Thursday, January 26, 2012

Interview 3: Owner of Yasai Kichi restaurant in Minami Aoyama

To help me get an idea of what to expect running my own business I am speaking to a few people who have had experience setting up their own shop, running a food business in Japan, or running a business as a foreigner in Japan. Here is one of the interviews.

'Yasai Kichi' is a lovely little restaurant near my office, between Gaienmae and Aoyama Icchome station. I'd walked past a few times and was always intrigued by the space - it's a striking stripped-out office space with large windows and bare concrete walls, slightly sunken down from street level. It has been reinvented as a unique, kooky little homely space with higgledy piggledy furniture, books on windowsills and low lighting - the effect is arty and welcoming, and the staff are refreshingly warm. It put me in mind of the kind of space I'd like to create for my shop. They do a lovely keema curry, and all of the menu seems to revolve around fresh seasonal vegetables. I spoke with the owner to find out more.

Could you tell me about your restaurant, what's the concept?
Do you know the meaning of 基地 (kichi) in Japanese? It's a bit like 'base camp' - you know, when you're a kid, and you build a fort out of whatever you have and have a flag? I wanted to create a space people could go and think, a healthy environment where you can work out what's really important to you. I've spent some time in Laos, and was impressed with the natural lifestyle people are still able to have there, and how relaxed and healthy it was. Our veggie base-camp 'yasaikichi' aims to provide an opportunity for busy people living in the city to be healthier, happier, and more aware of what makes them feel better. Good food made with fresh vegetables is just one of the ways we provide this chance. We also have varied workshops, where someone knowledgeable comes in and I become a student too. :)

I see! I had imagined that the vegetables were at the centre of the concept, but it's more than that. I can definitely recognise the cosy blanket-fort type atmosphere you've got going here. Tell us something about the process of finding your shop and altering the space.
Well we didn't have a huge budget when we started out, so we did a lot of it ourselves! Your rent/deposit etc. will probably be your main expense during set-up, I was lucky enough to know about the space as it became available (I used to work in the office that was here before the shop before going freelance), and so we had a nice deal. We broke down the space, sourced furniture from various places - that chair is IKEA actually :), the tables were custom made by a friend who is talented that way, and the walls were painted by students who we gave food for helping!

How big is your team, what's a typical yasaikichi day like?
At the beginning I was here from morning 'till night most days, and worked with a smaller team for the food preparation. Now I manage the bar and front of house during the evenings, and have a full time chef, part-time kitchen assistant, and 3 part-time hall staff who manage the shop during the day.

What plans do you have for the business?
I have 3 ideas: the first is that we want to build a 'hatake' - our own allotment. Probably in Hachioji which is still Tokyo and easy to get to, but far enough into the countryside to grow produce. We might do this as a project with interested customers and partners, we'll see, but it would be great to grow some of our own produce for the shop. The second idea is to open a ramen shop! When you eat regular ramen, your brain loves it, but your body doesn't necessarily enjoy it - The idea would be to make ramen with healthy veg that makes your body happy too. The third is a collaboration with food writers, farms, creative people and a local design company, and to produce an ‘e-hon’, a picture book with recipes and so on. Maybe we won't end up doing any of these, but this is what I'm interested in for the future.

What have been some of the challenges and highlights in running the business so far?
I guess the most challenging thing is trying to get it right - everything you do has an effect. Do you charge 500 yen or 1,000 yen for something? And actually you don't know the right answer right away.
In terms of highlights - now we've been going for about a year things are stabilizing so I really enjoy that when there are parties and events held here I can now also enjoy them - I can have a drink too and relax with the customers. I'm really happy to have got to that point. I’ve also been very pleasantly surprised that we’ve been so lucky with word-of-mouth. We haven’t spent huge amounts of money on advertising, most of the endorsements and publicity we get are just from people recommending us, which is fantastic. We’re quite active on social media – you can see people talking about yasaikichi on the twitter feed on our site.

Is there anything you are looking for in particular right now?
I'm interested for us all to be better at English! We're quite an internationally-minded business, and it would be interesting to be able to bring some of the best bits from outside Japan and share them here. English is going to help with that!

What advice would you give to someone thinking of opening a small restaurant in Tokyo?
Asobu desu ne, play! Just do it! My background is in advertising and planning, and so a lot of what we're doing I'm learning as we go along. If you enjoy what you're doing, and are doing it to be happy, then your customers and staff will be happy too. There will be difficult times, but those are necessary in order to be able to do what you enjoy. Be brave!

Minami-aoyama Yasai Kichi / 南青山 野菜基地
Pearl Heim 1st Floor, Minami Aoyama 2-10-11, Minato-ku, Tokyo.
107-0062 東京都港区南青山2−10-11 パールハイム1F
Tel: 03-6447-1607

Seasonal vegetable curry at Yasai Kichi

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