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Only Yong once: An interview with Momo Sushi founder Robin Yong

Connie Foong

Tue Jul 26 2011

Robin Yong, Momo Sushi

THOMAS Edison once said, “I owe my success to the fact that I never had a clock in my workroom.”

Robin Yong may be realising his dreams now, but it was not an easy road. Robin, now 28, saved for five long years before he was able to open Momo Sushi in April 2009.

For the uninitiated, Momo Sushi is a café specialising in hand-made sushi rolls, alongside coffee sourced from Five Senses.

A former international student from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Robin arrived in 2001 to do a Bachelor of Electrical Engineering at Melbourne University, but didn’t stick with it.

“I hated engineering with a passion!” he says with a laugh.

“I never practiced engineering.”

After graduation, he found a job as a team leader in operations and transactions at a share registry, and was an analyst at an accounting firm, before he finally became a self-described “professional rice cooker” at Momo Sushi.

“I think in hindsight it’s been quite good, because I’ve met a lot of different people for the past ten years,” he says.

Popular. Sushi rolls sell out not long after lunchtime. Photo: Nicole Hew

Popular. Sushi rolls sell out not long after lunchtime. Photo: Nicole Hew

On top of working full-time, Robin decided to study a little more, and did a Masters of Commerce as a part-time student. It was “three long years of night classes”, but it was a worthwhile decision which reflected his interest in business.

“I always wanted to do something of my own, always wanted to do something with food,” he says.

Like most international students, Robin only really began learning to cook after he came to Melbourne, and found it “therapeutic and enjoyable”. And it was also here that he became influenced by Melbourne’s strong coffee culture, and learnt how to make and appreciate coffee.

“Coffee is a big passion of mine… a huge hobby for me since coming to Melbourne, so I wanted to incorporate that somehow,” he says.

He soon got his chance, as Momo Sushi’s Swanston location opened up.

All items are freshly made every morning. Photo: Nicole Hew

All items are freshly made every morning. Photo: Nicole Hew

“I wanted to do sushi because it was a relatively easier food that you could cook to order,” Robin says.

“There was a serious lack in good sushi around this area.”

Robin underwent an intensive one-month training course with a Perth sushi chef, who himself had trained with a professional Japanese sushi chef.

“Apparently it takes ten years to be a trained sushi chef… but then again, ours is more fusion, more of a fast food sort of concept,” Robin says.

Starting a business is no easy task. The first six months for Robin were especially challenging.

“I asked myself what was I doing with my life!” he says.

“It was very, very hard. It’s painful when you put five years of your savings into a project like that, especially for the first six months when it was so slow, and so quiet! [But] my wife, Rachel, [who] has been very supportive, encouraging me along the way.”

A work day begins at 4.30am for Robin. Photo: Nicole Hew

A work day begins at 4.30am for Robin. Photo: Nicole Hew

Although Robin has a pool of staff to help manage his café (and the recently-opened second branch on Pelham St), he still does the majority of the work, managing practically all aspects of his business, from the rice cooking, coffee-making, accounting, and cleaning up.

And being one’s own boss doesn’t mean taking a back seat. A typical day begins at 4.30am, and Robin reaches the shop by 5.15am to cook the rice and prepare the ingredients. He and some workers begin rolling sushi between 6.00 and 6.30, continuing until lunchtime. And since the second shop opened, Robin shuttles back and forth between both shops throughout the day.

The work doesn’t end even after closing time. He continues working on administrative matters in his office at the Pelham St shop.

Though it is tiring, his hard work has paid off. Robin saw a huge breakthrough in the middle of last year, as word spread.

“Business was okay, but… towards the third quarter of last year, suddenly it became quite popular,” he says.

In fact, if you come in after lunchtime, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything to buy, as they usually sell out by then.

“People ask how do I come up with ideas for these different sorts of sushi rolls you don’t find anywhere else. I guess we all are customers, so I sort of put myself in the customer’s position,” he says.

“Because I eat the rolls everyday, I also get a bit sien (bored), so I try to do something different every few months.”

Robin’s love for coffee comes through in his business. Photo: Nicole Hew

Aside from the quality sushi, the coffee has also been received warmly by arguably hard-to-please Melbourne coffee aficionados. Robin himself is no stranger to Melbourne’s coffee scene; he was involved with Broadsheet café (Robin uses Five Senses Coffee), as well as the Good Food and Wine Show, where as part of the Langham Melbourne Masterclass, he made coffee for famous names like Matt Preston and Maggie Beer.

Interestingly, Robin himself has no formal training as a barista, but has learnt in other ways.

“And I read a lot,” he adds.

The journey has been a very fulfilling one for Robin. Two years later, Momo Sushi is living up to its name (Momo means peach blossom in Japanese, and symbolises prosperity), having just opened its second store on Pelham St.

In spite of the hard work, he’s enjoyed it. But for aspiring entrepreneurs, Robin advises them not to “get caught up with what you see.”

“There’s a lot more to it,” he says.

“A lot of students come in during lunchtime and go, oh, you’re doing really well, but they don’t see the early morning starts, they don’t see when it’s quiet.

“It’s a lot of hard work. People don’t see me come in on the weekends to do prep for Mondays and Tuesdays, they don’t see you mopping and sweeping the floor, they don’t see you in the office doing the extra two more hours of work.”

“But if it works, the rewards are there,” Robin says.

“Not only money-wise, but it feels good, something that you create from nothing… and see it grow.”

Robin saved for five years before he was able to open Momo Sushi. Photo: Nicole Hew

Robin saved for five years before he was able to open Momo Sushi. Photo: Nicole Hew

He has also told students who asked for his advice, to “go out and work first, save up some money, try to network a bit more, and try to understand how the Australian culture works.”

“It’s very, very different from back home, how they do things here. It’s a lot of red tape here, a lot of things you need to follow, whereas back home, it gets quite sloppy.

“So I think [it’s] very important to know people and know how things are done here… It’s not easy, but I think if you have an idea and if you have a good product or service, then go for it right now… because you’re only young once.”

Momo Sushi is open Monday to Friday from 7.30am to 3.30pm, and is located on 660 Swanston St and 163 Pelham St, Carlton.