An interview with Sone and Seng
Slices. The longstanding America town restaurant serving single sliced pizza and Canadian hospitality is owned and run by Sone and Seng Manichanh; brother and sister from Waterloo, Canada. Around thirteen years ago, they both came to Japan with the intention of staying for a year, like most foreigners do, then ended up staying for much longer than anticipated. After teaching English for a few years and getting their fill of traveling they opened up Slices almost eleven years ago, next April.
In the heart of America town, where their spacious restaurant is, I met with both Sone and Seng on a quiet afternoon as customers slowly dripped in. As always they were more than friendly and welcoming as we eased into the interview.
So, what kind of business background do you both have?
Sone: Not really any, not like a start-up business.
Seng: I actually studied business in university.
Did you learn Japanese in first couple of years you were here?
Sone: Very basic, just words because at that time I also was traveling
Seng: I didn’t speak a lick of Japanese but slowly I learned, I love languages. Still don’t speak fluently but enough to get by.
So, you opened the business with little to no Japanese?
Sone: Quite little, but with a lot of assistance. From friends, students
Okay, and they helped with a lot of the Japanese translation?
Sone: Somewhat, but there’s a lot of English information provided. So yeah, it’s hard in the beginning but the help is there. Just have to look for it. Struggle to look for it. I believe it is a lot easier now than it was when we first started. Just because information is more readily available now than it was before.
You both started the business together?
Sone: Yes together, so from getting all the paperwork and licenses…
What licences did you need?
Sone: A business licences, a certified one through a lawyer. A sanitary license as well, so you have to take a course on that.
So, every establishment needs one or you as a business owner needs one?
Sone: Every establishment needs someone who has the sanitary license. Every restaurant you go to should have one displayed somewhere. You don’t need to renew it, it lasts forever. It’s like a seminar on food handling, hygiene etc.
How did you find distributors?
Sone: Some contacts just meeting people the distributors came to the shops as sales people went to food shows. There are special events for restaurants to sample new products find distributors. That and the distributors also work close so you know from word-of-mouth.
Did you always want to be a pizza shop?
Sone: No… I think that we were just looking at ideas at that time. Foreign foods at that time were not as readily available and especially sliced pizza. And Japanese style pizza is very much like Italian style pizza whereas we wanted something more Western style pizza. The restaurant was supposed to be smaller like a small takeout place but then since we found such a good location, just by chance, and the space was a lot bigger than we imagined. But we slowly transformed it into a restaurant and then we added the bar. Before it was mostly just bubble tea drinks and soft drinks.
Seng: No, we just wanted to start any kind of business really. I don’t have experience in selling food personally but I know what I like… and Sone used to work at restaurants as well and one of his friends has a successful pizza shop back in Canada so he might have learned a thing or two there. Most of our business knowledge is through trial and error.
Is that how you coined the term Slices?
Sone: Yeah, well it was funny because we came up with all these different names a lot of them were complex and they needed explanations so we decided to keep it simple.
Have you always been so popular?
Sone: Well, I wasn’t so much into the foreign crowd as my sister but they spread the word about the pizza shop, and eventually people started coming. Within the foreign community there are promotors and we did events also.
Seng: In the beginning, no, we didn’t advertise until the second month maybe, because we were both so new to it. We got a lot of mentions in Japanese newspapers and magazines. But now we advertise through Tabelog and stuff. It was tough, when we’re gauging the market. The first year we worked every day, well, we took New Year’s off but the most challenging thing was seeing each other day after day, every minute of every day. There were some nights we even slept here.
What’s it like running a business with your sibling?
Sone: Of course, it’s fun to run a business with your family member but it’s also more challenging just because you expect more from each other. But overall, were pretty honest with each other, whether it’d be a compliment or constructive criticism, we both know that the ultimate goal is success. We do the best we can. If someone were to ask me whether it’d be a good idea, it’d be very hard to answer…
Seng: It has its challenges, people ask us that all the time. A lot of people mistake us for a married couple because I guess it’s very unusual. But in the very beginning it was hard as hell, now I think were old enough to know how to approach a topic and stuff. But most importantly, family always wins out.
Did you have to compromise a lot?
Seng: Absolutely, we had the plans and everything and theoretically we had it down in terms of what we wanted to project, what kind of image we wanted and really wanted to replicate what we had back home that was successful. In theory, the business works wonderfully but in practice it’s very different especially when you’re in a different country. So, that was a bit of a challenge. At first, we had the layout like we did back home, big cheap slices, pizzas on display but now it’s a completely different shop. But it happens, I think in the beginning we catered to the foreign crowd and didn’t focus enough on the Japanese crowd, we kinda forgot what country we were in.
Do you plan to open up anymore businesses in the future?
Sone: Definitely more, at the moment not really just small personal endeavours
And last question, do you have any advice for anyone wanting to open a business as a foreigner or as people wanting to collaborate?
Sone: Good advice would be, be prepared… ask lots of questions and I believe effort is really important. If you work really hard eventually you will succeed. Just be aware that it is difficult to run your own business, and especially when you put the extra effort into trying to understand the culture, they will reciprocate.
Seng: They say that people in good relationships open a business usually breaks the relationship and I can see why so I think your business will always permeate into your personal life. It’s hard to separate the two. So, communication and trust is really important. Talk about everything and make sure you don’t let your emotions take over. Everyone is different and has different ideas and hopes and it’s hard to compromise that also and understand it from another point of view.
Thank you so much for your time!
Slices will also be celebrating Christmas with Christmas dinner being served on the 23rd, 24th and 25th of December.
For more information on Slices please visit their website below!
By Rae Uemura