The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

While technology start-ups are common in Japan, cheese start-ups have been much less so—until now. Elio Orsara, Italian cheese connoisseur and founder of the epony­mous Elio Locando Italiano restaurant, shared his experience investing in cheese in Japan.

On November 13, the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ) Alternative Investment Subcommittee hosted a cheese event at Pizza Strada in Azabu-juban, where Orsara told of his passion for the dairy delight and explained how he has succeeded in Japan.

GOING GLOBAL
Documenting various challenges and triumphs, Orsara said his main focus is teaching the importance of eating well and appreciating good, organic food.

“The passion of my grandmother was a great inspiration for me. This is my life and my passion, and this is what I fight for.”
A love of food and travel motivated him to spread his passion around the world. Starting in Italy, he first conquered Europe, then the United States, and finally Japan, where he has been based for 27 years.

Over two demanding yet rewarding decades, Orsara built his company and established a successful restaurant, special­izing in cooking with organic produce.

GOING ORGANIC
It wasn’t easy to do this in Japan, in part due to high levels of pollution—especially after the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster.

Orsara realized that providing a truly organic meal goes further than just the way it is cooked, and decided he needed to grow his own items to provide truly organic products.

The first step was to locate clean land, which proved challenging. He soon identified Hokkaido as the “green island of Japan,” and after a few visits decided it was the perfect place to set up camp. He began to invest in villages and was happy to be helping the Japanese countryside, which reminded him of home.

“I am a farmer guy, I am a country boy,” he said.

While Hokkaido was the perfect location for organic farming, the area was also facing a crisis and there were a lot of technical problems. But the quality he would be able to achieve made it worthwhile.

“In Hokkaido they have the best—literally the best—milk, because the farmers treat the animals better than humans,” he explained. Whereas 27 liters of milk are generally obtained from a cow [per day], Hokkaido farmers stop at 20 liters, so the cows are very healthy and the fat content is higher.

“I must say the Hokkaido people really welcomed me, and we had really good relationships with the farmers,” said Orsara, who was very happy to be doing business with many locals.

DAIRY DUELS
Japan’s cheese industry competes with that of its more successful neighbors Australia and New Zealand. Orsara explained that the openness of these countries to foreigners creates a more varied food culture, whereas Japan has been a lot more closed off to non-Japanese, resulting in a less diverse culinary scene.

In New Zealand, Orsara said, “the Germans, the French, the Greeks, the English, the Italians . . . they bring the food culture.”

As with any start-up, there were early obstacles. Japan is lacking in technology for making cheese, and Orsara had to bring machinery and engineers from Italy. “In the first six months, we lost almost ¥15 million. I was going to shoot myself. Why? Because we tried to compete with the Italian mozzarella.”

He explained that, to produce one kilo of mozzarella in Italy costs ¥300, but in Japan it costs ¥1,200. He could not compete with cheese made in Italy and sold in Japan. But with the help of local resources, he eventually refined his approach.

Today, the successes are clear. His company produces 20 different Italian-style cheese products—most famously their mozzarella, which was on offer in abundance at the event—and they now sell to several Tokyo super­markets and specialty food stores, and other outlets around Japan. The company has even begun export­ing to Hong Kong.

Francesca Madden is a writer at Custom Media, publisher of The ACCJ Journal.