To say that Teresa and Robert Ly, husband and wife and owners of Sus Hi Eatstation, were destined to one day own an Asian-themed business would be a fairly accurate statement. From an early age, both Teresa and Robert worked for their parent's businesses. Teresa grew up stocking shelves and working the register at her family's Asian grocery store in the heart of the Mills 50 neighborhood, home to Orlando’s Asian community. Robert was your traditional kid that worked at the family's Chinese restaurant. He did everything from washing dishes to answering the phone and even helped with food preparation. Teresa and Robert learned, at a very young age, how to properly run a business. The early decisions that would subsequently lead to the creation of Sus Hi Eatstation go back to 2005 when Robert graduated from high school in St. Charles, MO, and made the move to The City Beautiful.
"I knew I would eventually own a restaurant," Robert said. "When I moved to Orlando, I made it a goal to work for as many restaurants as possible. I wanted to learn the different processes and procedures, managerial styles, branding techniques and everything they did to make the restaurant successful. When the time was right, I would take everything I learned and use it to start my own business."
In 2008, Teresa and Robert met and started dating. At the time, Teresa was attending The University of Central Florida while still working at her family's grocery store. Robert was in the midst of his restaurant learning spree. According to Teresa, it was a known thing that the pair would one day get into business together. By early 2011, they got serious about starting a restaurant and took action to turn that dream into a reality. They flew to New York City to explore different restaurant concepts. They identified a need for a fast casual sushi concept with extra flair. Picture Chipotle, but with ninjas serving you spicy tuna and tempura chicken instead of barbacoa and beans.
From Startup to Second-Stage
"We solidified the concept seven and a half years ago after a conversation at a Dipping Dots," Robert said. "Entrepreneurship is in our blood and, wherever we go, we're always talking shop. We're also major foodies. There was a missing piece of the market and we saw an opportunity to fill that gap with a sushi restaurant that revolved around the Chipotle concept. It was also something we would enjoy eating at. We put our creativity, passion and integrity into it and, by the grace of the restaurant gods, the community accepted it and embraced our brand and personality."
The result was Sus Hi Eatstation, a fast casual sushi restaurant offering bowls, wraps and rolls made-to-order with fresh ingredients prepared by staff dressed as ninjas working in restaurants referred to as dojos. "We like to think of ourselves as the elevated fun version of the Chipotle concept," Teresa said. "We yell 'fire' when we melt cheese and bang a gong for appetizers. It's a fun atmosphere."
Since opening their first location across the street from The University of Central Florida until present day, one of Teresa and Robert's biggest challenges has been finding the right people. With nearly 100 employees between four locations, and more locations expected in the very near future, Sus Hi Eatstation is constantly hiring. According to Teresa, this presents a unique challenge.
"We focus on more than just providing our employees with jobs," she said. "We look at how to best inspire them and help them grow. We're focused on their future as much as we're focused on ours. Looking at who to hire and who to promote is something we take very seriously." Robert added, "It's also important to us to be able to provide jobs to good people with limited experience. In fact, we set out to prove that well-trained, yet inexperienced, people can run our concept."
Keeping a Competitive Edge
When it comes to a competitive edge over the competition, Robert and Teresa unequivocally point to Sus Hi Eatstation's workplace culture. Based on past experiences in the restaurant industry and deep-seeded personal convictions of how to treat your employees, these entrepreneurial ninjas have created dojos where both customers and employees are equally as inspired and satisfied.
"We really believe that management needs to treat everyone with respect," Robert said. "We pride ourselves on doing our absolute best to create the ideal environment for our employees. As a business owner, we're in charge of a third of an employee’s life. It's a big responsibility, but we're committed to developing our employees with proper lessons and values. We like to focus on five Ps: Process, Products, People, Problems and Profits. How we treat our employees is how we align with our community."
Notable Community Contributions
When it comes to community involvement and philanthropic activities, Sus Hi Eatstation is extremely committed to doing its part. Teresa and Robert estimate that they've donated upwards of $40,000 to the community. They do in-store bake sales around Thanksgiving to raise money to make baskets for families in need. When a typhoon hit the Philippines, they made t-shirts to raise money and gave away food. When the Pulse Nightclub tragedy happened, they donated 100% of proceeds that weekend to the affected families. When the last hurricane caused a water shortage in Central Florida, they bought 75 cases of water and left them outside one of their dojos for people to pick up. As Teresa shared, much of their strength as a business comes from being involved in the community.
What it Means to Be a Florida Companies to Watch Honoree
"We've been working so hard since we launched to develop our brand, presence and culture," Teresa said. "To win an award like this and to be recognized for what we've done means the world to us. We're just so proud. The recognition also lets the employees know their work is for something. Ultimately, we work as hard as we do to inspire our ninjas.
In terms of why we were selected, I think it has a lot to do with our growth and great numbers. We also have strong projects and expansion plans for even more growth. We're not stopping with just four locations. I think this aligns strongly with what GrowFL stands for."
Looking ahead, Teresa and Robert have a goal of 500 stores in 10 years. They want to be the industry standard for fast casual sushi by getting people to think 'Sus Hi' when they think of sushi. They also want to continue to build a culture where employees have opportunities for growth and enjoy coming to work.
Advice for Aspiring Entrepreneurs
When it comes to advice for aspiring entrepreneurs, Teresa and Robert both offer some excellent advice. "Just do it," Robert said. "A lot of lessons that come with being an entrepreneur can only be learned by jumping in. No book or mentor can tell you how it's really going to be. Also, know that it's going to be tough and that you'll likely fail before you succeed." Teresa added, "I agree with what Robert said, but if you're able to find one, a mentor is definitely a good thing. One of our mentors is John Rivers, owner and founder of 4 Rivers. We scouted him out and now we meet every quarter. Find a mentor that aligns with your core values. The advice you'll get is priceless."