The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

For many, the idea of owning their own business is alluring; you get to choose your own hours, have complete creative control, and there is no one to answer to. But in reality, being an entrepreneur can entail insanely long hours, absolute accountability for your actions, and responsibility for your staff. And all of this must be undertaken without any sort of safety net.

Widely regarded as one of the riskier startups, cafés, bars, and restaurants attract thousands of entrepreneurs each year—even though they know full well that failure is as likely an outcome as success. But why do some ventures fizzle while others soar?

There is no concrete formula for success. If there were, we would all be successful business owners. But in an attempt to gain insight into the right ingredients, The Journal asked a selection of foreign restaurateurs in Japan a set of identical questions to find out how their experiences and business practices differ.

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OMNOMNOM

Rajib Ali came to Japan in the summer of 2008 and spent the first six years working as an assistant language teacher. Coming from a family of restaurateurs in the UK, Rajib took a leap of faith and opened OmNomNom in the spring of 2015. Designed to offer the Islamic community a Halal option other than kebabs and curries, OmNomNom was a world cuisine bistro with mainstays of chili and hotdogs, and a rotating monthly menu that included everything from pasta to hamburgers. Although he built a loyal customer base, it was not enough to stop OmNomNom from closing its doors permanently at the beginning of 2016.

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SHOOTERS

Seen by many as the largest social hub in Nagoya, Chris Zarodkiewicz has been heading up Shooters since it first opened in the mid 1990s. Well known for its fun atmosphere, lively staff, gut-busting food, and great cocktails, Shooters also plays a major part in supporting almost every aspect of Nagoya’s art community: live music, stand-up comedy, theater, DJs, and more. Mr. Zarodkiewicz is an astute businessman who is involved in a variety of projects, but to many he is the face behind one of Nagoya’s best-loved spots.

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SOUL FOOD HOUSE

David and LaTonya Whitaker are the couple behind Soul Food House @ 148 in Azabu-juban. Both have a passion for music—David being a hip-hop artist from Georgia and LaTonya a gospel singer from Mississippi. Both are long-term Tokyo residents, as well as food fanatics, so they have combined all that they love and know to create a space that delivers “American soul food in Japan.”

Did much time pass between the initial idea to start a business and actually opening the doors? What was the most difficult/important step?

Zarodkiewicz: Although there was never one single moment when the decision to start my business occurred, it was probably about 18 months to two years from the time my business plan was created to the time that we opened our doors. Creating a business plan was probably the most important step in getting the restaurant up and running. It gave potential investors confidence that I was serious and focused on the idea, and helped raise the necessary capital to get started.

Ali: My parents have a restaurant in the UK, so I’ve always had a desire to open a shop of some kind. Having said that, I think I started to seriously think about it roughly two years beforehand. The most difficult step was actually convincing myself that opening a shop in another country, in this case Japan, was actually possible. People always have dreams and aspirations to start a business, only to convince themselves that their current situation or lifestyle is satisfactory enough that the change is not worth it. Or, put simply, it’s too risky to give up everything and start a business.

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Whitaker: It took five to six years from the initial idea until we finally opened in August 2015. Because this is our first restaurant, the most important and difficult step was finding out the entire process involved in bringing a restaurant to life. A lot of research should go into whatever business you pursue; if it’s a concern or question, find out what the solution is.

How did you go about attracting customers? Have you used a number of methods? If so, which were the least and most successful?

Zarodkiewicz: I was lucky in that I had been in a management position in one of the largest, most successful restaurant businesses in Nagoya. It was because of this that I was able to start with a base of customers that followed me to the new location. Over the years, word of mouth has always proven to be the most powerful method of attracting more customers. Provide great food and service, and the rest will eventually take care of itself. That being said, we have used traditional methods of advertising, including print, radio, and TV, and are currently putting a lot of focus on social media. Success and failure in any of the different formats of advertising depends on many different factors, and it isn’t always easy to determine what has specifically worked and what hasn’t.

Ali: About six weeks before we opened, we put a message board and chalkboards outside the shop to let people know that a new food shop would be opening. We asked friends to pass the message on to their friends, and we opened a Facebook and Tabelog page to promote the business. On opening day, we had friends and family pass out flyers with a coupon attached. We also had a few articles and advertisements written in various Japanese and English publications, both online and on paper. In terms of success, the flyers were easily identifiable as people came into the shop with them in hand.

Whitaker: Cooking classes and word of mouth. Teaching about the food increasingly allowed us to introduce a broader audience to our food and personalities. At the same time, it gave us the ability to perfect and fine-tune the flavors that work best for local and international palates. The cooking classes provided opportunities for us to be on television.

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Other methods we’ve used include posting food photos on Instagram, promotional videos, a pop-up shop (before opening), magazine ads, and restaurant promotion/word of mouth review websites (Yelp, Hot Pepper, Tabelog). But the most effective methods involved word-of-mouth promotion and visuals. Combined, they build an experience that entices potential customers.

What initially drove you to become an entrepreneur? Were those hopes and aspirations met once you owned your own business?

Zarodkiewicz: I had worked for a couple of large companies (Hilton, Manhattan East Suite Hotels) and always enjoyed my professional experiences. I was usually the first in every morning and the last to leave. At one point I felt that it was time to put all of my energy into something that would be beneficial to me in the long term.

There is no better feeling than acquiring new business and building something that is yours. Although being an entrepreneur is not for everyone, I have found the experience over the last 20 years to be more than I could have imagined.

Ali: I really just wanted to have my own shop and try it on my own. Being your own boss is a great feeling. That’s not to say it’s an easy life; far from it. Ultimately, I just wanted to serve people and have them enjoy my food, and if I could make a decent income, that would be great. It was certainly enjoyable being an owner of something that my wife and I put many hours into making happen, and seeing customers enjoy what I made was immensely satisfying.

Whitaker: I was once hosting two different series of open mic nights in Ikebukuro and Shibuya. Both programs came to an end at the same time—one due to management change, the other to a change in ownership of the establishment. The community that built up around the open mics was an environment where people could come and enjoy music together. We wanted to be able to open a place that continued that atmosphere. The restaurant is a reflection of that hope for people to feel at home, comfortable, enjoy themselves, and be well fed. The full vision of Soul Food House is still unfolding, but it is already more than we hoped for.

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Since starting your own company, what was the biggest hurdle you have had to overcome? In hindsight, do you think you could have avoided it?

Zarodkiewicz: Six months after we opened, we decided to start a beer garden in addition to the restaurant. Within a month of opening the beer garden we realized we had overextended and lost focus on our initial operation. We managed to overcome the problems that came from the mistake, but in hindsight should have avoided the opportunity altogether until we were on solid ground with our restaurant.

Ali: The obvious hurdle is maintaining a steady flow of customers. We were selling chili, a product unfamiliar to the general Japanese public, so it was a challenge to entice them to eat a product that they have no idea about. We were also in an area away from shoppers, so foot traffic was pretty low. In hindsight, the location is the first thing I would have changed.

Whitaker: Accepting that everything takes time—especially a long-term plan for success with a strong customer base. It is necessary to be willing to work, wait, and build the outcome you want.

If you had the power to speak to yourself before the business opened, what words of advice would you give?

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Zarodkiewicz: Stay focused and be selective of the opportunities that present themselves.

Ali: Don’t regret anything. If it goes great, high fives and pats on the back. If not, life goes on. You still have a future. Enjoy what life throws at you as much as you can. You only live once.

Whitaker: Never forget why you want to do this. Moments of success and failure can distract you, but never forget that they are not endpoints, but simply moments that make the journey more interesting.

Adam Miller has been living and writing in Japan since 2008.
Creating a business plan was probably the most important step in getting the restaurant up and running.