WHAT’S in a name? In the case of Oaka Supercity – everything.
Meaning ‘home’ in English, ‘oaka’ derives from Hakka, a Chinese dialect spoken in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and in numerous other parts of Asia.
“It’s mostly spoken by grandparents,” said Jonathan Leung, who suggested the name for the business. “Our grans used to say ‘come home and have dinner’. It’s almost a dying language, but it’s one that brings all of Asia together, which reflects what we’re trying to do here.”
Opening just before Christmas, Oaka Supercity, owned by Leung along with his partners Eric Caira, Alo Yip and Joe Ho, presents food from across Asia in a way that most Scottish shoppers have never seen before.
“We really wanted to attract a different clientele than the usual Asian food shopper,” said Leung. “Stores offering this kind of food are usually big supermarkets – cash & carry style, almost – and they’re sometimes too intimidating for locals to go into.“When it’s inviting on the outside people will come in. With the way we’ve decorated inside we feel people are more willing to spend a bit of time here, walk around, familiarise themselves with products, a lot of which they won’t have seen before.”
There’s a revolution going on with food. People want to get into Asian cooking, but don’t know how.
Situated in George Street, the new store is right in the heart of Glasgow city centre, occupying a unit that was previously a branch of RBS.
Leung, Caira and their partners had their first viewing of the site in December 2015 and spent the following year developing their plan for the business and putting it into action.
“We knew exactly what we wanted to do, but we had to get a good design team in to help us create the atmosphere we wanted,” said Leung.
The finished article is a store that presents a wide variety of foods from across China, Malaysia, Singapore and Japan in a way that is easily accessible to the average Scottish customer.
“There’s a revolution going on right now with food,” said Caira. “People want to get into Asian cooking, but they don’t know how. What we’re trying to do is make it inviting enough that people won’t feel embarrassed asking questions about what to do.”
Leung said the style, inspired by stores they had seen in Hong Kong and Japan, is straight forward, but it works.
“90% of the products are things you won’t be able to find in your local Sainsbury’s or Tesco. The supermarkets are trying to bring in international products, but they get it wrong.
“They might bring in one product, but they won’t stock the thing you’re supposed to serve with it. They may not have the knowledge or the staff that we do. We don’t know every culture in Asia, but our staff do. We’ve got people from Malaysia, Korea, China, Hong Kong and Europe.”
Most of Oaka’s 22 staff are students working part-time.
“It’s a lot for a small shop, but we just couldn’t say no to people,” said Caira. “Some are only doing a few hours a week, they’re at the university next door and coming in is fun for them. It’s fun for us as well.
“The whole business is about enjoyment. It’s not Sainsbury’s. You’re not going to come in every day, you might not even come in every week, but when you do, we want you to enjoy the experience.”
With backgrounds in retail and wholesale, Leung and Caira set out with the aim of building a supermarket, but in the last three months before completion decided to add a food-to-go element.
As well as sushi, prepared fresh each morning by the store’s own sushi chef, the store boasts its own hot food station, offering Asian delicacies like pork dumplings, char siu buns and fish balls.
“It’s quite a limited range, inspired by Hong Kong Street food. But it’s quite convenient. It’s quick and it’s healthier than a lot of fast food you see in the town,” said Caira.
“We thought, to begin with, that sushi was going to be the big seller, but the hot food has just been crazily popular.”
Though the business has only been open for a number of weeks, the team are already looking to expand.
“We are looking to go over to the West End,” said Leung. “I think we have to. We’ve had so many customers coming and asking us if we’re a franchise.
“We’ve got a really nice customer base right now, but there’s more we want to do.”