Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Interview 4: Owner of The Royal Scotsman pub in Kagurazaka

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.

I started learning to play the violin a couple of years ago, and have recently been attending Irish traditional music sessions at bars around Tokyo. A friend at one of the long-running sessions told me of a new bar that opened up at the end of last year in foodie-heaven Kagurazaka/Iidabashi. The Royal Scotsman is a lovely little bar not far from Iidabashi station run by 3 friends. It’s incredible how they transformed the space from a dark teishoku-type place to an airy, open space with large windows across the two main walls, and authentic-looking exterior signage. Having attended some wonderful Sunday afternoon sessions (currently on the 2nd Sunday each month 3-6pm, bring an instrument and join in!) I can attest to the quality of their fish and chips and cottage pie, and they even have haggis! Quite uniquely for Tokyo pubs the space is also smoke-free, and the atmosphere is very easy-going and welcoming.
So what’s their story, how’s business, and what plans are in the works? Green mohican-sporting, gentleman bagpipe player Tomo-san pulled up a bar stool and started at the beginning.

The bar - selection includes some fantastic domestic brews

What was the idea behind The Royal Scotsman, have you spent time in Scotland?
We opened on the 19th of December 2011, but I guess the Royal Scotsman story started years ago when I was in France, actually. I was studying French cuisine, training with a master chef in a famous Paris restaurant. During my time in France, when I was about 26 I had the experience of seeing 100 pipers perform in Bretagne, it impressed me so much that I decided that was what I wanted to do. I begged the chef to let me quit, found a pipes teacher and managed to spend the remaining 6 months of my visa studying bag pipe playing. By the time I came back to Japan I had changed my plan of opening a French restaurant to that of opening a European pub-style venue, so I could keep up my interest in playing the pipes and meet similarly minded people.

It was another 7 years or so before we opened the Scotsman in Kagurazaka. In that time I worked in various pubs and studied the business, all the while planning how I might do it if it were my bar. Ange and I got married, and we visited Scotland - I think we tried out every single pub in Edinburgh! It's such a great place, you know, the Edinburgh festival was going on and everywhere was so lively, I loved it. One of our favorite pubs was the 'Scotsman's Lounge' - it didn't feel like a touristy place at all. Elderly customers were there alongside younger guys who were playing pinball, and even we as Japanese visitors were treated like part of the community. Then there was another pub where an old man was playing the organ, I had my bagpipes with me and people were encouraging me to play, so we ended up having a bit of a session. It was relaxed like that, people bringing instruments with them and joining in. The name of that place was the 'Royal Oak', and so there you have it, the 'Royal Scotsman' :)

What would you say your niche is - how are you different to other Brit. pubs in Tokyo?
I'd say we're a "minor pub" by which I mean, we're a unique little place. We're not some big chain business, we're able to be free in our style and really mean what we do. Like the experience we had in Edinburgh, I want the Royal Scotsman to be a place people feel 'at home', a place you can be yourself within a real community context. We're actually currently the only such European 'pub' type bar in Kagurazaka. I've loved the area since even before I thought I would open a French restaurant here, it's a very 'at home' down-town type of place, with an old-fashioned village character. We're really lucky to have been able to open up shop here, and to be the first here with this type of business!

View of the Royal Scotsman from the street
View from the back end of the Royal Scotsman

You do have a great property, and have clearly paid close attention to detail in renovating. How easy was it to find the perfect space, and to make it exactly how you wanted?
Having decided Kagurazaka, I kept my eye open over the years visiting the area and various real estate agents to learn about the kind of places available. After I was really in the position to go for it and had started actively looking I guess it took about 3 months to find this place.

We were considering another property further up the slope, but preferred to be in 3-chome if possible. On the off-chance an agent let us know this place was for sale, and we knew this was it as soon as we saw it. It's a wedge-shaped space right on the corner, not far off the main shopping street slope. In Europe the entrance to a pub is often on the corner, right? and so I thought we could do something interesting with this space. In the end we positioned a genuine antique door on the corner - it isn't a functional entrance, more of a prank, or a nod to the European pub style that I remember. Having windows running along both sides of the bar mean that people walking past see all the way inside, they see the musicians when we're having a session, and it helps makes us part of the community.

Creating the space itself took a while - I broke down the original space myself over about a month. We worked with Ono-san, a good friend from Victorian Craft (www.victoriancraft.com) on sourcing the perfect furniture, and another friend of mine helped with the installation. All in all it was about two and a half months in the making. Ono-san's business is amazing; they import original goods and antiques from the UK, sell them online and from their shop in Nagano, and also do bespoke design for businesses as in the case of the Royal Scotsman. The bar stool you're sitting on, it's been treated specially to look weathered, the counter has been purposefully worn and aged, that ceiling above the bar was white, but was stained and sanded, stained and sanded to achieve the effect we wanted.

Now you're up and running what’s a typical Royal Scotsman day like for the team?
There are 3 of us running the place: me, Ange and Yuji. My day starts about 10am when I do things like visit the bank and go shopping for veggies. I'll get to the pub about 11am and do some admin, check the company email and Facebook and maybe about noon I'll start preparation in the kitchen. Yuji comes in around 1pm and cleans and prepares the beer stock and the pumps and things, we open from 3pm. Yuji handles the bar until about midnight when I come out of the kitchen and run the bar area till 3am. After that it's final cleaning, ordering any stock, cashing up and bed by 5am maybe..?

Gosh that sounds like quite the schedule! Has that been particularly challenging, and what have been some of the highlights in running the business so far?
Actually it's ok, I enjoy it so it isn't as hard as it sounds. It's also important to us to be open as much as possible, we're just at the 5 month mark at the moment so there is a lot to do and still lots to learn.
The biggest highlight so far is that residents from the area have started to visit us. Kagurazaka is a “マナーのある街 / place with manners”, so you have to behave properly to be accepted as a business. Becoming a real part of the community is exactly what we hoped to achieve, so it's particularly meaningful to us when people living nearby choose to make us part of their daily lives - when people drop in separately and know each other, when neighboring business owners come and chat with us.

Quite possibly the best fish and chips in Tokyo

Are you finding that the Scottish/British food is finding a warm reception? What dish would you recommend people to try?
Try our fish and chips. Really, try it. When I was in Scotland I was impressed with the sheer size of the fish, that and the fact that even the girls could eat a whole one themselves! In Japan fish&chips at the British chain pubs tends to be little pieces of fish and a few chips. Our dish surprises both Japanese "うぁ!でっかい!/ OMG it's huge!" and international customers "finally, real fish and chips in Japan!" alike. It's not easy either - the frier in a Japanese restaurant kitchen may be able to do multiple servings of Japanese-sized fried fish at once, but you can only fit 2 full-sized battered fillets in at a time. It might not be very efficient, but it's worth it. We make the effort to get it right, using two different types of flour in our batter, and separating eggs to make it as light as possible. British food does have a bit of a bad reputation with some people, maybe they feel it's just 'potatoes with everything' or 'beans from a can' whereas traditional Japanese cooking starts from the dried beans etc. To me though, the preparation is the same whether it's going to be French food or British food, it's still about quality ingredients and the best method. With the Royal Scotsman being a pub, we haven't encountered any strange food prejudices however, people come expecting pub food.

I’ve attended a couple of your excellent Sunday afternoon Irish music sessions, and I saw that you do other events such as whisky tasting - what types of activities are you most excited about?
I love any of the events that let me learn, as well as the ones where I can join in with bag pipes! - Like craft beer festivals and so on. Playing the pipes has also enabled me to meet some of the beer and whisky producers directly too, so I can get advice directly from the most knowledgeable source and pass it on to our customers and incorporate it into our business and events.

What advice would you give for someone looking to open a small food business in Tokyo?
While you're at the planning stage, be imagining the whole time you visit other businesses 'how would I do it differently, what would I keep?' be precise too, 'would it be 2nd floor, 3rd floor? Would the counter be here, how many staff would I need..?' study well and it will help you plan for and recognise your space when you find it. Then when you have found your opportunity, strike quickly!

The Royal Scotsman
Kagurazaka 3-6-28, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 162-0825
162-0825 東京都、新宿区神楽坂3丁目-6-28、1F
Closest metro exit: B3 from the Yurakucho or Namboku lines, then walk up the hill.
Google map http://qr.net/scotsman
Tel: 03-6280-8852

The turning you need to take, off Kagurazaka main shopping street

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