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

Monday, January 23, 2012

Interview 2: Video Game Development Company CEO, Tokyo

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.

Could you describe your company and what you do? What sets you apart?
We’re a video game development company, we make video games. We started initially with iPhone games because it was an easy in, but we do home console game development (Playstation, XBox, etc.) and basically anything that comes up or takes our fancy.
We’re still a small company and we are all foreign, which is a thing. We do plan to hire Japanese staff but the thing that will set us apart, and sets us apart now, is our Western approaches to video game development, which are vastly different from the Japanese ones - more efficient, we feel - in a time where Japan is struggling to compete in a global market. Because of this we also attract some of the best talent in Tokyo in a time when companies are having a hard time finding experienced developers.

Why did you set up your own business, how did the idea come to you? What were you doing at the time, work-wise and how did you make it happen?
The main reason was, more or less, to put our money where our mouths were, Me and my co-founder had been working at Japanese game development companies for quite a while, getting more and more frustrated at the slow pace of much-needed change that we decided to put our theory into practice and use Western sensibilities in most aspects of game development keeping, is the plan, that what we still feel works well in Japan, the creative and visual sides of it.
To make it happen we basically just took the plunge, we quit our jobs and started working from home. It was a bit of a wild move which made our start quite rough - we bootstrapped the whole endeavour. I guess I, personally, was just about frustrated enough with working within Japanese companies and trying so hard for so long and so pointlessly to effect change, that I more or less didn't have a choice but to start up on my own.

What have been some of the challenges and highlights in running the business so far?
Not going for investment and bootstrapping everything ourselves has been a huge challenge, but it has taught us a lot about fiscal prudence and drive. I wouldn't have had it any other way!
Dealing with the ever astounding amounts of paperwork that come with running a company, let alone in Japan, is something I still struggle with every day, especially as I started the company as a creative person who now more and more finds himself a manager and accountant.
The first fiscal year we posted a profit and the slow growth getting our first-choice employees on board have been amazing highlights for us.

What are you currently excited about, and what do you plan for the future of the company?
We still need to fill out some specific roles, to create a core team with which we can more easily tackle projects. We have some people lined up we want to get on board. We still want to keep the company small and lean, though, and avoid the pitfalls of rapid growth that plagues and eventually kills so many companies in our business.
I am also writing a book on working in this business in Japan which shouldn't take too much longer. We’ll self-publish, initially, digitally. Hopefully it’ll help people who want to work in video games in Japan to make the plunge like I did so many years ago. (Edit: Since this article was written, the book has been published! More information here - Japanmanship - the ultimate guide to working in video game development in Japan. )

Could you give an example of something you've learned through starting your own company?
Everything. That is to say: I didn't do a lot of research in advance and picked it all up as we went along. It’s doable, but we did fall into a few traps. It’s crazy the first year we had a nice profit only to realise, for tax reasons, that is the worst situation to be in and we had very little time to spend as much money on the company legally before the taxman took his rather generous slice (40%!) Companies in Japan aim to operate on a loss, if it can at all be helped.
Other unexpected costs also tripped us a little. Advance payments for next fiscal year’s tax, employment insurances, etc. A lot of it we should have researched more. It’s important to have a local accountant who knows about all this to consult you.

What advice would you give to someone thinking of starting up a business in Tokyo?
Get a bi-lingual lawyer to help you with the incorporation paperwork. It’s fairly cheap but doing it yourself will probably put you off from the get go - it is daunting, or rather, the stack of paperwork our lawyer went through on our behalf looked daunting, had I been the one to have to tackle it.
Get a good accountant. This will cost money but not having one will cost you much more. You need someone who can point out all the many little foibles of the Japanese tax system that you can legally exploit. We followed a recommendation from a friend, which is the usual and probably best way of finding a lawyer or accountant to help you out.

Of course if it’s something you want to do you should basically just do it. It’s overwhelming and a bit scary but it can be extremely rewarding. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Home baking in Japan, and a few tips.

Meet my oven. It's a diminutive 29cm x 36cm x 20cm box, much smaller than British or American 50-60cm cube ovens, but a step in size and power above the previous all in one microwave/grill/oven I had before.
Crumpet batter tests proofing atop the oven
Home baking isn't as popular over here, and oven-use in general isn't central to Japanese home cooking, which tends to use stove-tops, grills, toaster-ovens, rice cookers and pickling to prepare food. Not at all to say that there aren't people in Japan who are really into baking - for those who love it, it isn't uncommon to have a bread making machine at home, to have a full range of utensils and cake tins to make extensive use of even the smallest multifunctional machine. Commercially too, some of the best baking in the world is available here, especially in Tokyo. My favourite bread is from a gem of a Japanese bakery called 'Nemo' in Musashi Koyama, my second fave is Maison Kaiser with their Roppongi Midtown branch.

For my first 8 or so years in Japan I had the regular kind of fairly low-spec mini microwave/grill/electric oven, with emphasis on the 'microwave' bit. I attempted all kinds of things from the world's tiniest roast chicken, roasting veggies, fairy cakes, biscuits, Christmas mincemeat.. and everything took forever! It seemed that the little machine just couldn't get hot enough to do a good job with whatever I gave it, and all recipes took double the time in the recipes. If you're in this position and aren't about to buy a slightly more powerful model, then make sure you preheat the oven well before attempting to bake, be prepared to use a higher temperature than specified in the recipe, and be ready to wait.

Stone oven option, steam baking, microwave, grill & oven. Woo!
I can definitely recommend my current type of oven as a nice compromise of price and effectiveness, if you're not about to buy a western-sized oven. It's actually a few years old, passed on from a friend, and so one of the current versions looks like this. I've roasted pork and succeeded in raising great crackling, made all kinds of cakes and bread, and recently looked close enough to notice that it even has a "stone oven" type feature for pizza and breads, when you use the floor of the oven. Wow.
It has two positions for the shelf to rest on, but there isn't enough space to use two shelves at once. Due to the small interior dimensions, there is need to split up some recipes into two batches or make half amounts. I also find that I have the opposite problem to my old oven in that power + small interior space = much greater heat! It's very easy to burn something on the top, or outside and for it to be undercooked in the middle. I invested in an oven thermometer, as the oven was behaving much hotter than the temperature I had selected, and sure enough my 180 degrees centigrade was closer to 200.

Here's a summary of tips for when you're baking at home with a small electric oven:

  • Get an oven thermometer. Tokyu Hands has a range of thermometers, only one of them when I visited was suitable for putting inside the oven. You need to make sure the dial goes up to around 250 degrees centigrade. Here is a picture of the one I got. It's a bit slow to react, but eventually shows me the actual temperature of the inside of the oven. Many thermometers are for inserting into food to check internal temperature (also a great idea to have one of these, for when you're making cooked marzipan, caramel, testing the inside of roast meat, and bread), these would be no good for putting into your oven. Nissin didn't have any internal oven thermometers when I looked.
  • Try to work out the best time to preheat your oven, so that it won't be waiting around too long getting hotter while you finish preparing the food. My oven doesn't seem to be very good at regulating itself if I keep it waiting, and takes about 15 minutes to pre-heat, and so I resist the urge to obey the recipes that read "Step 1. preheat the oven" and try to wait until I'm almost ready to use it.
  • If your oven tends to the hot-side, despite selecting a lower temperature, you can prevent the top of something burning by draping foil over the top of it at any point during cooking. I've done this from the beginning, taking it off towards the end of cooking in order to brown nicely, and the opposite way round too when I see something is starting to brown too quickly. If you're making a cake you can also use a layer of baking paper to line the sides of the cake tin, making a rim of parchment that sticks up slightly over the top of the tin. Some long-cooking recipes such as fruitcake recommend wrapping brown paper around the outside of the tin, like a jacket. Finally, dark-coloured, matt bakeware are more likely to burn the edges of your food than shiny and light coloured tins.

I'll play my mincemeat: slow cooked for hours in a toaster oven when living in Saitama - can you raise me any tales of your own intrepid kitchen adventures, making inappropriate dishes in less than ideal conditions?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Reading list: E-Myth Revisited and Food Hygiene for Food Businesses

Happy New Year! So, I've been doing a little light reading over the holidays:

I had imagined the first book was going to be a practical list of hygiene guidelines, but although there were some examples, the function of the book is more to demonstrate that you have responsibilities as a small business owner dealing with food rather than provide an exhaustive list of rules. It impressed upon me the need to not only operate hygienically but to have records of and prove how I am fulfilling the legal requirements. The message was 'ignorance is no excuse where the law is concerned, the only defence will be due diligence' and in the UK at least, this means being able to prove to inspectors that you have systems in place for hygiene management and prove that they are being adhered to by all your staff.

Some of the examples included were documented training, cleaning rotas, proof of monitoring of suitable storage and cooking temperatures, inventory date-checking (having an out of date packet at the back of a cupboard is an offence if you’re in business!), transparency and traceability regarding supplies, allergen labelling etc. While all not directly applicable to Japan, many of the requirements and recommendations for the UK are good to implement anyway, and it gave me quite a few questions to add to the list of things I want to check on regarding Japanese law for small food businesses.
The Food Standards Agency site is probably the best place for lists of guidelines and training modules regarding hygiene law (in the UK, anyway)

I had seen the second book, 'The E-Myth Revisited,' recommended in multiple places online, and a friend of a friend with their own growing business swears by it. I’ve got to say, I thought it was going to be more encouraging! I did a search for the book title and "depressing" and found this article which helped me feel less alone in my initial reaction (although the article reads a bit like they missed that the titular “E” stands for entrepreneur rather than the electronic “E” of email and e-commerce).

The gist I came away from the book with (probably missing other numerous points) is that most people, like me, start small businesses because they are good at the thing the business will produce rather than being good at running a business, and so they are likely to struggle because they neglect the aspects required for planning and running a business that works.
He makes this point through the tool of “Sarah” (my god, I hope she was a tool and that no real person was subject to his patronising prompting and egotistical monologing). Sarah makes pies, of course she does, I tried to shrug off the feeling of foreboding at the similarity to my idea.. He introduces her angrily kicking at her oven door, a young woman turned old through the self-induced frustrations of running her shop.

He suggests treating the company like it is a franchise prototype you’re working on - a business idea and set of instructions that you imagine you’ll perfect and sell-on to be replicated like Starbuckses. This is where many people get turned off. They read that they, the skilled and passionate technician, are not innately equipped to run a business and see the proffered solution as distancing themselves from the technical work they love, then from the business towards the ultimate aim of selling the company on. The soul is removed from their idea.
It doesn’t help these people to stay interested that he uses McDonalds and other vast corporations as examples, and even though he tries to be clear that it’s the fact that they work as effective, scalable business models he is lauding rather than the product or the ethics, I know of people who have closed the book there – “I don’t want to build my company so I can sell it”, or “if I have to do what McDonalds does to be successful, then I’m out.”

While I’m also of this not-so-corporate mindset, if you can cut through the incessant story telling in E-Myth, there are some sensible tools that we technicians can use to improve the ‘workability’ of our businesses so that, even if you don't plan to grow it too big or sell it, at least the fact it 'works' should help you continue to do it more smoothly and for longer.
The most important tip is to schedule in time for you to work on your business, rather than just in your business, the rest of these examples are suggestions of how you might do that:
  • Start with an organisation chart for the ideal business size, even if it’s just you performing all the roles to start with, so that you can plan for growth from the start.
  • Work on the technical, managerial and strategic aspects of your company.
  • Work out and be able to articulate your company’s identity, what are you selling/what is different about you (think along the lines of ‘Godiva chocolates is selling sensuality/luxury', rather than just sweets).
  • Apply the identity to your business visually, linguistically and practically so it’s clear to your customers and staff.
  • Create a system that is able to function without you – document the processes and responsibilities in the various roles in your business for clarity, consistency, and so that anyone can potentially carry them out. This should be an evolving document as you improve processes over time.
And so now, in the planning stage before I can get too involved in the technical side of things is a perfect time to work on the vision side of things and nurture my inner manager/entrepreneur. Nope, still dislike that E word. :) 

Anyone else read the E-Myth book? What was your take, and if you found it useful what were the most interesting points for you? On another note, anyone got their hands on a copy of Modernist Cuisine yet? Gosh that's a lot of money for a cookbook. If the hype is to be believed, the scientific insight could revolutionize cooking - I do, deeply, want to understand the whys behind even traditional cooking methods. I'd love a sneak peak at the baking section.. it's not on the Amazon "look inside" page selection. Anyone had a look?

Update! They have a sample copy of Modernist Cuisine to browse in the Tsutaya at the bottom of Keyakizaka behind Roppongi Hills (if you can heft the volumes out of the perspex display case). I only had time for a quick flick-through when I saw it, but it is beautiful. Going for 60,000 JPY if I remember correctly. Wow. Wonder if you're allowed to take it to your seat with a coffee like with the other books, heh. Will go back for a proper look!
See the red dot, next to the "?" sign? That's it!