Stronger together: The unconventional approach that built an F&B empire, with Howard and Nan of Empire Eats Singapore

Howard and Nan, Empire Eats Singapore
When asked about their wedding anniversary date, Howard and Nan recalled back to the renovation phase of their Tanuki Raw outlet at Orchard Central, back in 2012, where their wedding reception was held.

“If we try to think about what are the unique things about a couple working together is injecting a little bit of “couple personality” into work. It helps keep the balance and romance alive. Take the time to recognise that you are doing something special with your spouse.” – Howard & Nan of Singapore based Empire Eats. For this entrepreneurial couple, being in the business together is the added glue that keeps their relationship close. Watching them talk throughout this interview, one cannot help but observe how well they complement each other. He is the visionary, and she the go-getter. With 7 brands, 11 outlets and 2 young children, they shared candidly on their journey, overcoming conflicts and a decade worth of entrepreneurial advice building a culinary empire.

    Standing Sushi Bar, 2019 / 3 outlets
    Tanuki Raw, 2012 / 3 outlets and 1 express kiosk
    Salmon Samurai, 2017 / 2 outlets
    The World is Flat, 2016 / 1 outlet
    Sumo Bar Happy, 2017 / 1 outlet
    The Secret Mermaid, 2014 / 1 bar
    Liberty Spirits Asia, 2013 / Importer and distributor of American craft spirits
    First Standing Sushi Bar at Raffles Place, 2009, around 200k (closed in April 2011)
    Biggest outlet: Tanuki Raw Orchard Central, around 450k
    Latest outlet: The World is Flat at Jewel Changi, around 450k
    The Secret Mermaid, around 200k
    First Standing Sushi Bar at Raffles Place, 2009, 35 (closed in April 2011)
    Biggest outlet: Tanuki Raw Orchard Central, 120
    Latest outlet: The World is Flat at Jewel Changi, 110
    The Secret Mermaid, 23
    Biggest outlet: Tanuki Raw Orchard Central, 2700
    Latest outlet: The World is Flat at Jewel Changi, 2300
    The Secret Mermaid, 650

    Key Learnings

    1. You have to set your vision of excellence. Howard and Nan try to remind their team every day via constant gentle pressure. You need to be mindful to do it in a way that treats them with dignity while continually conveying that vision of excellence to them. 
    2. Empire Eats uses Workplace by Facebook to get their staff from different brands to interact by sharing best practices and stories on what is happening at their outlets. Whether it is through pictures of what is happening at the outlet or live videos, this fosters a community vibe across the group.
    3. In general, the F&B culture is that “If I make a mistake, I will cost my boss money, and then I will be in huge trouble.” Empire Eats makes sure the team feels empowered to be willing to try new tactics to interact with customers, without the fear that “I might make a mistake, and I am going to get in trouble.”  
    4. As a business owner, your overall role is to fix problems. It is your pleasure to be confronted with problems. Having an open-door policy and being accessible is something the team enjoys, which in turn, has helped with staff retention at Empire Eats. 
    5. As your relationship progresses, learn to choose your battles. It is essential to learn how to disagree effectively. As Nan puts it,” We fight with respect. Having a sense of humour is also important.”
    6. F&B is a high-pressure environment. There are a lot of places that will not give second chances. Empire Eats is very good at accommodating the role to the staff’s capacity. Howard and Nan make an effort to help people fit in, to empower and to encourage them to be the best versions of themselves.

    How do you balance love and business?

    Howard: Whatever we do is to make sure our love stays healthy and grows. Even in the short term, it might make us fight more over the business, but ultimately we have to believe that it is right for our family.

    Nan: Securing our love is a fundamental block of our family’s stability. We take care of that. We will disagree on certain points, but there is a mutual understanding and trust that although some decisions we make for the business may at times offend the other person, we still love and respect each other no matter what. Although some decisions may be against the other person’s desire, there is a recognition that both parties know that it is done out of love.

    What advice would you give to first-time couples who want to work together?

    From Howard

    • Have very clearly defined roles. 
    • Both of you need to agree at the beginning that if you want to chime in on the things that are beyond your role and scope, the other person has to know that you are just providing an opinion, and they ultimately still get to make the decisions. Alternatively, implement some kind of process to bring it to a vote, or let a third party decide. 

    From Nan

    • Be mindful of how you communicate an idea – whether you do not need to act upon it or whether it needs to be done in the personal capacity. Sometimes he will tell me we should do this and that. At one point, I reminded him I only have 24 hours in a day. He would say, I am not telling you to do it, I am just brainstorming and sharing my idea. I was listening to him as my capacity as a business partner, thinking that he expects me to deliver but actually, he was talking to me, “Wife, I want to do this for my business, what do you think?”
    • Learn to choose your battles. It is essential to learn how to disagree effectively.
    • Having a sense of humour is also important.


    • Howard – Visionary of Empire Eats, financials & business development 
    • Nan – Standard Operating Procedures, day to day operations, execution of concepts and most of the other detailed things

    Howard: Like the measurement for the refrigerator to fit into the bar. I hate doing these things. Nan likes to do these things. 

    Nan: I enjoy working with the chefs and service staff. Anticipate what are their needs on the ground and fulfilling them.

    Original Standing Sushi Bar at Raffles Place
    Standing Sushi Bar at Raffles Place was where their relationship started (over sushi and drinks).

    How did you meet?

    Nan: I was a customer at Standing Sushi Bar, Howard’s first restaurant venture.

    Howard: When I opened in 2009, we were pretty much the only joint open for dinner at Raffles Place until 10 pm and serving alcohol. It was us or TCC. Nan would come almost every night for her dinner or beer after work, and we just started talking.

    Nan: At that point, there was also an excellent manager who brought a unique style of service to the restaurant. That was why I kept going back. It was nice to be at the receiving end of such hospitality, and she is now our son’s godmother! 

    What about hospitality attracts you to it? Is that a core value of Empire Eats now?

    Howard: We had Coral, our first manager who was fantastic. She brought in her cousin and a few of her friends to join the team. They are a team that works very well together. Hospitality is innate in them. When you have excellent hospitality experience, which is unfortunately rare in this country, it becomes a great distinguisher for your business.

    From this foundation, we place hospitality at a very high priority and strive to continue improving on it. This probably sounded cheesy, but like every restaurateur who is inspired by Setting The Tables by Danny Meyer, there are many concepts in there that we are trying to instill in our group

    Howard Lo, Empire Eats Singapore 

    What are those principals?

    Nan: We try to enforce constant gentle pressure. You have to set your vision of excellence. We try to remind our team every day via constant gentle pressure. You need to be mindful to do it in a way that treats them with dignity while conveying that vision of excellence to your team. 

    We try to practice that as much as possible. The first time we heard about it, we were blown away, especially the idea that it has to be gentle. We felt that was very important to us. The other thing that I really believe from Danny Meyer’s book is “The road to success is paved with mistakes well-handled…” 

    Every mistake that happened is an opportunity for you to take the experience to the next level for the customer.

    Hui Nan, Empire Eats Singapore

    Let’s talk about your team. Are there any initiatives you put in place to retain staff? 

    Nan: One of the things we practice is treating ourselves and our customers with respect. Howard has embodied that since Day 1. He practices an open-door policy to all staff. We let them know we want everyone to operate in a safe, respectful environment. 

    Howard: The F&B culture at times can be very harsh on staff. Many people say that you should fire fast, but I believe the opposite of it. I think being a very empathetic person pays off well for the business.

    Day-to-day F&B is a high-pressure environment. When someone cannot fit in, they are out very quickly. Many places will not give you another chance. We believe in accommodating a role based on the staff’s strengths. This has paid off. Some of these guys who are championing our concepts now, I would not have expected them to be a crucial part of our group years ago. 

    Howard Lo, Empire Eats Singapore

    Nan: We make an effort for people to fit in.  We empower them and encourage them to be the best versions of themselves. A strength that would have been perceived as weakness in one concept may be considered a strength in another concept. This is what we have recognised, running the business these 10 years.

    We had a chef who didn’t fit very well in Standing Sushi Bar, but when we took him out and had him focus in a fast casual concept like Salmon Samurai and empowered him to create the menu, he thrived. If you can figure out those problems and if they are addressable, it makes them happy and pays off well for the business.

    Do you think the human factor challenge is the most?

    Howard: An engaged team is incredibly difficult to build. To have a fully staffed team is hard, let alone creating a work environment where everyone is engaged and wanting to come to work. Naturally, there is the universal conflict of BOH vs FOH. We got to meet Danny Meyer in person and have dinner with him previously. He said something that I like to tell myself when there is a big problem:

    As a business owner, your overall role is to fix problems. It is your pleasure to be confronted with problems. Us being accessible is something that the team enjoys knowing, which in turn, makes them stay with us. 

    Howard Lo, Empire Eats Singapore

    Standing Sushi Bar, Income at Raffles.
    “Our first outlet officially together was Standing Sushi Bar, Income at Raffles.” – Nan

    There is an underlying Japanese theme throughout Empire Eats’ outlets, is there a reason for it? 

    Howard: The first concept was Standing Sushi Bar. Even as a kid I always loved sushi and Japanese food. The second concept, Tanuki Raw was an extension of that. Traditional Japanese casual dining in Singapore was starting to get a little restrictive. This was how Tanuki Raw came about. We wanted to introduce something more playful and drinks-oriented. We ended up hiring more staff who had Japanese hospitality experience and expertise. It was easy for us to continue on that route

    We believe in promoting from within. A lot of the team members that were with us from Day 1 are still with us. They have grown with us their entire career.

    Hui Nan, Empire Eats Singapore

    Nan: At Tanuki Raw, which already has its own drinks menu, we had this staff member who started as a barback, Kelly. She took a sabbatical from working with us and we roped her in for The Secret Mermaid, our first bar concept. When our head bartender left, we asked her to take over the role of being Head Bartender for The Secret Mermaid. We needed someone who could convey to our customer the spirits we brought in and not just an external consultant. She rose to the challenge. We also empowered her to head The World is Flat. Not only is she doing a splendid job in terms of curating our draft beer selection at both our Changi Airport transit bar and Jewel Changi bar, but she has also done very well in managing the front of house teams.

    Tanuki Raw Truffle Yakiniku Don
    Tanuki Raw’s signature Truffle Yakiniku Don. “We wanted to introduce something more playful and drinks-oriented. This was how Tanuki Raw came about.” – Howard 

    How do you select which location to open with which concept? 

    Howard: I wish I could say there is a finely crafted strategy, but a lot of them happens organically like Standing Sushi Bar. After a certain amount of years of Japanese food popularising,  customers started to feel restricted by traditional Japanese food. That is how Tanuki Raw came about to inject a little more modern, fun, food truck fusion food and playful drinks. At that point, we had a lot more appreciation for cocktails. We felt Singapore was missing out on the cocktail scene and the idea of very bespoke craft American spirits came to mind, and that is why we started Liberty Asia and Secret Mermaid.

    Were there any conflicts? 

    Howard: I’m usually more gung-ho about finding a location.

    Nan:  Nowadays, we are invited to view locations. We will do the viewing and make the decision together but with very different approaches. I will be the one pouring over the plans and analysing how the flow will be like. Howard operates on his gut.

    Howard: In the past, when Nan and me just started working together officially, I was more aggressive of the viewpoint that not everyone needs to sign off. That led to some challenging moments in our personal and professional relationship.

    Two years ago, there was a spot at APW in Kuala Lumpur which was previously a bar called Case Study. At that point we were starting up a very small project in KL. I thought it would make sense for us to be a little more aggressive. APW has so much potential. So, I went ahead and made plans with Soon Wei, the owner.

    Nan: He went ahead really far along in the discussion. I love APW as a consumer. However, due to our limited resources, I felt that we might not be the best partner for that project. I don’t think we would be giving it our best efforts. There were a lot of debates over this…

    When you look back now, what did you learn working with each other?

    Howard: It is much better now. We have naturally fallen into the roles we both enjoy. I might chime in on something which she has domain over and vice versa. There is, of course still a little bit of tension because you want to be heard.  Overall, we have a mutual understanding of what we each enjoy doing and are respectively good at.

    I think along the way we fight really well, which is essential. As business partners, we will fight. We realised if we are not the ones who will be seeing the decision through than maybe we should have our opinions expressed, but considered. We cannot enforce what the decision should be on the other party who has to execute it.

    Hui Nan, Empire Eats Singapore

    It seems like you work 7 days a week, how do you balance work and marriage? Or is there even a work-life balance? 

    Howard: Work-life balance is a statement that does not mean anything to me. For me, are you in that the phase of your life where you doing what you want to do? Are you spending your time in what you feel is the most appropriate way? Do you feel like this is what you should be doing right now? I feel that if I am answering ‘yes’ to all these questions, then, that is my work-life balance.

    Nan: In marriage, it is crucial to find someone who is aligned with you. When I joined the business full time in 2014, I could understand his struggles at work better. That is the added glue to the marriage. We were able to communicate better. Before I joined Empire Eats, I could only understand him to a certain extent. I think it is important for him to find someone who appreciates the struggles of entrepreneurship. Likewise, I appreciate how he understands why I am attuned to specific ways of running the business. We were very much aligned that way.

    We will go on date nights where we will both be happily talking about work. Not because we need to talk about it, but because we truly enjoy it. 

    Hui Nan, Empire Eats Singapore

    Howard: I feel like life would be harder if we put up boundaries between work and non-work time. We integrate. 

    Nan: Even with our kids, our son would hear us arguing about work. I will tell him that Mummy and Daddy might sound like fighting, but we still love each other very much. It is important to learn how to disagree effectively and know that couples can have disagreements. We fight with respect. 

    We have worked together for 4 years; the first 2 years were hard for me. Howard is very used to unilaterally deciding on things. It was hard for him to have someone else’s opinion to consider. I am glad I persevered. It took a long time for me to be comfortable with the person he is at work. We have both learned how to compromise. I recognise now that it may not be the most efficient approach always to make sure that everything is by the book. We are still an SME, and we need to be nimble and fast. As much as I want to have all processes in place, it might not be the most efficient way to do things. That is what I learned from him. Likewise, I think he recognises that a more robust system will help to ease his workload.

    Empire Eats owns 11 outlets now. How do you divide your time?

    Nan: I make it a point to dine at our spots, one outlet per day. It may not be feasible when we grow, but I also treat it as a scientific approach. Between the 2 of us, I can tell when something is not right, and I take it upon myself to make sure that the quality remains the same. I think it is important to spend time at our outlets.

    How do you think your past experience has been relevant to the  F&B business? 

    Howard: Having spent 5 years working with Microsoft Excel, I can consider myself a bit of an Excel expert. When people do not understand the features, they end up spending money on manpower to do these things. I have a keen interest in technology and social media. My curiosity led me to dabble in these areas to use these platform for awareness. Being able to decide what applications might be impactful for us helps in improving productivity.

    Nan: For me, being in legal practice previously honed my attention for detail. That has helped in terms of creating a hospitality experience. It is all about the little things and being able to tell my team what exactly I noticed was off. I may not be the one crafting it but I am able to identify what was wrong and put the staff back on track to achieve what they were aiming to do. 

    What’s next for Empire Eats? 

    Howard: We are very excited about expanding overseas, for example to Malaysia. We will be opening The Secret Mermaid in Kuala Lumpur on top of another project called Monroe by end of October 2019. Both of these are more American-focused concepts. Hopefully, we can open something in America. That would be the future for the company.

    The Secret Mermaid, Singapore
    The Secret Mermaid, which features a large selection of American crafted spirits will be opening its second outlet in Kuala Lumpur end of this year.


    This interview has been condensed for length and clarity. Words by Theresa Burhan. Edited by Yilynn Chan. Photography by Empire Eats. 


    1. What a great interview with Howard and Nan, Theresa! So informative, and I love how they are real about working together and keeping their relationship tight!

    2. Love how you are featuring successful couples in the F&B business! It was a good reminder that it’s ok to fight, so long as you fight well in an environment of mutual understanding and trust!

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