The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

FOOD | CAMPAIGN

FEBRUARY 2015

Taste of America

By John Amari

Food-wrapCustomers in restaurants, cafés, and hotels across Tokyo sampled a little piece of America as part of a culinary campaign late last year.

Established in 2011, Taste of America events have encouraged collaboration between US-based food and beverage producers and Japan-based restaurants to promote US fare in Japan. The campaign has raised awareness in Japan of the variety and depth of cuisine in the United States, while bringing to life little-known yet entertaining elements of American culture.

To find out more about the campaign, the ACCJ Journal sat down with two of its principal proponents at the Agricultural Trade Office of the U.S. Embassy in Japan: Rachel Nelson, director, and Sumio Thomas Aoki, senior marketing specialist.

For Nelson and Aoki, one of the main goals is to create a community of restaurants and customers in Japan who have an informed appreciation of US cuisine.

“To be part of the Taste of America campaign,” Nelson said, “we initially asked restaurants to use American ingredients and maybe feature a certain menu item.”

The Oak Door restaurant in the Grand Hyatt Tokyo organized country-dancing events for customers.

The Oak Door restaurant in the Grand Hyatt Tokyo organized country-dancing events for customers.

Embracing the concept and running with it, “some of the restaurants turned it into an event and used it as a way to highlight certain regions or states of the US,” she added. They also introduced fun aspects of US customs, including traditional dance.

The Oak Door restaurant, inside the Grand Hyatt Tokyo, took on the letter and spirit of the Taste of America campaign. Not only did the steakhouse present a sumptuous Texas folk-themed menu, Nelson recalled, but the team also worked with the Tokyo-based tourism office of the state to provide country-dancing entertainment for customers.

Over the years, events organized under the campaign have evolved from the original goal of simply introducing US products and ingredients to Japanese retailers. Now the aim is to create events that celebrate the extreme breadth of US food and drink culture and offer Japanese consumers an authentic United States experience.

Defining moment
Furthermore, the campaign has sought to answer an important and common question in Japan: What is American cuisine?

The same question concerned marketing expert Aoki for some time. “Even before I started working for the Agricultural Trade Office in 2007,” he recalled, “it was hard, in Japan, to answer this question.”

At that time, Aoki added, identifying US-themed restaurants even in a city the size of Tokyo was not easy, and yet there were many restaurant owners and chefs with a strong affinity for the United States, and they desired a platform to share that passion.

To help bridge the culinary gap, Nelson and Aoki’s team of marketing and sales experts visit American-themed restaurants in Japan and encourage them to take part in Taste of America events.

The campaign’s website and strong social media messaging, combined with outreach activities, have raised customers’ and restaurateurs’ awareness of, and involvement in, the events since the campaign’s inception.

As a result, a strong community of over 140 owners of restaurants and bars in Japan—a significant rise from the original 54 participants—has emerged to support the Taste of America initiative.

International hotels and their restaurants are not the only establishments jumping on the bandwagon, however.

Food-plates
Gotham Grill, a US-style eatery based in Ebisu, Tokyo, participated for a second successive year, and introduced US beef tongue as part of their special menu. “Customers loved the menu,” restaurant manager Yuji Shirasaki commented.

Traci Consoli, a US native and co-owner of the Pink Cow, a California-themed restaurant and event space in Roppongi, Tokyo, expressed similar sentiments.

When Consoli first learned of the embassy campaign, her reaction was swift: “This is perfect, because we want to get more Japanese people to understand what we do as a restaurant.” The Pink Cow’s Taste of America event in 2012 was a sellout, Consoli said, and in 2014 her restaurant gained new customers who visited and mentioned the campaign by name.

The Guinguette by Moja, an American-themed restaurant in Shibuya, Tokyo, likewise found success when they participated in the campaign by creating a special menu to entice customers. The restaurant incorporated ingredients from the state of Kentucky to create a bourbon-flambé chicken dish and bread-pudding dessert, with accompanying ginger-mint julep cocktails and other drinks.

“Customers who were attracted by the campaign were interested in the novelty of the special menu and did order meals from it,” said company spokesperson Fumi Narita.

In addition to managing the Taste of America campaign, Nelson and Aoki’s teams link Japan-based restaurants—via Japanese importers of US-made ingredients—to agricultural exporters and producers in the United States.

As Nelson explained, “We have a number of US-based industry groups that we work with [such as the U.S. Meat Export Federation], and we partner restaurants with those groups.”

Nelson and Aoki remain upbeat about future prospects. “We are trying to create an experience because the United States is so big, and there are so many different regions, and there is so much agriculture and such a variety of ingredients for a given menu,” Nelson said.

One mouthful at a time, the profile of US food and drink products in Japan is being raised.

Amari

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John Amari is a consultant, writer, and researcher with experience working for a United Nations agency.

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One of the main goals is to create a community . . . in Japan that has an informed appreciation of US cuisine.