people know me as @Susherito, which means ‘the little sushi man’ in Spanish. We might say we are a couple that knows the Japanese fine dining and casual restaurant industry with a proven record of successful concept development.”
With their latest, London-based venture, the couple were keen to make something different, simple, but cool, or ‘sugoi’ in Japanese. “Most people within the hospitality industry already know that delivered food is an increasingly important feature of urban living,” says Felipe of the decision to keep his new business in the shade to begin with. “Technology has been the catalyst, driving uptake via mobile platforms and digital marketing with full-service delivery platforms opening new channels.
“So we decided to take a chance on the dark-kitchens to try our crazy-cool idea, and we rented one at Bethnal Green, in an alley under the railways. It was our destiny, as our concept was inspired by a similar alleyway in Tokyo.”
On opening, in late 2017, Felipe admits to being underwhelmed by the initial reaction. Sugoi JPN was only receiving a couple of orders a day and, although the feedback was positive, it was nowhere near enough. “We needed to look to guerrilla marketing to survive,” says Felipe, revealing the dark kitchen arts. “I quit my job to go full-time and we introduced ourselves to our friendly neighbours, including Old Street Brewery. We shared our NoriTacos with them and they shared some fantastic beer with us. We clicked straight away and discovered a new synergy between both brands.
“They did not want to deal with chefs, kitchens, food, menus, and all the back-of-house problems, so we took care of it for them. This way, they have a kitchen and we have a restaurant with tables. It is a win-win relationship because we share the same vision, ethos and values. We did the same thing with Renegade London Wine and now Mother Kelly’s [both of which are also nearby] where we have a food truck and trailer.”
Today, the delivery arm represents the 65% of the business’s revenue, with the other 35% coming from the street food side. “Third party apps allow us to connect with new potential customers that we would not be able to easily reach on a regular basis, economically speaking,” says Felipe. “Third parties help us to get our product into houses and turn customers into regulars, helping us to spread the word in a direct way, resulting in great exposure.”
When it comes to setting up in the street food sector, Felipe says that one of the major plus points is the lower level of initial investment. “There are high risks involved with bricks and mortar restaurants in local high streets,” he says. “We don’t need to worry about long contracts, refurbishments, equipment, an army of staff, and so on. You can start your business and develop your concept with less risks and cost pressures.”
Now the business is well established, the best-sellers are the bocaditos, which comprise tempura-fried butterfly cuts of salmon sashimi filled with avocado and cream cheese, topped with teriyaki sauce and spicy kimchee mayo. The gyozas chingonas (gyoza means ‘dumpling’ in Japanese, chingonas ‘cool’ in Mexican) are also very popular. The latter entail fried veggie gyozas with pico de gallo (tomatoes, red onion, coriander and lemon juice), topped with sour cream, avocado dressing and spicy sauce.
Looking to the future, Felipe says he is not looking to re-reinvent the wheel. “Our plan is defined in a few steps,” he says. “Opening our first dark kitchen was the first one and we wanted a controlled small expansion that consisted of opening two more spots, which we have accomplished. The next stage is to be successfully operating for two years and we are almost there. We may think about opening a grab-and-go and eat in unit, but for now we are happy with the way everything is flowing.
“Our next step will be to sell our gluten-free NoriTaco shells, some merchandise, which we are working on, and our own beer made of Calpis [a popular Japanese milky soft drink], among other things.
Felipe’s overriding philosophy is that if you truly enjoy what you do, your enthusiasm will translate to the customer, as he concludes our chat by saying: “Without passion your game is going to be over sooner or later, that is the most important thing. You need to be personable, and if you do not have passion, people will notice. Remember, to be successful, you need to be happy and the money will flow.”
For now, he is content to be making food he loves, in a business he loves, alongside someone he loves – Sugoi JPN really has provided the perfect fusion for Felipe, as well as for his devoted customers.